Camp Nichols – Soldiers, Sinners and Spies in World War I Kansas City

It’s official. The long-anticipated commemoration of America’s involvement in World War II has begun. I avoid the word “celebration” intentionally, because no one in their right mind finds much about war to celebrate. I’ll grant, though, that here in Kansas City, we might be forgiven some displays that seem celebratory. A lot of our iconic identity has been tied around Liberty Memorial since it was first proposed in 1919, shortly after the war ended. With the recent revival and expansion of the impressive World War I Museum, the city is eager to share these landmarks with the world. It’s a sure bet that we all will be learning a lot about America’s and Kansas City’s involvement in World War I over the next 18 months or so. We’ll hear tales heroic, tragic and inspiring. But I’m going to kick things off here with a typical KC Backstory, a small and curious story of Kansas City during the “war to end all wars.”

 

By 1916, the Third Missouri Infantry had been mustering in and out of service since the Spanish-American War, most recently for a brief stint as part of Pershing’s forces during the Mexican Revolution. In March 25, 1917, just six months after returning from the Mexican border, a new Presidential order mobilized them at Kansas City, assigned to guard the city’s transportation infrastructure. These were events ramping up toward the US involvement in Europe. But the Third Missouri apparently lacked for a camp site, because shortly after they were mobilized, J.C. Nichols set aside a few acres of his property where they could bivouac.

The spot became known as Camp Nichols. To date, I have located only one map that vaguely locates the spot, the well-known cartographic map of the Country Club District, a 1930 promotional map more illustrative than navigational. The map depicts the cartoon images of a doughboy facing a finger-pointing superior. Nichols Company records don’t offer much, but suggest the camp was within the two blocks immediately south of Meyer Boulevard and east of Ward Parkway. The Nichols Company records do include two photos of the site, included here.

The life of Camp Nichols was brief. There are few references to Camp Nichols in publication or online, but two items give a tiny peek into Kansas City life as America entered the war. The first mention appears in a work on the origins of military intelligence, which the author dates to 1917. In one of the first attempts to use law enforcement as a means of gathering intelligence information “in the field,” a former detective assigned to Camp Nichols after enlistment volunteered to turn spy on local “socialist activities.”

On July 16, 1917, an army lieutenant at Camp Nichols in Kansas City had been invited, by virtue of his previous work as a police detective in that city, to accompany local authorities on a raid of the meeting hall of the Agricultural Workers Organization, a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).”

Some revolvers, what appeared to be “burglary tools” and some organizational records were confiscated, “which resulted in a $100 fine for each of the ten radicals arrested and their expulsion from the city.”

This was a minor raid, and – reading between the lines – perhaps no more than the personal preoccupation of the anonymous lieutenant. In sharing his experience of the raid, he adds his personal observations stemming from 1913, when he arrested more than four hundred people whom he referred to as “these so-called Industrial Workers.” He went on to say, “Ninety-five percent of their members are foreign born, being the off-scouring of the entire world – anarchists at heart. They defy law and order and are against any form of government,” while the remainder he described as “thieves, thugs, highwaymen, burglars, murderers and ex-convicts.”

The second mention of Camp Nichols appears in a short article in the December 8, 1917 issue of The Survey, the leading social welfare magazine of the day. Under the title, “Camps and Saloons in Kansas City,” the report bestows a dubious distinction on Camp Nichols. Kansas City, so the article relates, was a good example of the problems facing the War Department with respect to the moral character of its soldiers, those problems being liquor and prostitution. In that context, the article relates (without citing sources) that…

“…formerly there was located in Kansas City a temporary camp, Camp Nichols, in which the percentage of venereal disease was high.”

Sadly, The Survey article doesn’t also rank Camp Nichols on the intoxication levels of its soldiers. But between the spying and the prostitution, it stands to reason there were plenty of reasons to drink.

And what of the soldiers of the Third Missouri Infantry? In October 1917, the Regiment moved to Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma, and went on to participate in the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle of World War I (10 months) and one of the costliest in history. Of the 1,700 who went to Europe with the “Old Third,” only 600 returned.

 

Sources:

Edwards, Evan A. From Doniphan to Verdun: The Official History of the 140th Infantry. Lawrence, KS: The World Company, 1920.

Talbert, Roy Jr. Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left 1917-1941. Jackson & London: University of Mississippi Press, 1991.

“Camps and Saloons in Kansas City.” The Survey: A Journal of Social Exploration. Volume XXXIX, October 1917 – March 1918: page 294.

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