Would today’s Congress authorize the bivouacking of a quarter-of-a-million juveniles in the middle of primal forests, mid-winter, doing heavy manual labor on a 24/7 schedule? U.S. Government agencies, in consortium with the U.S. military, did just that during 1933-1942.
The unprecedented activity was undertaken through the Emergency Conservation Works Program (later renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps—the “CCC”). The program was one of newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first legislative acts. Roosevelt, who was greatly concerned with the plight of unemployed youth in America’s cities, appointed Robert Fechner, a prominent labor leader, to serve as director of the new program.
LIFE IN THE CCC
Seventeen million people, 16 years old and over, were looking for jobs during the early 1930s. Many young males between the ages of 18 and 25 were able to enlist in the CCC via a quota system administered by county selection boards. Enlistments were for terms of six months for which the recruits were paid thirty dollars per month—twenty-five dollars of which had to be sent home.
After several weeks of para-military training at former WWI military bases, the new CCC enrollees, equipped with WWI uniforms and tools, were shipped out to campsites throughout the nation to work on conservation-related projects. Many eastern volunteers found themselves in western states because of the greater proportion of Federal park land existing there. Every camp was segregated by function, (i.e., soil erosion abatement, gypsy moth eradication, dam construction, etc.), race (Negro camps), and by age (WWI veteran camps).
Enrollees, while living under canvas and enduring pioneering conditions, constructed permanent camp facilities according to military specifications and supervision. Each camp accommodated 200 workers living in four barracks surrounded by several auxiliary buildings used for a mess hall, supervisory residences, vehicle garages, latrines, etc. Roads and other camp infrastructure were constructed by the enrollees, as well.
Camp life was administered by regular military personnel from all branches of the service—many were “retreads.” Officers served as commanding officer, exchange officer, and medical officer; while enlisted men on the roster held positions as company first sergeant, mess sergeant, and other traditional non-com roles. Enrollee ranks were headed by leaders and assistant leaders. Local Experienced Men (LEMs) were hired from host communities to run the work crews. The conservation work was supervised by field personnel from various conservation-related federal/state agencies set up to manage, soil conservation; fish, game, and wildlife, or parks.
UNIT ASSIGNMENTS AND LOCATIONS
The United States was divided into nine corps areas and many sub-districts. Each camp was designated by function and number. Also, each company attached to a camp was numbered. The third digit from the right in the company number indicated its corps location; e.g., Company 366, was located in Corps Area No. 3 which serviced the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (Company 366 was attached to State Camp 125 located at Allenwood, Pennsylvania).
At its zenith, the CCC program maintained 2,500 camps throughout the U.S.—approximately 30-50 camps per state. Local decision makers and communities viewed these camps as important economic development sources. Local politicians lobbied strongly for the siting of a CCC camp in their county.
THE OUTBREAK OF WWII
Chronicling the works of the CCC program would require more space than this article can afford. The national benefits of the program in terms of conservation, social welfare, education and military preparation are virtually incalculable although the total cost of the program was a mere three billion dollars.
There is a rough parallel between the American CCC program and Nazi Germany’s Labor Corps, (Reichsarbeitsdienst or “RAD”); although the two programs were totally dissimilar in ideology, content and goals. The participants of both organizations were fated to meet as well-trained opponents in WWII.
Upon America’s entry into WWII, heavy military recruitment occurred in the various CCC camps. Enrollees answered the call to the tune of 80% in some camps. It has been estimated that 25% of the military forces were ex-CCCers. Interestingly, the service of preference for CCC members tended to be in the Navy and Marines.
The annals of military history is replete with heroism of ex-CCCers. For instance, 62% of the American troops at Bataan and Corregidor were enrollees in the program at one time. Several CCC alumni were with the 5th Amphibious Corps, Easy Company, U.S. Marines and supported the platoon that raised the flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. Congressional Medal of Honor awards were received by several ex-CCCers as a result of that battle including Colonel David M. Shoup, who later became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Sergeant Alvin C. York of WWI fame was a CCC program participant in CCC Company 3464, Crossville, Tennessee.
Disposition of CCC facilities, after program dissolution, took many forms. Many became prisoner-of-war and internment camps with notable populations of Rommel’s Afrikakorps troops and Japanese-American citizens.
The former CCC program represents a peacetime adaptation of the military model in solving a functional national problem. Since 1976, over 23 states have established statewide “conservation corps” which deal with vocational training/conservation in urban areas while perpetuating the CCC legacy.
A national CCC organization with state chapters operates out of national headquarters at St. Louis, Mo. (www.cccalumni.org) A national news periodical (NACCCA Journal, P.O. Box 16429, St. Louis, MO 63125) advises and informs local CCCers on issues such as Federal benefits for time in service, recognition of past accomplishments and the re-activation of the program to address modern social problems. Local chapters are active in preserving their roots by marking and preserving CCC sites; creating museums and establishing Web sites. The CCC museum at Gilbert Lake State Park, Laurens, New York maintains an exceptional Web site (www.nyscccmuseum.com) that lists all CCC Camps by state, throughout the country. These lists contain location, camp designation, and company number.
COLLECTING THE CCC
Despite the short existence of the CCC program, its mundane missions and overshadowing by WWII, collectors can find many items to assemble a satisfying CCC memorabilia display. Many of these items were sold at camp exchanges such as pennants, souvenir pillowcases, tie tacks, lapel pins, patches, and jewelry. Official camp roster booklets, paperwork, newspapers etc. are also available. Personnel items such as photographs, papers, artwork, trench art, exchange tokens and what have you will occasionally surface at estate auctions and other sources of antiques and collectibles.
In October 1939, a new uniform, designed by the President, was issued to CCC enrollees. The uniform consisted of a forest green overseas cap, jacket, straight-legged pants and quarter-length overcoat. The overseas caps with its distinctive CCC green and yellow patch attached, are not rare as some retail prices, today, would suggest. Collectors should be aware that there was a discovery of these items in warehouse quantity. In addition, CCC National Headquarters still offers these caps for sale, at a nominal fee, in addition to several re-issued items.
Cloth Specialty (Skill) of the Civilian Conservation Corp 1933-1942
The cloth insignia worn on civilian conservation corps uniforms can be grouped as: national logos, company patches, company bars, rank strips/chevrons, service bars and specialty (skill) patches. The following is an attempt at identifying and describing specialty patches, also referred to as “skill” or “rating” badges.
C.C.C. enrollee were issued WWI clothing in the early years of the program; therefore, it can be assumed that the C’s wore their skill badges on the right sleeve between elbow and shoulder as did their doughboy predecessors. It is unclear whether skill badges were continued in use after the Corps changed to a green uniform.
C.C.C. insignia were not military issue and were not standard across the program due to many reasons, including administrative autonomy, uniform change, privatization and/or politics.
David D. Draves in “Builder of Men, Life in C.C.C. Camps of New Hampshire” noted that, “No two camps had identical rules and procedures and those of a particular camp changed with the rotation of commanding officers”
He continued to note: “In the Fall of 1939, corpsmen were issued a uniform especially designed for the C.C.C. Spruce green with gold piping replaced army khaki. O.D. Patches used to designate Leader and Assistant Leader were changed from army type chevron patches to simple horizontal stripes or bars.”
Enrollees purchased patches from private sources either through camp exchanges; mail order ads in “Happy Days” (the national C.C.C. newspaper); or, from fellow CCCers moonlighting as sales reps for insignia companies. Styles and designs were apt to be dictated by which insignia company arrived in camp first.
Politicians took every opportunity to demilitarize the program due to a prevailing isolationism mind set. Consequently, wearing of insignia was elective and designs non-martial in appearance.
Caveats aside, C.C.C. cloth specialty patches might be categorized as follows: Rank/Specialty; Logo/Specialty; Specialty Name/Logo; Specialty; and Specialty/Bar.
For more information:
Draves, David D., "Builder of Men, Life in C.C.C. Camps of New Hampshire", Portsmouth, N.H., 1992.
Happy Days, National C.C.C. Newspaper, Wash. D.C., 1933-42.
Melzer, Richard, Coming of Age in the Great Depression: The Civilian Conservation Corps, Las Cruces, N.M. Yucca Tree Press, 2000.
The New America, The Story of the C.C.C., New York, Lougmans, Green & Co., 1937.
Your CCC, A Handbook for Enrollees, Reprint, NACCCA, B.C. Nickerson, P.O. Box 34836-C#, Juneau, Alaska 99803.
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