WAR ON THE WATERFRONT: 100 Years After Pershing’s Promise, Hoboken Examines Its Vital Role in World War I
These days, our beautiful waterfront will most likely see a convoy of strollers docked by a park bench, or a platoon of joggers enjoying the skyline view. However, on this date a century ago, Hoboken found itself squarely in the crosshairs of a world at war.
The United States declared war on Germany and her allies on April 6, 1917. Immediately, Hoboken’s German-owned shipping lines were seized, and the ships docked along the waterfront were commandeered to become troop transports. In a matter of weeks, the piers here in Hoboken were converted to serve as the chief port of embarkation for the American Expeditionary Force. General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing famously boasted that his troops would be in, “Heaven, Hell or Hoboken” by Christmas, 1917.
Sadly, Pershing’s promise turned out to be far too optimistic, and by the end of hostilities on November 11, 1918, nearly 2 million U.S. “Doughboys” would have passed through Hoboken, en route to the Western Front. Far fewer would return, as the AEF sustained 53,402 battle deaths, 63,114 non-combat deaths (including the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918) and 204,000 fighting men wounded.
Just prior to the war, Hoboken was one of the most German cities in New Jersey—with over 10,000 of its then 70,000+ residents being German-born. As hostilities commenced, German-born residents were required to register as “enemy aliens,” with many losing their jobs, homes, and businesses. Some were interned on Ellis Island during the war.
For the past few months, The Hoboken Historical Museum has been marking the centennial with a lecture series and a newly launched reading discussion group. The group is reading a collection of writings about and from the WWI period, and will gather for its first discussion at the Hoboken Historical Museum, 1301 Hudson St., at 5:30 pm on Sunday, April 23, after the next lecture. To download the reader, click here. To download the proposed reading list, click here. The remaining lectures are:
- April 23, 4 pm: “A Seaport at War with Itself: Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians and African Americans in Wartime Greater New York,” by Steven H. Jaffe, author of New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham(Basic Books, 2012)
- May 7, 4 pm: “Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken: The U.S. Army Port of Embarkation in Hoboken During World War I,” by Mark Van Ellis, PhD, Professor of History, Queensborough Community College, and author of America and World War I: A Traveler’s Guide(Interlink Books, 2014).
This summer, the Museum will open a comprehensive new exhibition titled, “World War I Centennial: Heaven, Hell or Hoboken,” named for Pershing’s famous rallying cry.
While a commemoration had originally been planned for today, it has been rescheduled due to potentially severe weather.
On Wednesday, April 26, at 12 pm, the public is invited to join Hudson County and Hoboken officials, along with Hoboken High School’s band and chorus and the Hudson County Sheriff’s Color Guard, for a ceremony commemorating the centennial of the United States’ declaration of war on Germany. The ceremony will take place on Pier A Park at Sinatra Drive by the WWI Memorial, which was dedicated in 1925 to the “valiant American Expeditionary Forces who embarked from this port to participate in the World War 1917 – 1918.”
Organized by the Hudson County Executive’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs, Hudson County History Advocates and the City of Hoboken, the ceremony will feature special guests Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Romano, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Hoboken Historical Museum Director Bob Foster and veterans Jack O’Brien and Vinnie Wassman. O’Brien, a veteran of WWII and the son of a WWI veteran, will play patriotic tunes on a fife. Wassman, who served in both WWII and the Korean War, will recite John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” The Hoboken High School Band and Chorus will perform songs associated with “The Great War.” (A built-in rain date for that event has been scheduled for April 27.)
With many looking back on “The War To End All Wars,” today we obviously still face the omnipresent threat of warfare. As a result, we have large numbers of disaffected veterans who need our help. The Hoboken Rotary Club is hosting a fundraiser for the Hoboken American Legion Post 107 this Saturday night, April 8th, at the Hoboken Elks Club (1005 Washington Street) from 7:00-11:00 p.m.
“The post is raising money to tear down the existing post (which was extensively damaged in Superstorm Sandy) and rebuild a brand new post with meeting space for Vets as well as six units of housing for homeless veterans,” says Joe Mindak—Hoboken Rotary member and “Publisher Emeritus” here at hMAG. “The total campaign is for $1,000,000. The rest of the funds come from grants and government funding.”
Despite all we were supposed to learn in history class, we still see a rise in nationalism across the globe. We see dangerous, long-running ethnic battles destabilizing entire regions—and we see the significant dangers of entangling alliances. Somehow, just this past week, we once again witnessed the horrors of chemical warfare. One hundred years later, we face the same challenges and continue to fight adversaries that came about as a result of events in World War I.
Essentially, an entire century of U.S. foreign policy and military strategy was set into motion right here on the piers of Hoboken—on this date in 1917.
Something to think about, next time you’re out for peaceful a bike ride…