Farrier John J. L. “Joe” Harlin, US Army

The John J. L. Harlin Papers in The Mariners’ Museum archives focus on correspondence written by Joe Harlin to his parents, sister Sallie, brother-in-law Robert (Bob), and Robert’s parents. Dated from 1917 to 1919, this collection also includes letters addressed to Harlin from family and friends, along with postcards, telegrams, and photographs. Harlin’s descriptive observations about the weather, food, and camp life provide valuable personal insights into the local war experience from this soldier’s perspective.

Joe Harlin was born in 1889 in Clay County, Missouri. He lived and worked as a cattle buyer in Liberty, Missouri. Drafted into the Army in October 1917, he was attached to the 356th Regiment, 89th Division at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas. He actively campaigned to be transferred elsewhere; and in April 1918, Private Harlin was reassigned to the Animal Embarkation Depot No. 301 at Camp Hill, Newport News, Virginia.

It takes Harlin time to adjust to his new environment. In a letter to his sister’s in-laws dated May 28, 1918, Harlin writes: “…this awful hot weather makes a bum of every-body. I spend all my spare moments sleeping. I believe, strictly speaking, the humidity in the air causes it. Anyway the people here are as slow & sleepy as can be & we (Northern folks) are growing just like them. This part of the country & the people are more like the hill-billy of Arkansas.”1

Aerial view of Camp Hill
Aerial view of Camp Hill. Postcard courtesy of Bob Buchan.

Camp Hill, named in honor of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill, CSA, and established in August 1917, was located near 64th Street along the eastern bank of the James River in what was then Warwick County. Connected to the Port of Embarkation, the camp was described by the Army as “a temporary camp to receive troops and animals prior to their embarkation on transports or after debarkation.”2 It was one of four major camps established in the area during the war. Others were Camp Alexander, Camp Morrison, and Camp Stuart. In August 1918, stevedore regiments from Camp Hill were detached to form Camp Alexander. Throughout the war, Camp Hill was an embarkation cantonment until the armistice. It was then utilized for debarkation and was abandoned for sale in October 1919.

The Animal Embarkation Depot, sited on 70 acres within the northern part of Camp Hill, was built to accommodate 10,000 animals at capacity. Although the depot was located in Newport News, the Washington, D.C. Remount Station controlled it. Nearby was the British Remount Station which could house an additional 5,000 animals if needed. Between October 1917 and the end of the war, 33,659 horses, 24,474 mules, and 145 private mounts passed through the Port of Embarkation at Newport News.3

An unknown soldier with a mule in a camp warehouse
This photograph, from the Museum’s E. P. Griffith collection, shows an unknown soldier with a mule in a camp warehouse. (MS0228.01.0407)

Soon after his arrival in Newport News, Harlin wrote home saying he thought he would be working directly with horses at Camp Hill’s veterinary hospital: “We will help the doctors with the horses that are sick, there is also a remount station here so there are a lot of horses and mules.”4 However, most of Harlin’s duties consisted of carpentry work for the depot and the camp, which was not completed until July 1918. Even though his duties did not require interactions with the horses, Harlin was promoted to farrier. In a letter to his sister and brother-in-law, Harlin states, “A farrier is one who draws $36.00 that’s the most important then he works in the hospitals helping the lieutenant and doctoring the patients that are convalescent.”5 Harlin also writes, “I would like to get work in the hospital, but they have to work later than anyone else some of their cases are pretty bad. I got my Farrier chevrons yesterday, a horses head. Some of the fellows who have worked in the hospital all the time are sore about it.”

In a letter dated May 5, 1918, Harlin describes the structure of the camp’s veterinary hospital: “The hospital building is cut up into two large operating rooms and the rest is made into little room for each doctor. Each doctor has so many horses to treat each day and are taken to his room just like a person.”6 Harlin continued constructing buildings for the depot during that summer; his projects included “helping build undertaking parlors for the horses,” a garage, and a blacksmith shop. In July, Harlin realized he likely would not be working with horses, writing, “It looks like I am destined to be a carpenter.”7

By summer’s end, horses and mules began to arrive at the depot in large numbers. Throughout the fall, Harlin writes about how many sick horses were in the hospital. On November 24, 1918, just weeks after the armistice, Harlin writes his sister, “…the sick horses are being discharged and killed as fast as possible.”8 In a letter to his mother during the same time period, he states that glanders, a deadly equine disease, had broken out at the nearby remount station. He claims about a hundred horses had to be killed, their bodies burned to prevent the spread of infection.9

The influenza epidemic struck Newport News in the fall of 1918, part of a worldwide pandemic. More than 5,000 reported cases among the civilian and military population of the city resulted in several hundred deaths. Luckily, Joe Harlin did not contract the flu. He writes his sister and brother-in-law, “On account of all the Flu all the windows and doors are kept open day & night as a prevenature from the flu. None of {us} have it yet. You see we are outdoors and around the stables so much that we are healthy. I ate an onion for supper tonight. The cooks gave them out as another prevenature so I ate an onion sandwich.”10

When Harlin was not on duty, he spent most of his free time visiting various landmarks throughout Hampton Roads. On multiple occasions he mentions spending the day at Buckroe Beach, as well as visiting Phoebus and Fort Monroe. In Newport News, he took the streetcar to Hilton Village where he attended programs, dances, and lectures put on by various organizations such as the YMCA, Red Cross, and Red Circle Club. Harlin wrote his mother that he attended the YMCA to take French lessons as well as to write letters and attend church.

A streetcar in Hilton Village
Joe Harlin writes of riding the streetcar to Hilton Village where he found many things to do in his free time. (MS0228.020)
A camp's reading room
Joe Harlin enjoyed going to the camps’ reading rooms where soldiers were provided free stationery to write home and a welcoming place to visit with one another. E. P. Griffith photo, ca. 1918. (MS0228.359)

Overall, Joe Harlin enjoyed his duty at Camp Hill. He writes, “…the military rules here a joke compared to {Camp} Funston, this is more like civ {civilian} life. We don’t need a pass to go in town & can come back anytime of night and then we can wear nearly anything we like, so I like this place just fine…” 11

YMCA program from May 15, 1918
This YMCA program from the John J. L. Harlin Papers lists the entertainment for an event on May 15, 1918. Harlin likely attended as he mentions visiting the local YMCA often in his letters. (MS0641.02.32.01)

Harlin remained stationed at Camp Hill until his work was discontinued on January 18, 1919. On January 27, orders were given for the 27 men assigned to the Veterinary Corps at the Animal Embarkation Depot to be honorably discharged.12 Two days later, Joe Harlin writes his sister, “I signed my discharge papers yesterday afternoon, so I’m about half way out.”13 He departed Camp Hill, returning home to Liberty, Missouri, where he died in 1989.

  1. John J. L. Harlin to Frances and Albert Willis, May 28, 1918, MS0641, box 1, folder 31, item 02, John J. L. Harlin Papers, The Mariners’ Museum.
  2. U.S. Army, Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War, Zone of the Interior: Territorial Departments Tactical Divisions, Organized in 1918 Posts, Camps, and Stations, Volume 3, Part 2, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 734.
  3. Ibid., Part 1, p. 520.
  4. John Harlin to Bridget Agnes Harlin, April 28, 1918, MS0641, box 01, folder 24, item 05.
  5. John Harlin to Sallie and Bob Willis, July 14, 1918, MS0641, box 02, folder 02, item 02.
  6. John Harlin to Bridget Agnes Harlin, May 5, 1918, MS0641, box 01, folder 26, item 01.
  7. John Harlin to Bridget Agnes Harlin, July 21, 1918, MS0641, box 02, folder 03, item 02.
  8. John Harlin to Sallie and Bob Willis, November 24, 1918, MS0641, box 02, folder 17, item 04.
  9. John Harlin to Bridget Agnes Harlin, November 28, 1918, MS0641, box 02, folder 17, item 05.
  10. John Harlin to Sallie and Bob Willis, October 8, 1918, MSO0641, box 02, folder 14, item 02.
  11. John Harlin to Frances and Albert Willis, May 28, 1918, MSO0641, box 01, folder 31, item 02.
  12. Special Order No. 27 for Animal Embarkation Depot No. 301. H. Clay M. Supplee, Lieutenant Colonel, to Veterinary Corps Detachment, January 27, 1919. MS0650, box 01, folder 01, item 01.
  13. John Harlin to Sallie and Bob Willis, January 29, 1919, MS0641, box 02, folder 25, item 04.