Hoboken Nickels Marked Soldiers' Last Days in U.S.
By Tom Culhane of Union, New Jersey
as published in Numismatic News "Letters" dated October 5, 2010
Over the last few years, I occasionally noticed newspaper articles announcing the death of one of the last WWI veterans. About six years ago, Alfred Pugh, the last combat-wounded WWI American soldier, passed away at the advanced age of 108.
Back in February 2008, Henry Landis, an Army recruit for two months at the war's end who hadn't served overseas, also died at 108, having been one of the last two WWI veterans. Thus, Frank Buckles, 107 at the time, became the final U.S. WWI vet still living. Buckles had enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1917 and served as an ambulance driver in France. Amazingly, he also survived three years as a Japanese prisoner of war after being captured in 1941 while employed as a civilian with a Philippine shipping company.
More than three million of the WWI veterans who served overseas passed through my town of birth, Hoboken, NJ, which was the prime port of embarkation for the American Expeditionary Forces. Almost 300,000 troops also departed from Newport News, VA, while other port cities such as Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia primarily shipped military equipment and supplies.
At the turn of the 20th century, Hoboken was known by the nickname of "Little Bremen" because of its large German immigrant population. The German-American piers of the Hamburg-American line and North German Lloyd shipping were taken over by the Federal Government to free up the Hoboken waterfront for troop movements. All the German ships docked in Hoboken, and other American ports, were taken over by the U.S. government. They converted these ships for our use if they hadn't been too severely damaged at the last minute by the German crews on board. A total of 91 merchant ships were seized throughout the country. The Germans in Hoboken were taken into custody and sent to internment camps until the end of the war, as were the crews of the 91 seized ships.
The mile square city of Hoboken is just north of Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan and is recognized as the birthplace of baseball and Frank Sinatra. Hoboken had a total of 237 bars, which did not include all the back house social clubs serving liquor.
President Woodrow Wilson several different times bade farewell to the departing troops from the balcony of the Clam Broth House as they boarded transport ships at the pier right across the street. Movie fans can likely recall a mental image of the city from the acclaimed 1954 movie, "On the Waterfront." It was on the Jersey City waterfront on July 30, 1916, that the Black Tom Explosion occurred, which was blamed on Germans and $50 million in reparations after the war were awarded in 1939 and paid in 1979.
The doughboys of WWI drilled at places throughout the county much like Camp Merritt, NJ, in parts of what is now Tenafly, Cresskill, Bergenfield and Dumont before being transported by train to Hoboken to ship out. It was the last bit of liberty many of the U.S. servicemen would enjoy and a good many stopped at one or more of those 237 bars.
Oftentimes, to pass the down time in military camps, many of the soldiers had picked up the popular hobby of carving designs into the new Buffalo nickels and, while appreciated today by a wide number of collectors as novelties and folk art, the nickels were considered debased and worthless as money. Nickel carving was just a small segment of what can be classified as trench art. It was somewhat of a harmless prank the soldiers pulled for a laugh on various bartenders to pass the nickels that often featured a rendition of the Kaiser or some other alteration.
Even into the 1950s and early 1960s, some of the bar owners kept a mug full of the carved nickels behind the bar as a lesson to watch the money they were handling. Back in the late teens when the soldiers were crowding into the Hoboken bars, the owners were expected to keep the carved coins and accept the loss, yet a good number managed to get turned back to customers, usually New Yorkers who had taken the ferry over and may have had a few too many to notice the altered coins.
While disappointed bar owners might wind up with 40 or 50 carved nickels in a week, as it was very unlikely to find any aficionados of these folk art pieces, it became commonplace for the "unsporting" bar owners or bartenders afraid of being blamed for taking the coins to pass them on to tipsy out of town New Yorkers. This happened to enough drinkers that New York newspapers warned their readers to be wary of getting stuck with a handful of the then infamous Hoboken nickels. The joking soldiers enjoyed their final days in the U.S. enough that eventually the Federal Government attempted to close all the bars in the waterfront city and bring prohibition to Hoboken.
As the First World War progressed, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive began on Sept. 26, 1918. This attack on the German lines lasted 47 days - America's longest battle up to that point in history. During the assault, General Pershing promised the troops that by Christmas they would be in heaven, hell or Hoboken!
Many of those troops did not live to return to Hoboken, such as Matthew Juan, an under-draft-age rodeo performer who enlisted. Being a Native American, he would have been exempt at the time as they were not considered American citizens. Although he survived the sinking of his ship by a German sub, he still wound up as the first Native American, as well as the first soldier from Arizona, to be killed in the war.
Of the more than two million soldiers who did return to Hoboken, a good many did manage to start their celebrations back in those same bars with some newly carved nickels for old time's sake.
It was a somber day in Hoboken on May 23, 1921, when President Warren G. Harding addressed the crowds to witness the return of 5,212 bodies of American soldiers, sailors, marines and nurses for burial. In an age before most people had radio the president's speech recorded and Victor Record sales throughout the country let Americans hear the respectful words he spoke at this most solemn occasion. All proceeds of the record sales were donated to the American Red Cross. Most in the Hoboken crowd wore a poppy sent from France on the ship as a symbol of the deceased heroes.
While today's collectors like to refer to carved nickels as Hobo nickels and associate them with the Depression of the 1930s, there was an earlier group of men we should remember and honor who had a few laughs with their Hoboken nickels before going off to fight the Great War.