The site on which the present-day Brookhaven National Laboratory now stands was originally an Army camp – Camp Upton, located near the town of Yaphank, in the heart of Long Island's Pine Barrens. (Even today, many laboratory departments and offices are housed in refurbished Army buildings.) Located approximately 80 miles from New York City, Upton was easily reached by the railroad network that linked the Northeast states in the 1940s. New recruits from New York, Connecticut, and other New England states, after reporting to their local draft boards in response to a Selective Service notification, or after volunteering, were usually given orders to report to the Army's reception center at Upton. CAMP UPTON The average reception center was often located inside a sprawling installation (others included Fort Dix, New Jersey and Fort Bragg, North Carolina). The recruit might be there four days or four weeks, depending on how long it took to process him and decide where to send him. The average stay was nine days. Recruits were evaluated mentally and physically so that they could be assigned to a particular branch of service, or even utterly rejected.

Upton was a two-hour train ride from New York's fabled Pennsylvania Station on the Long Island Railroad. For the average recruit, the journey from Manhattan to the camp was a rude awakening, especially during the Winter months. They boarded the train amidst the urban bustle of America's most famous city and disembarked in a place that must have seemed as remote and barren as another planet. The tiny wooden station at Yaphank was a far cry from the classic marble architecture of Penn, and once off the train, there was nothing but wind, sand, and pine trees. The scrawny pines offered no shelter from the wind, which blew the coarse yellow sand particular to Long Island everywhere. Soon, the sand was in clothing, duffel bags, and shoes. Many veterans who were inducted at Upton (especially those who were there in the Winter of 1942-43) all share the same memories of frigid winds, the stinging, ever-present sand, and the stands of thin ragged pines that surrounded the whole place.

Upon arrival, the recruits found themselves in a virtual sea of uniforms. They lined up in their civilian clothes, a single overnight bag at their feet like a faithful pup, and listened alternately to the jeering of other soldiers and the barking of sergeants. "You'll be sorry!" "Good luck, Jeep!" ("Jeep" was slang for a first-day recruit in 1941-42). "Get the lead out!." CAMP UPTON LOCATOR MAP Even going back to its days as a World War I boot camp, the site was overcrowded. But with the advent of WW II, the older barracks buildings were joined by dozens of new ones, in addition to clusters of tents that had to be erected to handle the incredible overflow of recruits in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. Men stayed an average of nine days at Upton, before being assigned to a particular unit and shipped out to another camp for six weeks of basic training and any additional specialized instruction. They were tested for mental aptitude and physical condition, received a uniform, and got their first taste of Army chow. Then, they were marched back to the train station with orders to report to places like Fort Sheridan, Camp Davis, and scores of other facilities where the sinews of the American war machine were just beginning to take shape.

The first procedure at Upton was for the men to drop their trousers for what the medical detachment called the "short physical inspection" and everyone else called the "shortarm" – an examination of the genitals. The practice dated back to the Spanish-American War. Its purpose was to determine whether soldiers had contracted venereal disease, and it was repeated regularly, especially whenever a soldier reported to a new post. Next, the men were subjected to a lecture on sexual morality, which the Army doctor assigned to give it concluded with such witticisms as "Flies spread disease, so keep yours buttoned up." The men were advised that sex would weaken them and make them easy prey for the Japs or the Hun. Later in the war, the lecture was replaced by graphic films on the subject of sexually transmitted diseases, directed by such Hollywood icons as Daryl Zanuck.

Next, the recruit received an issue of clothing. In the first months of the war, there were not enough uniforms, and quartermasters were forced to rummage through supply depots or raid National Guard stocks to meet the demand. Many men received second-hand uniforms or simply ill-fitting ones. One man who went through Upton had to wait almost four weeks before he could be assigned because the Army could not find a blouse big enough to fit him quickly enough. Other inductees were even issued entire WW I uniforms (cartoonist Bill Mauldin received such issue, complete with choke-collar "monkey jacket" and wraparound puttees). It was not uncommon for a man to reach into a pocket and pull out a PX receipt dated 1918.

One thing the Army did seem concerned about, in addition to a soldier's genitals, of course, was a soldier's feet. Shoes were fitted with meticulous care, sometimes under the direct supervision of an officer and even with the use of an x-ray machine. Soldiers often tried them on while carrying two buckets of famous Upton sand to represent the weight of their packs, to ensure the best possible fit. This was 1941-42, before widespread mechanization, and the American Army moved on its feet, a fact not lost on the War Department. During the famous Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941, the 20th Infantry Division traveled from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri to Fort Polk, Louisiana – and back – on foot, a round trip of 1000 miles.

As a followup to what the recruit heard at the induction office (the AWOL and desertion articles from the Articles of War), he now had to listen to a reading of the complete articles, which covered military crimes with unfamiliar names like "fraudulent enlistment" and "false muster." Some instruction was given on military courtesy, especially how and when to salute, as well as some close-order drill, but not to the degree that both would be covered in basic training.

Then came the shots. The legendary injections that men referred to as "the hook." Generally, these were the first of a series that would haunt a soldier throughout reception and basic, and they started with smallpox and typhoid inoculations. During this same period, the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) was given. A soldier who may have indicated a particular skill, like radio, would be given a special aptitude test in addition, but, by and large, the AGCT was the most important and was given to everyone. The classic version consisted of 150 multiple-choice questions that had to be completed in 40 minutes. There were three types of questions, embracing block counting, synonym matching, and simple arithmetic. "Jim had 10 bottles of milk. He bought 2 more and drank 7. How many did he have left?" The tests were machine-graded and the scores were used to place or classify the new soldier, which was the main function of centers like Upton. A GI generally got his Army assignment on the basis of what he'd done as a civilian; thus, the 15-minute interview with the classification specialist (CS) was as important, sometimes, as an AGCT score. The CS recorded the inductee's work history, education, and training, as well as the sports he played, his hobbies, and his talents. These attributes were considered in the light of the Army's needs, and the assignment was made. Examples of this process abound in the Army's 1944 film Classification of Enlisted Men, which shows a CS interviewing a tractor operator (who was assigned to armor), a telephone lineman (assigned to the Signal Corps), and a mountaineer who loved to shoot (assigned, of course, to the infantry!). Naturally, there were misassignments. The banker who became a baker because of a typing error. The cook who was a garbage-man. The butcher assigned as a medic (the classification manual did recommend meat-cutters for the Medical Corps as well as the Quartermaster Corps!).

IRVING BERLIN The real purpose of reception centers like Upton – beyond classifying the recruit – was to begin the processes of adaptation and acceptance of the Army lifestyle. "Yeah, man" quickly became "Yes, sir!" Pajamas were sent home and the recruit started going to bed Army-style, wearing just undershorts. The Army like their men young, since adaptation was easier for younger men: they were not so set in their ways. Adaptation was also easier back in the early 1940s since the Army offered many things that civilian life did not. At least a third of the population lived in homes that lacked central heat and running water. The Army barracks offered both. The Army offered three square meals a day, shelter, and clothing. Recruits from the deep South were known to show up barefoot. A Texas farmboy saw another advantage to life in the service: "I like the Army fine so far," he wrote home. "They let you sleep to 5:30." One of Camp Upton's most famous inhabitants was composer Irving Berlin. As a matter of fact, Berlin wrote his show, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, with its famous song, "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!", while he was at Camp Upton. [Later, the show was produced in New York City with an all-male cast (Berlin is in the center of the photo above).]

Ultimately, Upton and the other reception centers were only way stations. Every day, men were shipped out, bound for one of the 242 (by 1945) training camps where they would learn the real aspects of soldiering. They never knew where they were going. Some left in the bright light of morning after a hearty breakfast with time to kill at the station; others were rousted from their beds in the dead of night and had to hurry to catch an LIRR train bound for New York City. They all then made the short or long haul to Camp This or Fort That. Men from Upton could end up as closeby as Fort Belvoir (Virginia) or as far away as Fort Hood (Texas). For all intents and purposes, they were in the Army now and didn't ask questions. In a few short weeks, they'd learned to follow orders.

Special Supplement: Camp Upton in 1919


Follow the B-17 Back
to Long Island During WW II