Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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Camp Fuller – Main Line, USA

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally Published June 19, 2002

For an area settled by Quakers, dedicated to non-violence and peaceful coexistence, war and for the most part the military has stayed far away from the Main Line since the original rebellion. Not for the Main Line the tattoo parlors, bars and pawn shops which seem to mushroom anywhere America’s underpaid military hang their, uh helmets.

During the Civil War there was a transition camp where the Philadelphia Country Club resides. Gladwyne residents can point out that there was an air defense missile battery plopped down in the middle of their rolling fields.

But there have never been many a swaggering sailor rolling down Lancaster Avenue, except perhaps for a few second sons home from the Naval Academy, or the odd gentleman sailor on his way to Navy Reserve duty.

With the coming of World War One, the nation was caught up in the fervor of a just war. Having watched from behind the safety of a large ocean as the Europeans destroyed a generation, America had grown into a world power.

It was left to us, then, after the evil Huns sunk a few supposedly neutral American ships, to set things right. The Philadelphia Naval Yard was a major center of the buildup of America’s naval might.

By early 1918 additional space was needed at the Navy Yard for Officers’ Candidate School. So the Navy looked to move a unit out to make way. The choice was the recently organized Marine Signal Battalion.

Before the war, the Marines on had a single company of trained signalmen about 60 men scattered throughout the Atlantic fleet. Their mission was to let the naval ships communicate with units ashore Marine or Army to coordinate Naval gunfire.

In spite of images of valiant captains standing on shot-shattered smoking decks, one of the more useful capabilities was the ability to support units miles from the shoreline with their huge guns. The immense 17-inch guns of the era could hurl a massive shell up to 20 miles from the sea if they knew where to aim it.

That was the mission of these Marines.

In 1917 the company’s personnel was brought back to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and divided into the cadre for three companies, with new personnel and recruits added to bring the unit up to battalion strength.

So when the need arose to move some unit out of the Navy Yard, the signalmen seemed just the unit to ship off. A new home was therefore sought for the Signal Battalion, now comprising the 3d, 87th and 147th companies.

According to World War I Marine vet Tom Plummer, in an oral history done with Bob Goshorn for the Easttown Tredyffrin History Club, the bluffs on either side of the valley made the area a natural choice for the site.

“Although based in Philadelphia, small groups had been sent to Valley Forge for signal practice, the hills there offering an ideal location for such exercise,” Plummer said. “It was decided to look in that area for a site for the battalion’s new home.” In the spring of 1918 Camp Edward C. Fuller was sited by Major James J. Meade, the battalion’s commander.

He chose the 37-acre property of Dr. A. A. O’Daniels in Tredyffrin, located on the west side of North Cedar Hollow road between the Trenton cut-off of the then- Pennsylvania Railroad and the tracks of the branch line of the Reading through the Chester Valley.

“The camp was named in honor of Sgt. Edward C. Fuller, who had been killed in France shortly before the camp’s establishment,” related Plummer, “Sgt. Fuller was also the son of Col. Benjamin Fuller, the commanding officer of the Philadelphia Navy Yard.” It opened in May for training.

Unlike today, it was fairly simple then to establish a military base. When you had the land you marched the troops to the site, moved in the material by rail or truck and got on with building the base.

There were no unions to object, no real need to build fancy facilities and buildings. Point to a field and dozens of Marines would jump to leveling it and putting up tents.

In the case of Camp Fuller, it was no different. The camp streets were laid out with rows of 15 tents to a side. “The streets were graded to prevent flooding and were lined with uniform gutters that were whitewashed daily,” Plummer said. There’s a surprise to anyone who’s served in the military, whitewashing rocks.

The tents were mounted on pine floors or decks, as Marines would call them. These were raised at regular intervals and sprayed with lime and other disinfectants. “Later wooden ‘strong-boards’ were also built for tents,” Plummer said. “These too were whitewashed daily. The sides of the tents were also raised during the day to air the tents’ contents.”

Each company also had a frame mess hall. “Each of these had its “buzzey-cots” or stoves, with an ice-box built into the side of an earthen bank,” Plummer said. “Taking advantage of the produce from nearby farms and dairies to augment the issued rations, the food was certainly well above the average,” Plummer said.

He evidently thought well of the food, remembering it quite well. “The baked beans and apple pie made from local apples of one mess sergeant are still remembered as about the best ever served,” he said.

The number of Marines stationed at Camp Fuller ranged between 500 and 700. The battalion was a training unit, for signal communications, but also included the basic military skills that every Marine needs know.

The Marines have a strange philosophy that every Marine is a rifleman. So shooting skills were learned in addition to drills and instruction in semaphore, the “wigwag” and Morse Code, heliographs and night lamps, and work in radio, telephone, and telegraph.

Each company specialized in a particular communications means: the 3d Company in radio, the 147th Company in telephone, and the 87th Company in wire operations. The troops continued to use Valley Forge for signal practice, with the telephone training conducted at the camp.

Now to show the true difference between the people at the turn of the last century and today. When recruits arrived in Philadelphia, they were met at the old Broad Street Station and marched out to the camp.

But the Marine command structure was nothing if not considerate.

They were given a lunch stop at on the campus of Villanova University and their baggage was hauled out by truck from the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

But all was not work. “No sooner was Camp Fuller established than provision was made in Paoli for the diversion and entertainment of the troops,” Plummer said. In their history of the Marine Corps written in 1919, John Leonard and Fred Chitty observed,

“Immediately when it was known the place of Paoli had been decided on as a camp site, the Y.M.C.A. proceeded to make preparations for the looking after the boys during leisure hours.

“The Red Cross lent their aid as well, and a home in the town of Paoli was soon in readiness for the resting place of the boys. There a rest room, card room, sleeping quarters and shower baths, with an unlimited supply of hot water was at all times at the command of the Marines.

Good books, good music and entertainment every night brought to the boys a sense of homelikeness seldom duplicated.

In addition, a canteen under the direction of a few ladies, headed by Mrs. Thomas Reath, opened a nearby cottage for the use of the Marines to spend their spare time in. The latest magazines, books, pool tables, and the charming society of the thoughtful ladies of the neighborhood, was constantly at the call of the Marines.

Besides this, the Y.M.C.A. opened a tent directly connected with the camp for the use of the boys, to do their writing in, and there every night or two moving pictures, lectures and public speaking passed the time between mess call and taps.

The neighbors were continually placing their resources at the call of the boys. Dances, teas, entertainments, automobile parties, and week-end homes. Nothing seemed to be overlooked for the convenience of the Battalion.”

Leonard and Chitty also reported that the entire complement of Camp Fuller “conducted itself in such orderly fashion that not one complaint was lodged against the camp by any of its neighbors.”

That makes it clear why they were chosen for the signal corps instead of the combat units.

According to the camp commander, during the six months of the camp’s existence “there were no General Court Martials (sic) two Summary Court Martials three Deck Court Martials and five Commanding Officers’ punishments Quite an exceptional record ”

In early November 1918, Camp Edward C. Fuller was closed, the battalion returning to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and preparing to move overseas. A part of its baggage was already on board ship when news of the Armistice was received, ending hostilities. As a result, the battalion itself never went to France.

But all was not lost for the Main Line’s brush with the Marine Corps.

Following their discharge from the corps, at least four of the men assigned to Camp Fuller in Tredyffrin remained in the area.

Ed Keno settled in Berwyn, Minor Vail in Paoli and Joe Annear in Malvern, where he was at one time the burgess. Tom Plummer also stayed and lived in Malvern, Berwyn and Paoli. For a number of years he was a local justice of the peace.