The following are excerpts of letters written by Ward C. Griffing after being  inducted into the infantry during WWI .  His Army group was assigned to Nitro WV, to guard the new explosives plant that was mostly completed.  Only excerpts about Nitro and WV are reprinted here.  To see his entire experience, click here.

December 11, 1918
Fort Riley Kansas

Dear Folks,

Well, Willis, you might as well tell Mr. Hays to hand over that dollar because I will be about fifteen hundred miles away from home at Christmas.

Monday the Captain said ... we would likely go to Nitro, West Virginia sometime this week. I didn’t want to write you folks about it until we were ready to entrain. I was afraid it might be another of those false reports. However, we began to pack up yesterday so there isn’t any doubt but what we are going. 

Our job will be to guard the Hercules Powder Plant. He said it would be a ticklish job because the miners and munitions workers there didn’t like the soldiers. He said that if we went hunting for trouble, we could sure find it. There are tons and tons of high explosives stored there too so they will be mighty strict about what kind of a guard we put up. This place Nitro is about 15 miles north of Charleston, which is quite a large city and is connected to Nitro by trolley.

The Captain said they are going to keep 12 army divisions in the U.S. besides the men in Europe. Things are a long ways from settled and now South America is trying to start something.

 We didn’t drill yesterday but hung around the barracks all day expecting to go sometime before night, but we didn’t. Today we learned why. We went out to drill this morning & the Captain gave us a talk about our conduct on the trip. He said that he wanted to create a good impression in Charleston West Virginia & that everyone was to conduct himself accordingly. He said he didn’t care how much the men drank if they kept out of sight when they got drunk & he didn’t care how much they swore if they did it under their breath, but he didn’t want any loud yelling, etc.

Lieutenant Boone said that we were to guard the Hercules Powder Plant. You have heard of it, haven’t you? It is about 15 miles north of Charleston, West Virginia & is connected to that city by trolly so we will have easy access to amusements.  We are to guard tons & tons of very high explosives which in itself calls for strict attention to duty. They have wooden barracks there similar to these but it will not be a crowded place like this because only two companies, E & F, are going.

Nitro, West Virginia
January 27, 1919
Nitro is about 14 or 15 miles west of Charleston. It is a very large plant & somewhere around 50,000 people are employed here. The most of them live in little cottages near the plant. There are rows & rows of them all alike & stained brown. It looks as tho half the people employed here were women. Anyway, lots of girls are going past the barracks nearly all the time. There is a small street near the barracks on which is a market, grocery store, barber shop, restaurant & a few other shops.



Not much of a place & no places of amusement although I think there is some kind of a moving picture show about a mile down the road east. They have dances about every other night at a school house somewhere near but I wasn’t enough interested to look it up. Guard duty here may get tiresome after awhile but it looks pretty nice now after the drill we had at [Camp] Funston. I think there will be enough excitement with the roughnecks to keep us from going stale.

The country around here is awfully rough. They say we are among the foothills of the Alleghenies but these hills here wouldn’t do for mountains at all. I think I will climb around a little tomorrow. All the hills are timbered & are not used for anything so far as I can see.

It is raining now. It has been cloudy all day and raining part of this afternoon and evening. This is the kind of weather we will have most of the winter – slush and mud. If it is a little depressing outside, it is fairly nice inside compared to [Camp] Funston. We drew sheets and pillow slips today so we think we are getting pretty stylish. The inside walls of these barracks are covered with this beaver boarding and are painted white. The woodwork is stained brown and the outside is painted like our barn so it is a lot nicer place than Funston in that respect. We are still eating out of our mess kits but I think we will have dishes when we get better settled.

Our company went on guard today. We go on one day and [Company] F goes on the next. It only takes about fifty men all together for a guard so I don’t believe a fellow will have to go on oftener than once a week. We probably won’t have much to do besides guard because I doubt if we can find a level piece of ground big enough to drill on. The country around here is awfully rough. They say the hills are the foothills of the Alleghenies but they are much in the way of mountains. They are covered with oak and pine.

Nitro is about 14 or 15 miles north of Charleston. It is a large plant and employs around 50,000 people – both women and men. Lots of them are quitting now and part of the plant has shut down. The employees live in little cottages. There are rows and rows of them, stained brown and all alike.


I am on guard at Area “N” & as it is a four-hour post, I thought I would pass away the time writing letters. I can do this so long as the officer of the day or the officer of the guard doesn’t come around. I am in a sentry box about twelve or fifteen feet up in the air right over a high wire fence which surrounds this area.

From here I can see along the fence & stop anyone who has no business in the magazine. I also have to make a patrol around some of the powder storage houses to see that there are no fires.

I saw a rather good picture last night, “The Hoosier School Master.” Perhaps you have read the book. I have. I go to the show nearly every night as that is about the only thing to do.

From my sentry box here I can look over to the Kanawha River where a steam boat passes once in awhile. Piled out on the ground inside the fence are tons & tons of cotton. It is used somehow in the manufacture of explosives.

One of our posts is guarding a safe in one of the office buildings. The room is full of girls & of all the kidding you ever heard in your life, that beats it. A fellow on guard is not supposed to talk except in the line of duty but there is one place where duty & desire conflict & duty is usually the loser. I was on guard at the door of the ordinance building last time with orders to allow no one to pass without a badge or a pass. Two girls who work in there came up & wanted by but swore by all that was holy that they didn’t have any passes. I knew they did so I stood with my rifle across the door & wouldn’t let them in. Well, they kept fooling around trying to slip by till I finally let one thru & then they showed their passes. They were the craziest girls I ever saw. Most of the girls here would rather go with the soldiers than the civilians.

We have been having some of the prettiest winter weather lately that anyone could wish for. The natives say however that it is not usually quite so warm this time of year. One can go around in the afternoon in perfect comfort in his shirt sleeves although we are not allowed to except around the barracks. If it wasn’t so muddy, I would ramble all over the hills here but the mud takes some of the joy out of walking.


 I tell you... going on a basketball trip beats standing guard at night all hollow.

We walked in & had to hurry & get ready to catch the river ferry up to St. Albans across the river. We finally got there because as someone said, that boat could meet a snail but it surely couldn’t catch one.

We finally found the St. Albans school house, “ Yo’alls jest foller up yander & yo’alls will see it.” The court was awfully small – far smaller than the one we had been playing on so they had the advantage but we beat them. Actually that was the roughest & dirtiest & hardest fought game I believe I ever saw. Score 15 to 14. The score shows that to be a fact. After the game, we caught the ferry again & got into camp about 11:30. We didn’t eat any supper before the game so of course we went to bed supperless. I had just gotten to sleep about 12:30 when one of the players came & woke me up & said that we were to get up before six o’clock the next morning & go on another trip.

Well, we got up about five thirty & woke a fellow to drive us down to the ferry landing in the Ford truck. It was too early for breakfast, so we lightened our belts & smoked cigarettes. The Lieutenant’s wife went along with him this time. She is an awful nice little lady. We woke up the ferry man & crawled up to St. Albans again & took the Interurban to Charleston. We didn’t have time to eat at Charleston but had to take a train out of there for the place where we were to play – a mining town away off in the mountains about 75 miles named Eccles (Raleigh County, West Virginia).

Well, that train went a little faster than the ferry but its speed was well under 75 miles per hour. The trip was very interesting & pretty even if we were hungry, tired & sleepy. There were lots of tunnels, cliffs, trestles & deep valleys. The hills were covered with pine & great tall spruce & oak. Lots of places the grass was green & ferns & holly were thick. It was very pretty even now in winter; I would certainly like to see it in summer. If I don’t look out tho maybe I will see too much of it in summer.

While nature was beautiful you couldn’t say that for man. I wouldn’t live the way most of those folks do for anything in the world. Life there may not be as bad as it looked but the looks are far from imposing. I saw a cornfield that looked ready to slide off the mountain onto the track & I asked one of the boys how they farmed up there. He said, “Oh! They shoot the seed up there in the spring with a shotgun & then let the snow bring down the corn in the winter.”

We reached our destination about two o’clock & was taken to the hotel. “I reckon as how I ken put yo’alls up.” So we cleaned up & finally sat down to supper, breakfast & dinner all rolled together into a tough beefsteak. The town was in three or four parts – each part on the top of a [different] hill. The principle industries of the city were mining, loafing & railroading. It happened to be the junction of two [rail]roads – one down in the valley & the other way up the mountain. The coal mine, however, was the thing.

We were shown the hall where we were to play & then hung around the barber shop below awaiting our turns & listening to the wonderful tales of gunplay & fistfights. To hear them talk you might think that they were hard boiled but they didn’t take the trouble to molest us soldiers at least.

We don’t usually eat before playing but we were still hungry & knew we couldn’t get anything after the game so we went back to the hotel & ate a light supper. Soldiers were quite an attraction in that town. The girls in the hotel got all ready & hung around trying to talk their heads off. They turned down the fellows who asked them to go with them & hung around watching us eat supper & when we got up they “wondered who all was going with them.” Well, we all didn’t ask them so I guess they must have gone alone.

Well, those miner lads certainly had the goods on us. They beat us 18 to 43, but they played a clean & sporty game – lots better than the St. Albans team. We couldn’t start the game until after the [picture] show so we could get a crowd, so it was about eleven when we finished. We were one tired bunch when we went to bed that night & we didn’t get up until about nine o’clock Sunday morning. We decided to go back on the other [rail]road as it left at 10:30. We ate breakfast & climbed up the mountain to the station.

The trip home was very slow but we enjoyed it. We stopped at every coal mine along the road & they were about five miles apart. It resembled an interurban more than anything else. Part of the way we followed a mountain river & I wish I could describe it but I can’t. Anyway, it was very pretty. We reached St. Albans about dusk & again enjoyed our speedy trip on the ferry. When I reached the barracks, I got some clean clothes, took a bath & went to bed & the next thing I knew I realized that I was still in the army because the old bugle was “I can’t get ‘em up, I can’t get ‘em up, etc.”


An amusing incident happened at the barracks the other evening. Just over one of the pool tables is a knot hole in the floor & some of the fellows in the squad room upstairs kept dropping stuff down on the table & bothering the players. One of the players jumped up on the table & held his cue ready & when he saw an eye at the knot hole, he jammed it thru. It hit a man right square in the eye. One of the men upstairs was looking down & he saw the man with the cue but another pushed him away & said, “Let me see.” He saw alright. We felt sorry for him alright but we would have had to laughed if it had killed him. He went over to the infirmary & had it dressed. He said, “I wouldn’t have cared only it was my best eye.” One of his eyes is a little crossed. It will hurt him for some time but I don’t believe he will lose it. He is marked “quarters” & doesn’t have to stand guard. I have been in [the service] about five months now & have never been marked “quarters” nor even gone on sick report.

If I am in another month, I suppose I will be entitled to a stripe. If you get home and are ever over to our house, you can see the company roster which I sent to the folks.

The sentry on Box # 15 came down & we sneaked a little visit. Anyone to see or talk to helps to pass the time wonderfully when you are on guard. If you wish to find out how much fun guarding is, just borrow Mr. Parkerson’s shot gun, fasten a belt around your waist, go up to the schoolhouse at nine o’clock tonight & walk around it until one in the morning. It will be lots of fun & you will wish you were in the army & could stay in all summer.

This morning we took a hike thru a part of the plant called Area “M” which we have just taken over to guard and where new posts are posted. They took us thru these to show us the posts. They are mounted posts. The rider is armed with a Colt 45 and rides 4 hours and is off eight. This part of the plant is to be used for the storage of a certain kind of acid, which is a very high explosive. New posts are being added nearly all the time as the U.S. Guards are being discharged. It takes over sixty privates to form a guard now so one man only misses one guard. When some of us are discharged, the rest may have to go on every time we mount guard. I am glad I am not one to be left.

It has been rather cold here lately and Sunday it snowed. I was on guard Saturday but I had the post that is in one of the office buildings guarding a safe so I wasn’t out in the cold at all. The fellows that had to ride for four hours got pretty cold, I tell you.

The “Y.W.C.A.” girls gave a valentine party last Thursday night. We had a pretty good time, but believe me, a fellow doing guard duty in this place earns and deserves all the fun he can find.

We went on guard this morning with 36 men besides the non-coms. If that is all they need all the time, it looks as tho we would have it rather easy here because 36 doesn’t come very often in 500, but we may have to use more later, I don’t know. They got in a wagon & were hauled away off in the brush somewhere so it looks as tho we only guarded the outskirts of the plant & the U.S. Guards guard the interior. Those U.S. Guards are a sort of semi-military organization but don’t belong to the army at all. I shouldn’t wonder but what us soldiers and the guards will have a row before we get out of here because they don’t look good to me.  I expect we will tangle up with them before we get out of here because they are pretty blamed stuck up and believe me, these regular army men don’t like to take anything off anybody.

Say, Willis, we can be satisfied with the place where we are farming because it compares mighty good with some of the places where people are trying to farm down here and on the road down here. Some places it looks as tho they would have to prop a stalk of corn up with a rock to keep it from sliding down hill. There would be a little patch of ground on a side hill with a rail fence around it and a few shocks of fodder in it. I suppose it must have been tended with a hoe and cut by hand. I saw some pretty nice farms but I saw lots of land that wasn’t fit for anything – rough and hilly, or swampy.

We haven’t drilled since we have been here, I expect for the simple reason that there isn’t a piece of ground large enough that isn’t nearly upside down. We have a little of the manual of arms in the forenoon and usually some little job like making cinder walks, etc., and then aside from policing up, that is all we do. But even if it is easy, it will get awful tiresome because the weather is so bad. We stay inside nearly all the time.

I believe I said that about 50,000 people worked here. Well, that was a mistake. When the plant was running, 25,000 was the most ever employed, but now there aren’t more than about 5 or 6 thousand. The plant, when everything is finished, is liable to be taken over by some corporation for manufacturing purposes and then, of course, they will not need any guards here any longer.

 I went on guard at 10 o’clock A.M. and got off this forenoon. I found out that it doesn’t always rain here – sometimes it snows. Yesterday afternoon it started snowing and snowed off and on all night with the wind blowing from the N.W. It got pretty cold on the two night watches. We had to go way off up a ravine and guard what they call the “proving grounds.” It is where they make tests with cannon using the different ammunition. There was a lot of shells and powder stored there.

 * The "Proving Grounds" where black powder was tested by firing it with a cannon was located in Rock Branch Hollow north of Nitro. The road that winds up this hollow is now named "Limeberger Creek."

It's my guess that due to the lay of the land, the firing range is outlined below:

We were paid Friday & as our Company’s basketball team had a game with Charleston, anyone who was not on duty could get a pass to Charleston until Sunday or Monday. Of course nearly everyone wanted a chance to spend all his money as quickly as he could so several of us went down to see the game & take in the city too. I went with a fellow called Nick Sousen. He & I left on the 2:30 P. M. train. We walked up town, had some barber work done, shopped a little, & then went to a picture show. After that, we walked around town a little & then got supper. It seemed good to order what you wanted to eat once more. We went to the game at 8:00 and saw our team get whalloped. Charleston went over, under, around & thru our team – score 17 to 40. We had lots of fun at the game tho. There were about a dozen of us 20th men sitting together & we weren’t afraid to say most anything we could think of but that didn’t help win.

After the game, Nick & I fell in with a company of other E Company men. They were happy-go-lucky, don’t-give-a-damn sort, so we sure had a time. We didn’t want to go to a good hotel & spend our month’s wages all in one night, so we set out to hunt a rooming house. We found a place down town where we could all four sleep in the same room. It wasn’t a very nice place but we didn’t care a bit. We thot it was fun. Well, it wasn’t very late so we went out & ate another supper & fooled around on the streets some more.

The other day our Captain announced that after the 16th, this plant would be turned over to the Ordinance Department & that the guards employed here would be discharged. So we will have double the amount of guarding to do after that – one guard every four days. That won’t be very bad tho because there is no drill whatever. I would just as soon drill part of the day because when a fellow is idle, he hunts mischief because it is so monotonous.

I am sending you something. I don’t know what they call it but I can tell from the looks of it what they do with it. I haven’t been around folks enough lately to notice whether it is used or not but the girl said it was alright. I am afraid it is not very nice but I got the best I could find in Charleston's three department stores.


There are not nearly so many people here now owing to the fact they have closed the Y.M.C.A. We could occupy our time over there while it was open. Some of the pool tables were free to soldiers in the afternoon & also the bowling alley, but now we can’t. The movie theater opened to us soldiers last night so there will be one place to go. The Hercules Powder Company gave their farewell dance last Monday night & I don’t know whether there will be any more or not but I think there will.

Well, today the Hercules Powder Company turns the plant over to the Ordinance Department and we have to mount a double guard and take the place of the guards (hired by the Hercules P.C.) who are being discharged. This makes us go on every four days. That is practically all we do. Except for the time when we are on guard it is easy.

Nitro, West Virginia
Tuesday February 18, 1919

We had our physical examinations about a week ago, which they always give before discharging. One sergeant came down with appendicitis shortly after and two other fellows came down with the mumps so we are to be re-examined tomorrow. I guess they thot it wasn’t thorough enough. I would hate to have to go to the hospital for anything now that my discharge is so near.

The other day I turned in my equipment and extra clothing – all but my rifle and belt, so it looks as tho I would be getting out of here in the course of a week.

 * The book, "Nitro, the WWI Boom Town," describes a “sizeable interior police force called the Nitro Guards (later, the “U.S. Guards”) consisting of 11 officers, 305 guards and 90 mounted patrolmen. They patrolled the streets of Nitro and the plant area day and night, manned regular posts, and generally handled all police matters.”

    * “The most identifying characteristic of early Nitro was its hundreds of brown stained look-alike houses all arranged in neat straight evenly spaced rows.” Source: Nitro, the WWI Boom Town, p. 64

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