Four Questions for Kevin Fitzpatrick
Governors Island to host Camp Doughboy WWI weekend Sept. 16-17
By Michael Stahler
This upcoming September 16-17, Fort Jay on Governors Island, New York, will be hosting Camp Doughboy, a weekend of free events and exhibitions dedicated to commemorate the American participation in the Great War. We caught up with the organizer for the event, Kevin Fitzpatrick. Kevin is the program director of the World War One Centennial Committee for New York City. He’s also the author and editor of seven books tied to city history, including his most recent, “World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War” (Globe Pequot Press).
Could you tell us about this event?
It will be the largest WWI public exhibition on the East Coast this year. We will bring living historians and experts on the Great War to one spot for the public to meet and learn about the conflict. We expect sixty-five reenactors in uniform to represent the A.E.F. A collection of vintage vehicles is also making the ferry trip to the island: a M1917 Renault tank, Model-T ambulances, a 1918 Dodge truck, plus a 1917 motorcycle.
What I’m looking forward to seeing most on the parade ground: General Pershing on his horse. The incredible living historian David Shuey—who was in the 2016 New York Veterans Day Parade with us portraying the general—is bringing his horse Aura Lee to the island. One of the more poignant statements that came out of the war, by the cavalry, was, “We rode in on horses and rode out on tanks.” Well, we will have both. We also have some of the finest Great War authors who will be speaking and signing books, including Jeffrey Sammons, Mark Van Ells, and Mitch Yockelson.
How did the location of this event, Governors Island, have an effect on World War I? How did this event come to be in the first place?
Fort Jay was a key component for the Army and Navy in WWI. Before the war it was an airfield where some of the early combat aviators trained. Regular Army troops trained civilian volunteers and officer candidates. The first U.S. military action in WWI, when the U.S. seized German-owned steamships in New York Harbor, was carried out from Governors Island. During the war it was a vital supply depot. Last year when we were planning the first one-day WWI event, it just made sense to hold it on Governors Island. It has more WWI history and memorials than any other place in the state.
Could you describe your role in the event? How did you get involved in reenactment? Do you have a personal connection to the war or military history in general?
I’m a volunteer coordinator. There are many others on the WWI Centennial Committee for New York City, and our partners, including the United War Veterans Council, that are producing the weekend. I’ve been visiting Governors Island since it opened to the public in 2003, so I’m happy to bring new people to it.
I fell into living history and reenactment. I was already writing about the Jazz Age. My favorite historical era in New York is Prohibition, and many of the well-known names had ties to WWI. There’s a big vintage community in the region—and the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island is popular. I was invited by a friend—who is a long-time re-enactor—to get a kit together for the Veterans Day parade.
I served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, and I never thought I’d put on a uniform or march with a rifle again. But twenty-five years later I tried it, I love it, and really enjoy the hobby and re-enactor community.
How would you define the role of reenactment? Why is it important for us to commemorate history in such a way?
It’s no secret that reenactment is living history. The men and women in the reenactment community I’ve met in the last two years have just as much—or more—knowledge about the Great War than somebody with a PhD. It’s their passion.
I’ve met collectors with museum-quality displays and personal collections, along with young guys who own 100-year-old equipment. And they can authoritatively explain every knob and part of it. What’s happening is that this knowledge is being passed down, the stories and the information, to the next generation.
I believe we commemorate historical moments like WWI by telling others about it, producing exhibitions, reminding people about the sacrifices made a century ago. Some guys are dying for the next comic book movie, but there are others who are counting down the days to putting on their 100-year-old kit and marching in a parade.
Camp Doughboy is our major production, and I can’t wait for people to see it.