Life in the Army: Camp Funston

Over the summer of 1917, the US government identified 16 sites to use as cantonments–or military bases. In a few short months, they laid roads and constructed buildings and prepared these camps to accept the hundreds of thousands of recruits who began arriving in September.

Camp Funston, in north-central Kansas, was one of the larger camps, built on the grounds of the historic Fort Riley (from the 1850s) and close to the town of Junction City. It stretched out over a flat river plain between the Kansas River to the southeast and low hills to the northwest. Wind was a notable feature of this area, kicking up dirt and dust across the sprawling camp.

October 4. “You don’t want to look for a very tidy letter,” Grandpa wrote, “for there is lots of dirt here.”

Much of that dirt was stirred up by the massive construction needed to house more than 40,000 recruits and the 10,000 officers who would train them. They arrived from seven states–South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. This group became the 89th Division.

Soldiers Arriving Funston

“Looks a lot like Oct 3rd,” Grandpa wrote, “the best day at Funston.” That’s the day he arrived.

For Grandpa, coming from a tiny farming community, Camp Funston was remarkable.

October 8. “Sure is marvelous to see how many is here and still coming.”

Grandpa and buddy Tom Wright

Grandpa standing. Tom Wright, seated. They remained together throughout the war.

The training started immediately. “I have been drilling most all day, learning fast,” he wrote Grandma on October 8, “but they say it takes 6 months to make a trained solider.” That same day, “We got our jackets today, I have everything but an overcoat. I have more clothes than I ever had before, and good ones.”

The barrack shown in the postcard above became central to Grandpa’s life in the army. Typically, a single barrack housed 150 men, the average size of a company, although at times this number stretched to 200. Whenever possible, men from the same state were kept together as a way to maintain a sense of familiarity, a link to home. The upper floor held bunks and lockers, the lower floor was split, with bunks on one side and the mess hall—attached to a one-story kitchen—on the other. On October 11, Grandpa was assigned to be a cook for his company—Company “C”, 356th Infantry, working out of such a kitchen and serving 196 men. He was part of a staff that included four cooks, four waiters, and four dishwashers.

Kitchen assignment 10.11.17 cropped

Portion of letter, October 11, 1917.

Reading between the lines, Grandpa seems ambivalent about his assignment as cook. A week later he wrote, “I and every one else is just like a horse we will go just where they say.”

Grandma asked him in a letter about army life. Here’s how he responded, “You ask me to tell what I think, . . . .”

Army life cropped

Army Life 2 cropped

Portion of letter, October 15, 1917.

In October, my grandfather adjusted to a dusty camp, taking orders from superiors, and making a home far from his family and friends. But something unexpected upended the daily order of army life. Grandpa had noted this during his first week, writing to Grandma on October 8, that “I don’t see how very many can get sick every thing is in sanitary shape.” A few days later, he wrote, “see a dead one here real often taking people to the hospital all the time.”

In the coming months, Grandpa would count among the growing number of soldiers taken ill. There was a mystery afoot, as disease and death swept through Camp Funston as persistently as those blustery Kansas winds.


NOTE: Information on Camp Funston is based on materials from the Kansas State Historical Society ( and the History of the 89th Division, by George H. English, published in 1920.




My Dear Girl


My dear girl cropped


That first month at Camp Funston, October 1917, Grandpa wrote “my dear girl” nearly every day, often using paper provided by the Y.M.C.A. His “dear girl” was Inis Dykes, her first name pronounced EYE-nis (rhymes with iris).


Inis Dykes, in an undated photo from around the time of the war.

The two sweethearts had first seen each other, Grandma recalled years later, when two horse-drawn buggies passed each other “one rainy, muddy night.” Her brother Charley was driving theirs when they met a “four-horse team hitched to a wagon bringing a load of poultry from Fairport to King City. The driver and Charley exchanged greetings,” Grandma remembered. “When I asked who it was, he said Tom Alderson and he sure is a fine fellow.” Grandma and Grandpa would later meet at the Christian Church in King City. He offered to drive her home after a service, which led to their dating “pretty regularly until he was called for service.”

Grandma’s family had farmed in the King City area since the middle of the nineteenth century. She was born there on December 10, 1892. Her older sister Mattie was five that year, and Charley was three. Four years later her little sister Mary was born. They all attended a small one-room schoolhouse. As was common, Grandma finished school after eight years and joined the larger community–playing piano at church, fixing and serving meals to farm hands who came to harvest crops, and, during the war, supporting their “soldier boys,” by knitting sweaters, rolling cloth bandages, making candy and cakes to send to the troops, and writing letters.

Grandpa answered each letter, writing even when there wasn’t much to report. One Sunday night, October 21, 1917, he apologized for writing “the same thing twice.” He was distracted by a group of his buddies standing over him, kidding him about “that girl of yours you write to every Damn night.” One asked to see her picture.

October 21, 1917-2 cropped 2

Grandpa loved to tease and that final sentence is classic. “One fellow said you was too good looking for me, but I don’t think so do you (just right).”

I don’t know which pictures he had, only that he kept them with him during the long months of his service. A year after arriving at Camp Funston, he sent a letter from “some place in France,” probably on another rainy, muddy night. “I have our dugout all decorated up about right and right over the entrance I have a frame with your picture and mine in it.” He also told her to keep writing as “the letters are the best thing we get over here.”

She treasured his letters, too, saving them in an old shoe box for the rest of her life.



Called to Serve


On October 2, 1917, Grandpa boarded a train for Camp Funston, Kansas, to begin his military training. He was 26 that fall. Like his fellow recruits–among them, friends and neighbors–he was leaving the only life he’d ever known, farming in the rolling hills of northwest Missouri.

Grandpa Alderson WWI Train

My grandfather, Thomas William Alderson, stands in the front row, center, his arms crossed.

On the day Grandpa’s group boarded the train, people gathered in the county seat of Maysville to send them on their way. According to a report in their local paper, a “big demonstration” was held in front of the Rex Theatre. The program featured music and several addresses, one by the Red Cross, and included the introduction of the “soldier boys singly and collectively.” The event concluded with the crowd joining together to sing America. “The boys left on No. 71 for St. Joseph where they entrained for Camp Funston. Barring delays they would reach camp about 8 o’clock.”

The recruitment and classification of men for the draft was detailed in the Selective Service Act, passed by Congress in May, 1917. Local boards, like the one in Maysville, registered men, classified them, and determined which were fit to serve. A final step in this process was putting them on trains to military training camps. The National Archives and Records Administration holds the registration card of my grandfather.

Grandpa's WW1 Registration Card (1)

Gpa Reg Card page 2

Before leaving for Camp Funston, Grandpa had been honored in King City, where he–and his “Dear Girl,” Inis Dykes–lived. The King City Chronicle proudly reported that their “soldier boys” were of the “true soldierly kind and not a slacker from this locality.”

Grandpa described the trip in his first postcard to Grandma.

Kaiser Killers rev.

Over the next year and a half, there would be more journeys by train, and then by ship, but none would have the heady optimism of this one, riding a train filled with “Kaiser Killers.”