For about two years, this “town” was the biggest and busiest in Rockland County—and perhaps in all the Hudson Valley. It appeared almost overnight and vanished nearly as quickly. There’s nothing of it left today, and most of us have never heard of it. But from 1943 until the end of World War II, Camp Shanks was home to more than a million members of “the Greatest Generation.”
The camp was the largest Army port of embarkation in the country. It comprised 2,040 acres in Orangetown, and it served as the staging ground for about 1.3 million troops, including 75 percent of those who took part in the invasion of Normandy. The GIs knew they were headed overseas from here, which is why they nicknamed the camp “Last Stop, USA.”
The Army selected Orangetown because it was served by two railroads and had quick access to nearby piers on the Hudson that could handle large military ships, making it easy to get troops in from bases across the country, down river to New York, and on to Africa and Europe. It was also mostly farmland, which made it relatively simple to transform into an Army base. So, in the fall of 1942, about 300 residents were called to a meeting at the Orangeburg School (now the library) and told that the U.S. government was purchasing their land, which they could buy back at the same price at the end of the war. They had two weeks to get out. One hundred and thirty families lost their homes.
As perhaps only the Army can, it mobilized 17,000 workers to transform the fruit and vegetable farms into a city of 50,000 that included Quonset hut barracks, headquarters buildings, stores, chapels, a theater, a laundry, a bakery, and a hospital. They built more than 2,500 buildings in just three months.
Named after Major General David C. Shanks, who directed the New York Port of Embarkation during World War I, Camp Shanks opened in January 1943. Here soldiers would be “staged,” inspected for equipment and supplies, and made ready for deployment. There were seven staging areas, including one for the Women’s Army Corps—and a segregated one for Black Americans.
The camp had its own baseball team, orchestra, and newspaper. It also hosted stars like Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, and Joe Louis to entertain the troops.
By war’s end, 1,362,630 GIs had passed through Camp Shanks. So had prisoners of war: when the battle ended, 290,000 POWs from other camps in the U.S. passed through Camp Shanks on their way back home. The last German prisoner left the camp on July 22, 1946. Camp Shanks officially closed but was converted into Shanks Village for veterans who needed temporary housing. The vets, taking advantage of the GI Bill, started attending colleges like Columbia University, New York University, and City College. Rather than move to the city, they used GI Bill money to buy homes in the village and start families. Within a decade, the construction of the Palisades Parkway and the former Tappan Zee Bridge would erase any leftover buildings and accelerate the transformation of Rockland County from rural to suburban.
There are only two shrines to the memory of Camp Shanks and Shanks Village: the Camp Shanks Port of Departure Monument (Ferry Road in Piermont) and Camp Shanks Memorial Park (off Independence Avenue in Tappan). The Camp Shanks Museum, on South Greenbush Road near the intersection of Routes 303 and 340 in Orangeburg, opened in June 1994—the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. A recreated Quonset hut barracks has photos, uniforms, music, posters, and other artifacts of the era.