SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – On March 25, 1919, 20,000 men of the New York National Guard’s 27th Division owned the streets of Manhattan.
Two million people turned out to see the division march five miles up Fifth Avenue after the soldiers came home from World War I.
City officials estimated Manhattan’s population grew by 500,000 as people came from upstate New York and surrounding states to see the parade.
There were 10,000 policemen on duty – 6,000 regular cops and 4,000 reserves – to control the crowds.
Five hundred plainclothes detectives were scattered throughout the crowd to look out for trouble.
There was a special grandstand for 500 Civil War veterans and another for 1,000 Spanish-American War soldiers.
6,820 wounded soldiers and sailors who had been convalescing in New York City hospitals lined the parade route.
The parade route’s official start at Washington Square featured a massive white victory arch that featured four balloons floating above the road and white pillars lining the route.
An arch at 60th Street was covered with crystal glass.
Searchlights illuminated the structures at night.
There was also an “Alter to the Heroic Dead” in front of the New York Public Library.
“Fifth Avenue is decked for the triumphal return of “New York’s Own” as never before in the history of a street that has throbbed to the tread of countless marchers,” a reporter for the New York Tribune wrote.
With the exception of New York’s 69th and 369th Infantry Regiments, the New York Guardsmen who fought in World War I fought as part of the 27th Division.
The division combined units from New York City with Soldiers from the major upstate cities – Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Albany – along with men from Central New York farms and the Adirondacks.
The 27th Division fought under British Command and at the end of September 2018 it attacked and helped break through the German Hindenburg Line, hastening the end of the war.
On March 5, 1919, the transport Leviathan, a German ocean liner confiscated by the U.S. government, sailed into New York Harbor with 13,000 Soldiers onboard, 10,000 from the 27th Division.
Over the next few days, more troops showed up on other ships. The Biltmore Hotel became division headquarters and troops were at Camp Dix, New Jersey, and Camp Upton on Long Island.
The Mayor’s Committee of Welcome planned a two-day party for the 27th Division troops.
Day one involved feeding as many soldiers as possible in the city’s hotels and restaurants and providing free tickets to shows and concerts.
Day two was the tremendous parade up Fifth Avenue on March 25.
On March 24, the men were moved by train and ferry into New York.
They marched from the train stations and ferry terminals through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the Bronx – in smaller local versions of the big parade to come – to the massive state armories where they spent the night.
At least half a million people watched the 106th Infantry march to their armory through Brooklyn.
“The troops were bombarded with by confetti, small flags, and flowers as they passed in review,” the New York Tribune wrote.
On March 25, the weather was clear and warm.
At 10 a.m. the parade kicked off.
New York City mounted police led the way followed by a caisson – a wagon used to carry artillery ammunition – carrying flowers and a wreath to salute the 1,986 division Soldiers who died in the war.
Behind the caisson a team of soldiers marched with a massive banner with a gold star on it for each division soldier who had died in France and Belgium.
At the memorial to the division’s dead in front of the Public Library, things stopped while the Civil War and Spanish American War veterans lifted a wreath from the caisson and laid it on the alter.
Then they sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Next came the division’s wounded men ferried in 400 cars.
There were three to five men in each car, which were driven by female Red Cross workers.
“The crowds along the line threw cigarettes and candy into their automobiles, and every now and then from some window would come an orange, an apple, and in a few isolated instances a piece of cake,” the New York Times recorded.
When it was time for the troops to move out, Sgt. Reider Waaler, a member of the 105th Machine Gun Battalion who had been awarded the Medal of Honor, cut a “silken cord” and Major General John O’Ryan moved out at the front of his division on horseback.
The Guardsmen marched in half-battalion formations stretching across the avenue.
They wore their tin-plate helmets – painted green with the division patch on the front – and carried their weapons with bayonets fixed.
They carried “light packs,” a gas mask slung at their side and their web belt with a canteen.
“A finer appearing and a more clean-cut body of young men New York has never honored,” the New York Times wrote.
O’Ryan was followed by his headquarters company and then the two Infantry Brigades, the machine gun battalions and the artillery units.
A detachment of Australian troops marched behind the headquarters company.
Their inclusion was a reference to the fact that the Americans and Australians had fought side-by-side in France and Belgium.
Also in the parade was a detachment of Red Cross “girls” who marched with their “cocoa cannons,” according to the New York Sun.
The “cocoa cannons” were mobile field kitchens the women had used to make and serve hot chocolate to the soldiers overseas.
Despite the 10,000 police officers, the crowds got out of control between 20th and 28th Street and swarmed onto Fifth Avenue, the Sun reported.
As a result the troops, instead of parading in a company front of 18 soldiers abreast, were squeezed down to squad size.
At another section of the route, “babies just able to walk were trampled upon.” And the police “manhandled women” and treated onlookers so badly that “they refused in thousands of cases to applaud as the heroes of the Twenty-seventh marched by,” the Sun reporter wrote.
The police reported that 32 people were injured during the parade and that there were two deaths.
A police officer suffered a heart attack and a man fell from a rooftop while trying to get a better viewing place.
At the reviewing stand in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Governor Al Smith, Mayor John F. Hylan, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the salutes of passing soldiers for three hours.
The focus of the New York City crowd was on the Guardsmen from the city, but there were enough Upstate New York residents to raise a ruckus when the 108th Infantry Regiment marched past, the New York Times reported.
“‘There’s Rochester!’ ‘Hurrah for Buffalo!’ and ‘Three cheers for Utica!’ were exclamations that indicated the origin of the boys who fought under the colors of the 108th,” the Times reporter wrote.
He also noted that there were plenty of cheers for Brooklyn’s 106th Infantry Regiment as well.
But the biggest cheers came for the 107th Regiment, which has been the National Guard’s 7th Regiment, with soldiers from other Manhattan units as well.
“Each company of the 107th got a reception all its own,” the New York Times recorded. “Somebody in every block knew somebody, it seemed, in every unit of the regiment.”
Meanwhile, four Army airplanes and one “naval hydroplane” circled above the parade
At the end of the route the troops were directed onto trains and subways and started back to the city armories or Camp Upton.
On March 26 all the men of the 27th Division were back at Camp Upton.
By the end of the first week of April 1919, they were out of uniform, discharged from the Army and the New York National Guard.