Training for War at Camp Funston

One hundred years ago, during the winter and spring of 1918, the U.S. Army stepped up the training of soldiers and began to send them overseas. To set the stage for this training, I’ve included a map (with a detail) and a link to a panoramic photograph of Camp Funston. Upcoming posts will describe Grandpa’s job as a cook–in the mess hall and the field, his training for combat, and the surprising (to me) variety of recreational activities he and his buddies enjoyed.

larger map with arrows

This map was published in Putnam’s Handy Volume Atlas of the World, 1921.

The green arrow points to the area in northwest Missouri where King City, Grandpa’s home, was located. The red arrow points to Camp Funston, in Kansas. Grandpa traveled the distance, roughly 200 miles, by train.

map detail arrows

Detail of same map, 1921.

In this detail, the blue arrow points to Ft. Riley, the historic 19th-century military fort that aided travelers heading West. Camp Funston, shown at the tip of the red arrow, was a completely new facility built on a portion of the fort’s land, a flat area along the Kansas River. Just south is the town of Junction City. To the northeast lies Manhattan. Both these towns were destinations for Grandpa and his fellow soldiers, when they wanted a break from duties at camp.

Below is a link to a panoramic view of the camp, posted by the Kansas State Historical Society.  Have a look, scroll across the image then come back to this page for explanations.

The photograph is dated 1917, when the camp was still under construction. At its completion, the camp sprawled over “more than two thousand acres, contained fifteen hundred buildings constructed with more than forty-seven million feet of lumber, had twenty-eight miles of paved streets, and was a temporary home to over fifty thousand men,” according to Jonathan Casey, director, Archives and Edward Jones Research Center, the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial.*

I chose this image because of the handwritten note, “Company “D” 356th Inf. Stationed here.” The arrow points to a group of buildings that resemble barracks. Grandpa belonged to Company “C” 356th Infantry.  I’m guessing Grandpa’s barracks, where he lived and also worked as a company cook, lies in this cluster of buildings. The one-story extension at the back of each held a kitchen.

The orientation of the view is to the south. The photographer stood on elevated ground at the north of camp. Grandpa referred to the area where they trained as the “hills,” which may have been these, which are part of the Flint Hills.

Notice, on the far right, the arrow pointing to Ft. Riley, 4 miles away. You may recall from my post on Grandpa’s illnesses and hospitalization, that he spent some nights at the base hospital in Ft. Riley.

Back to this map, in the central section, notice a marking for “Hospital.” Grandpa often mentioned how he went to the infirmary to see a doctor or pick up medications; I’m wondering if this building, called a hospital here, was what Grandpa called the infirmary.

You can see the tracks, and even a train belching smoke on the left side of the image; look for the handwritten notation “Camp Depot” for the building and to the right, the train. This was the Union Pacific depot.

For leisure and recreation, Grandpa and his buddies had lots of options at Funston. The Y.M.C.A. built a number of buildings. One is noted here. Some had reading rooms with newspapers and desks for letter-writing. Others had large auditoriums for musical performances and lectures.

An outdoor screen labeled “Picture Show” stands in an open field, as does a “Bout Stage,” probably used for boxing, a popular camp sport. Not shown (or not labeled) is a baseball field. Also missing are references to Army City and another area called the “Zone,” both set up as places where soldiers could attend movies, live stage performances, have their photographs taken, pick up food and do some shopping.

Even as he kept busy at camp, Grandpa kept in touch with Grandma. They wrote almost every day. And she would send him small gifts along with homemade treats like candy and cake. One of his friends from King City, a man named Ferris Keys (nicknamed Key Ring), apparently liked these gifts, too.

Send candy and love, 2-21-18

Letter to Grandma, February 21, 1918

Speaking of sweets, the next post offers up doughnuts, hundreds of doughnuts, made by Grandpa, Key Ring, and their fellow cooks.

*Casey, Jonathan. “Training in Kansas for a World War: Camp Funston in Photographs.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 29 (Autumn 2006), 165.




Murder! Bank Robbery! Suicide!


From the camp newspaper, Trench and Camp. Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

A sensational crime on January 11, 1918, shattered the regular order at Camp Funston. I’ll let Grandpa start the story.

letter bank robbery 1-12-18

Grandpa’s letter to Grandma, January 12, 1918

bank letter, page 2

letter, page 2

The crime was reported in newspapers across the country. Most included these details. Captain Lewis R. Whisler, hoping to find a shipment of nearly half a million dollars, entered the bank that evening in January. He found five men inside, whom he initially tied up. After discovering the shipment had been delayed, he took what was there–around $65,000–and then attacked the men with an ax, killing four and injuring the fifth. Apparently, and many details remain sketchy, Whisler quietly resumed his regular duties. Soon after the crime, he overheard people saying the injured man had spoken with police and described the bank robber as someone “dressed as a captain.” When Whisler heard that, he took his own life, using his regulation army service rifle. He had pinned a suicide note to an unnamed woman, “I have been thinking of committing suicide for a long time,” the newspapers reported, “but have never had a good reason. Yesterday I went out and made myself a reason.” Whisler had divorced the year before the crime, leaving behind the ex-wife and a 14-year-old son.


Marriage Deferred


© Charlene Reichert, photographer

Back at Funston after his Christmas furlough, Grandpa resumed letter-writing. And he and Grandma resumed a discussion that surprised me. “You spoke in today’s letter. . . ”

1-15 exempt letter

Letter, across two pages, to Grandma, January 15, 1918 (written on older paper printed with the year 1917)

Two days after that initial letter, Grandpa wrote, “I hope you understand . . .”

1-17 exempt letter

Letter to Grandma, January 17, 1918

That one line, “if it had not been for you holding out I would have been classed as a married man,” upset me. Did he really want to stay out of the army? Was he blaming Grandma?

Reading between the lines, I’ve tried to piece together this story of a marriage proposal, both its timing and its purpose. At some point, my grandfather asked his dear girl to marry. She said no. Later, in these letters, they discussed that decision and its implications.

This might have remained a private conversation between two young people–they were both in their mid-twenties–sorting out their future in their own way, along their own timeline. But a distant war interrupted that possibility.

First came the draft. Grandpa registered on June 5, 1917. Had he asked Grandma to marry before registering? Did he believe marriage would give him a deferment or exemption? If he did, I doubt the marriage would have mattered. The 1917 Selective Service Act identified men for Class I–the category making them “eligible and liable for military service”–as both unmarried and “married men with independent spouse  . . . with sufficient family income if drafted.” The local draft board in King City would have known Grandma’s family and known that they would have cared for her.

I’ve wondered, too, how long my grandparents had dated before Grandpa floated the marriage idea. There’s no record of the year they met, only Grandma’s recollection that she and her brother had seen him on the road “one rainy, muddy night” after the “Corn, Poultry and Dairy Show.”  I’ve found mention of annual shows like this around King City being held in December. That would put their initial meeting, I presume, in late 1916, and their courtship lasting only a few months before that June registration date. Was this long enough for Grandpa to think about marriage, but maybe not for my grandmother?

The January 1918 letters re-opened this old question of marriage. But why did it come up? I’m guessing something happened over Grandpa’s ten-day Christmas furlough. After weeks of being ill at Camp Funston, Grandpa came home, looking worse for wear. The King City Chronicle even mentioned his appearance in their December 21, 1917 issue. “Thomas is looking rather thin, but is in good spirits and says he will now fatten up. He has been indisposed and unable for very active duties some weeks, but thinks he will soon recuperate now.”

The distant war had begun to take its toll in ways this small, tightly knit farming community couldn’t ignore. Some of their “soldier boys” had already returned home for burial, victims of illnesses rampant at Funston. And young men like Grandpa showed the physical toll of being in the army. Maybe Grandma imagined a different outcome for him, if she had agreed to marry.

But the letters only tell the story the way Grandpa saw it. He had, by this time, accepted his obligation to serve, reframing it as an opportunity to improve himself. His notion that Grandma might have been his ticket out of the army also changed. In the last letter on the subject of being exempted through marriage, he wrote, “I will just say . . .”

1-28, both wife and sweetheart

Letter to Grandma, January 28, 1918

Their relationship would endure more heartbreak in the months to come. But in time, my grandparents found a way to be, as Grandpa imagined, both spouse and sweetheart. At least, that’s how I remember them, partners in what I saw as a charmed life.

Here they are in the 1960s, outside one of the businesses they ran in tiny Effingham, Kansas. I loved collecting eggs in the back room of what we called the Produce House, watching Grandpa repair furniture in the middle room, and–best of all–sitting up front when his old buddies gathered around a warm stove to talk politics and tell off-color jokes. “Now stop your cussing!” he’d say when things got rowdy. “My granddaughter’s in the room!” That was the Grandpa I loved–that “better man” he wanted to become after the war, the one “respected by everyone.”

Effingham Produce House

Grandma and Grandpa outside the Produce House, Effingham, Kansas, 1960s.

And Grandma? She lived to be 95, passing on when I was just starting my own family and not much older than she had been during the war. I knew her as a strong, industrious and independent woman, fiercely loyal to her family and stubbornly private. I loved her for that, and for the way she made me feel when I was with her, that I was the only person worthy of her attention. Any sadness and regrets she accumulated over her long life were tightly held. Did she regret that marriage decision in 1917? I’ll never know. She didn’t talk about the war years, at least not to me.