As we make plans to celebrate Memorial Day, it’s appropriate to remember the sacrifices made by men and women serving our country in the military. It is also a time to remember those who have served before them, and to recall the rich history of the site of Brookhaven National Laboratory — originally Camp Upton during World Wars I and II (WWI, WWII).
Camp Upton was built in 1917 as an induction center where WWI soldiers were trained as part of the American Expeditionary Force heading off to Europe. New recruits arriving at the camp formed the legendary 77th Battalion, nicknamed the “Statue of Liberty Division.” Among those early Camp Upton recruits was renowned songwriter Irving Berlin. In addition to many other notable plays and songs, Berlin penned the play “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” and the songs “God Bless America” and “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” The 77th Battalion gained recognition for valor, particularly in the battle at Argonne Forest in France in 1918. The Battalion is one of the most decorated military units in history, its members having received six Medals of Honor, 19 Distinguished Crosses, and 335 Silver Stars.
In 1921, three years after WWI ended, Camp Upton was deactivated. Through public auction, most items from the camp were sold, including the buildings, which were relocated. Interestingly, some WWI Camp Upton buildings still stand today, speckling the landscape of Long Island. According to a story in The Suffolk Times, a Camp Upton cottage is home to the Clark family in Jamesport. At the Northville farm of David Wines, a Camp Upton horse barn served as a henhouse and is currently under renovation for future use as a milking shed.
Beginning in 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) reforested the site and it was renamed the Upton National Forest. It remained dormant until 1941 when it once again was brought to life as an induction center for WWII soldiers. The camp was expanded and converted to a convalescent and rehabilitation hospital in September of 1944. Basketball courts (currently the location of the Lab’s carpenter shop), bowling alleys, a swimming pool, and tennis courts were added to serve as recreational therapy for recuperating soldiers. By 1945, WWII had ended and Camp Upton was officially declared surplus. However, it was not dismantled this time. The camp was converted into a research center for the peaceful uses of atomic energy.
In January 1947, the nation witnessed the birth of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Camp Upton had completed its service to our nation.
In March 1959, when Brookhaven Lab had been in existence for 12 years, additional Camp Upton buildings were placed on a surplus list. Looking for a rectory, the pastor and parishioners at Saint Frances Cabrini Church in Coram saw this as a golden opportunity.
“We did not have a rectory on church grounds,” said Reverend Donald Baier, the current pastor of the church. “Our church history tells us that the building was hoisted onto a truck and driven through the woods and on narrow roads before reaching its destination. When it arrived, it was in need of renovation. In July 1959, with the hard work of parishioners, renovations to the building were complete and we opened the doors of that surplus Camp Upton building to serve as our first rectory.” Today the building serves as a busy outreach center housing a food pantry, donated children’s clothing and books, and counseling offices.
“We have assisted many people in dire need during difficult times,” said Reverend Baier. “The building still serves a meaningful purpose.”
In 2008, soldiers of the famed 77th Battalion revisited the site of Brookhaven National Laboratory, this time for a very different mission. Hosted by the Lab’s Veterans Association, soldiers from the 77th U.S. Army Regional Readiness Command conducted the “Casing of the Colors,” a ceremony marking the retirement of the 77th Infantry Division that had started its distinguished 91-year military history on the Lab site. Once again, the parade field in front of the Brookhaven Center — the CCC and WWII era Camp Upton Officers Club — was filled with soldiers in uniform marching in formation under an American flag, halting their cadence to listen to the echo of “Taps” played by a lone bugler. The ceremony concluded with a thunderous 21-gun cannon salute honoring those who served in the 77th Battalion and all military personnel. The battalion flag was formally retired. It now rests at the Center of Military History in Washington, D.C.
The old stories of Camp Upton and the contributions of the soldiers who were inducted and rehabilitated here will always be remembered. Now, the Laboratory’s outstanding scientific achievements, which span more than six decades and include seven Nobel Prizes, continue to play an important role for the nation. On the 5,265-acre site of a once-upon-a-time army camp, Brookhaven National Laboratory has earned prominence for its world-class scientific accomplishments and for its passion for discovery — important attributes leading to tomorrow’s history.
2011-2380 INT/EXT | Media & Communications Office