Before He Was Supreme: Eisenhower’s WWI Days in Gettysburg

By: Avery Lentz, ’14

Dwight D. Eisenhower was a man of many talents. He served as one of America’s most distinguished presidents and possessed an abiding love for the military, a passion that led him to become General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WWII. He was the man behind the “Liberation of Europe” and led the way for his forces to rid the world of tyranny. However, before he was a president and before he was a general, Ike was a captain fresh out of West Point who wanted to achieve fame and glory on the battlefields of World War I. Instead of being sent abroad to active duty, Ike was assigned the domestic duty of training potential tank crews at a new army camp on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Lentz -- Eisenhower Paint

Camp Colt was established in 1917 and opened by the Gettysburg National Military Park Service in March 1918 as the first post to train cadets for the brand new tank corps. To his dismay, Captain Eisenhower was tasked with being in charge of Camp Colt. Eisenhower wanted to be sent to the Western Front like most of his classmates. Time in the trenches would surely earn him experience, and perhaps even glory, but instead he would be serving in the farmlands of Adams County. Ike applied numerous times to the War Department in the fall of 1917 for oversees duty to no avail. During the winter of 1917, Ike trained the 301st Tank Battalion at Camp Meade, Maryland, until they were deployed to France in March of 1918.

Eisenhower was then sent to Camp Colt in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife Mamie in tow. Eisenhower wrote:

Our numbers at Colt began to grow rapidly. I could forsee that before summer, several thousand men might be in camp. Once they were competent in basic drill, they would have little to do…Our chief source of information came from newspapers in 1918 and we had to use our imaginations.

As tanks were a fairly new innovation of warfare during the First World War, Eisenhower and his cadets at Camp Colt were very poorly equipped to train and therefore had to improvise. Eisenhower developed a telegraphers’ school and a driving school where his men actually bolted machine guns to flatbed trucks and fired on targets on the east side of Big Round Top. Much to Ike’s frustration, the Army had not provided Camp Colt with tanks or tank guns for use in training and by July 1918, the camp had over 11,000 personnel on the ground rather than in tanks. Men quickly became restless and turned to drinking, fighting in bars, and engaging in other misbehavior that plagued Eisenhower as he struggled to keep his men disciplined on the Gettysburg battlefields.

Finally, on June 6, 1918, the same month that Eisenhower would be promoted to major for his command of the camp, the first three French Renault tanks arrived in Gettysburg. Each of three tanks weighed almost seven tons, went an astonishing eight miles an hour, and were not armed. Once again, Eisenhower had to improvise. All told, Ike’s soldiers learned how to move more effectively with the tanks and were taught to move with and in close-order formation behind eachother. By the time most of these troops were trained and ready to go to the front in November 1918, the fighting had ceased with the Armistice on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Eisenhower would earn a Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts at Camp Colt, but would miss his chance to fight. Even though he was disappointed at the time, Ike would look back on his time spent in Gettysburg and appreciate the leadership experience he acquired there. Though he spent WWI in the states, Camp Colt became one of the main reasons Dwight D. Eisenhower would fall in love with Gettysburg and eventually retire at his beautiful farm on the outskirts of the town.

Image:
[Dwight D. Eisenhower, half-length portrait, facing slightly right, holding glasses]. Accessed on the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue. Digital ID cph 3c04961. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-104961.

Source:
Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (New York: Eastern Acorn Press, 1981): 121-132.

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