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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Letter 118 ~ December 21, 1918

The “small street” near Ward’s barracks at Nitro, West Virginia, where it is “muddy all the time.” This photograph was taken 8 days prior to Ward’s arrival in Nitro.

I let Minnie know we arrived safely in Nitro, West Virginia. I describe the trip and our new post in a lengthy letter.

Addressed to Miss Minnie G. Frey, Stockdale, Kansas

Nitro, West Virginia
Saturday A.M. 12/21/1918

Dear Kid,

Well, we arrived here a little before noon yesterday & are getting nicely settled now. I am certainly well pleased with our new quarters but I will have to see the sun once before I say I like the country. It rains a whole lot here & as the soil is red clay it takes a long time to dry & so it is muddy nearly all the time. I always dislike cloudy weather.

We have larger barracks & two whole barracks to each company while at [Camp] Funston we had only 1 ½. The barracks are painted on the outside & the woodwork is stained inside. The walls are covered with white beaver boarding which makes it look a whole lot nicer than at [Camp] Funston. We have a recreation room right here in the barracks where we can gather to read, write or play games like checkers, cards, etc. Instead of the straw bed sacks that we had at [Camp] Funston, we have nice soft mattresses, feather pillows, sheets & pillow cases. My bed was so soft last night that it took me quite a little bit to get used to it but I was so sleepy from loss of sleep on the trip that I slept like a log when I once got started. I suppose we will eat off of dishes when we get settled but we aren’t now.

We went on guard this morning with 36 men besides the non-coms. If that is all they need all the time, it looks as tho we would have it rather easy here because 36 doesn’t come very often in 500, but we may have to use more later, I don’t know. They got in a wagon & were hauled away off in the brush somewhere so it looks as tho we only guarded the outskirts of the plant & the U.S. Guards guard the interior. Those U.S. Guards are a sort of semi-military organization but don’t belong to the army at all. I shouldn’t wonder but what us soldiers and the guards will have a row before we get out of here because they don’t look good to me.

Nitro is about 14 or 15 miles west of Charleston. It is a very large plant & somewhere around 50,000 people are employed here. The most of them live in little cottages near the plant. There are rows & rows of them all alike & stained brown. It looks as tho half the people employed here were women. Anyway, lots of girls are going past the barracks nearly all the time. There is a small street near the barracks on which is a market, grocery store, barber shop, restaurant & a few other shops. Not much of a place & no places of amusement although I think there is some kind of a moving picture show about a mile down the road east. They have dances about every other night at a school house somewhere near but I wasn’t enough interested to look it up. Guard duty here may get tiresome after awhile but it looks pretty nice now after the drill we had at [Camp] Funston. I think there will be enough excitement with the roughnecks to keep us from going stale.

The country around here is awfully rough. They say we are among the foothills of the Alleghenies but these hills here wouldn’t do for mountains at all. I think I will climb around a little tomorrow. All the hills are timbered & are not used for anything so far as I can see.

Our mail got down here about the same time we did & I supposed I would get two or three letters because I haven’t had any for nearly a week, but I didn’t get anything but a Christmas card from [my sister] Gussie which she sent direct to Nitro. She asked me up [to visit them in Washington D. C.] & as soon as I can get paid again I am going to ask for a pass. I don’t know whether I can get a long enough one or not but it looks as tho I could. A conductor on the train said it was about four hundred miles & that if I left Charleston in the evening of one day, I would get there the next P.M. A weekend pass would do no good.

Believe me, the fellows sure had a time coming down here. We stopped long enough in Kansas City for those who wanted it to get some booze. We weren’t allowed to get off the train but some civilians sold it to them thru the windows. It was dark and they could get away with it but if they should get caught selling liquor to soldiers it would mean the long road for them. Well, some of those old army men (& new ones too) were drunk nearly all the way down. I never saw anything like it before. About 1/3 of the men in the car I was in were drinking the first night & wouldn’t let anybody get much sleep. One got the idea in his head that it was his duty to clean out the car so he started in to do it. He hit one fellow over the eye & nearly knocked him over. They finally got him to sleep the next day. One fellow in the berth across the aisle got as sick as a pig & emptied all of his out the window. Then he settled down & went to sleep. The fellow I was sleeping with drank but he didn’t get dead drunk. He smelled like a brewery.

We stopped quite awhile at St. Louis & one of the sargents slipped off & brought in a whole valise full. From then on that train sure was nicely slopped up. The officers got drunk & got to acting like kids. One of the Lieutenants grabbed a shovel at St. Louis & started to do the manual of arms with it. Then he walked down the aisle with a broom saying he was going to police up. I am glad W. Va. is dry or there sure would be trouble in camp. They will get booze all right but they will have to pay so much for it that it will be in small quantities.

Aside from the drunkenness on the trip & the lack of grub, it was a fine trip & I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. It sure was fine the way the people treated us. At Topeka. St. Louis & Louisville, Red Cross ladies passed around cigarettes, hot coffee, sandwiches, cookies & candy & also post cards. The people all along the road would wave at us & greet us as tho we were heroes.

They didn’t cook anything on the trip. The only thing we had hot was coffee. After Wednesday, we didn’t even have bread but had to live on hardtack. If anybody gives me anymore hardtack, I am going to knock him down with it. Corn beef & beans & canned tomatoes & cheese & such things as that is what we had.

Say girlie, do write often because I can’t get home now & I want to know what is going on & what you are doing. Just address to: Pvt. Ward C. Griffing, E Company, 20th Infantry, Nitro, West Virginia

  • The book, "Nitro, the WWI Boom Town," describes a “sizeable interior police force called the Nitro Guards (later, the “U.S. Guards”) consisting of 11 officers, 305 guards and 90 mounted patrolmen. They patrolled the streets of Nitro and the plant area day and night, manned regular posts, and generally handled all police matters.”
  • “The most identifying characteristic of early Nitro was its hundreds of brown stained look-alike houses all arranged in neat straight evenly spaced rows.” Source: Nitro, the WWI Boom Town, p. 64

A view of the explosives plant in Nitro, West Virginia with the brown bungalow houses of the workers in the foreground.


  1. Nice research on the background of Nitro. I knew nothing about the town and the complex. This facility was probably originally built to support the war effort of the Allies, before the U.S. entry into WWI. This continued logistic support was part of the reason the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. When that happened President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war.

    The profits made by U.S. companies during the war helped fuel socialists, trade unionists, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in their opposition to the war. Most U.S. workers were happy to have the jobs in the war industries.

  2. When you think about, it's absolutely amazing that such a production facility and an entire town to support it, could be constructed in eleven months from the ground up. It came too late, however. The first shipment of smokeless black powder from the facility came just days before the Armistice. By the time Ward got there in December, they were already laying off workers.

    I find it humorous that the Red Cross ladies distributed cigarettes to the troops as they made their way across the Midwest. We got them with our field rations in the modern military too but they weren't distributed by the Red Cross! -- wg