Cantonments: What the heck were they?
The Footfalls of History
When I began writing Pearl Harbor’s Final Warning, I kept coming across the word “Cantonment.” I also had a W-2 from a cantonment. My step-grandmother, Nina Street, had worked at the canteen at a cantonment. And my mother, when she drove a black-out jeep to pick up money to wire to the mainland, had mentioned driving to cantonments. I was able to discern from the context that they were temporary work camps and for the purposes of the book, let it go at that. But what were they, really?
The word cantonment came from a French word, “canton” that means a corner or district. In the military, the word was used to describe a military camp of sorts. In India, the British used the term to describe a permanent military base. So by the time the term worked its way into the American lexicon in 1941, cantonment meant something along the lines of a substantial but temporary encampment for both military and civilians.
I located a great report entitled, “Historic Context Study of Historic Military Family Housing in Hawaii that was prepared for the Commander, Pacific Division Naval Facilities, Engineers Command Pearl Harbor , Hawaii prepared by Mason Architects, Inc. (Why do military reports always have such long titles?) And it sucked me down the research worm hole.
The report describes cantonments as temporary billets made of wooden structures. I guess sleeping in a building was preferable to sleeping in a tent. They contained barracks for enlisted as well as officers, and support buildings. Some were built within Fort Shafter. As World War II brought more men to the islands, cantonments were constructed to house civilian work crews as well as the military. Temporary wooden buildings were hastily built on any open space in military posts and bases to handle the massive build up troops. If there weren’t enough berths, men lived in tents. Blue prints for one and two story barracks were standard. To me, the cantonment units looked very much like detention centers that sprung up across America after the war began.
Another report, World War II Temporary Military Buildings, by John S. Garner published in 1993,  offered more clarification. Large construction firms built them for cost plus a fee, rather than submitting competitive bids in order to save time. Most cantonments cost about 5 million to construct. By late 1941, “more than a million soldiers have been housed by the Construction Division. They are better housed, better fed, and in cleaner, more sanitary, more comfortable training camps than those of any other army in the world, or any army in history for that matter,”Colonel Somervell boasted in his report.
Because of a manpower shortage, there were few skilled carpenters, so framing was simplified to make it easier for unskilled laborers. Stock doors and windows expedited assembly, and fewer nails per connection were hammered into place. All material was pre-delivered to the site which included millions of board feet of lumber, rolls of roofing and kegs of nails. Concrete mixed in the trucks as they drove to the sight. Laminated trusses came into being.
Then the Quonset hut, patterned after the Nissen huts of WWI, took construction by
storm. They could be raised in one day by an eight-man crew. Men could manually lift the sections of precut corrugated galvanized iron and affix them to arched steel ribs spaced four feet on-center. The only wood used in the hut was for window and door sills and partition walls. I can attest to the durability of these structures. Our family of six, lived in one while awaiting officers’ quarters in Alameda, California in 1965. Wind rattled the sheet metal making it impossible to sleep. We smoldered in the heat and were ice cubes in the winter. And I will always remember the smell—image living in a tin can. Base quarters never looked so good when we finally were able to move. It was all part of life as a Navy brat. Later I discovered that my father-in-law lived in one while serving in the Aleutians! Wood had to be imported to keep the stove stoked 24/7. God help the men if the shipment didn’t arrive.
So now I have a new appreciation for cantonments. And now I know that I actually lived in the remnants of two. Not only had I “camped” in a Quonset hut as a teen, I also resided in a stick-built unit when my husband and I lived in married student housing at San Francisco State in 1967. The sixteen unit two-story building consisted of two bedroom units clustered in groups of four. They were temporary naval housing,no doubt moved from a cantonment. Neither exists today, and it’s a good thing. The walls were paper thin.
Picture of quanset hut from the two reports listed above.Picture of cantonment from google images.