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Camp Blanding

 

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Camp Blanding: The War Years

By Jim Ashton 1996

The establishment of a small National Guard Post on the forested banks of Kingsley Lake in 1939, is an example of an aptly timed, albeit humble commencement, for a soon valuable commodity. This young post's uses during this period include service as a training site for a multitude of units, a basic training complex for the Infantry, and a Prisoner of War Camp. The contributions of Camp Blanding, Florida, under-publicized as they may be, were significant to the war effort.

The new reservation drew its title from Lt. Gen. Albert H. Blanding. In 1894, Blanding graduated from East Florida Seminary, now the University of Florida, and embarked on his career of military service. Blanding gained promotion to Colonel in 1909, and took command of Florida's 2nd Infantry. He directed this unit during the Mexican Border service in 1916 and 1917. Gen. Blanding later commanded the 53rd Brigade, 27th Division, during World War I, and finally headed the 31st Division until his retirement in 1940.

The construction of the new facility to bear his name, began in the latter half of 1939 following the conversion of Camp Clifford R. Foster in Jacksonville, formerly Camp Joseph E Johnson, from a National Guard Post into the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Soon thereafter, a handful of Jacksonville residents united to form and Air Base Committee.

This fund raising body drew the responsibility for securing $400,000 to help finance construction of a replacement facility in the city's vicinity. It is unlikely that they realized in just a few short years this site would be the largest Infantry Replacement Training Center in the U.S. Army. Nor could they know that the 31st Infantry Division, the first of nine Divisions to make use of the facility, would begin training at the post in just over a year.

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The original dimensions of the post were 28,200 acres, however, this bloomed into a sprawling site in excess of 170,000 acres following the federalization of the post in 1940. Thus, the once tiny station suddenly became the second largest training site in the nation in terms of physical size.

Brig. Gen. Vivian B. Collins, Florida National Guard, selected a 27,000 acre tract in Clay county on Kingsley Lake. When the plans were drawn up, the layout was modest.

At this point, the War Department initiated a rapid construction wave in 1941, resulting in the establishment of 10,000 new buildings. Still, the ballooning population of the Post far out paced the process of construction, and by 1942, there were some 60,000 troops quartered at the site. In conjunction with this development, construction estimates soared from the Guard Post, to $27.5 million for this federalized facility.

A shortage of quality labor to aid the process of construction presented a problem to contractors charged with this task. In response, one such company initiated a plan placing novice builders next to more experienced workers, thus allowing the former to learn from the latter. After the company organized this system, a standard mess hall could be cut to size in the lumber yard in 10 minutes, and erected in the field in 25 minutes.

In a short time, Camp Blanding included 125 miles of paved roads, in excess of one million square yards of motor parking areas, eighty one miles of water lines, twenty six and a half miles of railroad, and over two hundred fifty miles of electrical wiring. More important, the reservation boasted a highly advanced artillery range, and top notch rifle, anti-aircraft, mortar and grenade ranges. Paralleling the development on the Post, was the rapid building taking place outside the gates. State Road #230, which was only partially complete by the end of the war, was a four lane road under construction to provide access to Camp Blanding's west gate. Meanwhile, towns like Starke mushroomed with the influx of military, and support personnel. Perhaps most noteworthy was the development of "Boomtown" along State Road #16, just outside of Camp Blanding.

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This series of bars, bordellos and temporary housing for workers, lined the exterior of the Post, and primarily consisted of small trailers. However, several less conventional building materials, including packing crates, were used to build many of the makeshift structures. As earlier noted, the original Division to utilize Camp Blanding was the 31st, later to be redesignated the 31st Infantry Division. This unit stayed at the Post from December 22, 1940 through February 22, 1942, taking time out to participate in the Louisiana and Carolina Maneuvers during the stay. The 31st was a National Guard unit from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and carried the nickname, "Dixie Darlings". The Post design allowed for the concurrent training of two full Infantry Divisions, and soon the 43rd Division also found itself quartered at the Post. The arrival of the 43rd Infantry Division on March 13, 1941 marked the beginning of a fierce regional rivalry on the young Post. The 43rd, like the 31st, was a National Guard unit, but unlike its cohabitant, it was not a southern entity. Instead, it drew its constituency from Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The two commonly exchanged insults across the newly designated Mason-Dixon line. This imaginary boundary extended across the parade ground, now the Post airfield, and divided the two combative camps.

To fuel the fire, the four major avenues running concentric to Kingsley Lake, drew the names Alabama, Connecticut, Florida and Maine respectively. Furthermore, the streets running perpendicular, drew the titles from places located in the two rival regions.

An amusing side note is that some of the southern soldiers of the 31st with Cajun ancestry, became particularly abusive verbally, feeling that the Yankees, at the brunt of the remarks, did not understand what was being said. However, they neglected to factor in the fact that many of the northern troops of the 43rd, were French-Canadian, and not only understood, but could return the gesture in kind!

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Both the 31st and the 43rd, originally called up for a one year active service obligation, quickly learned of an indefinite service extension following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December, 1941. Once the troops arrived in Camp Blanding, they found a highly demanding training environment. The sand was ankle deep in most places, and to circumvent this, the companies had to construct wooden "duck-walks" or paths to walk in. This meant that the only place to conduct close order drill was on the paved main streets. Moreover, the only framed buildings in the area served as Company headquarters, thus the troops lived in pyramidal tents during their stay.

The troops often drew hole-laden canvas, and this was hung over a previously constructed wooden frame. These pyramidal tents quartered twelve men and were equipped with wood or coal burning stoves, usually located in the center of the tent. Not surprisingly, more lavish quarters for General Officers were erected, including the two story Post Commander's home, that still overlooks Kingsley Lake to this day. This building is now known as Quarters 1, and is the residence of the Adjutant General when he resides on Post.

The time spent at Camp Blanding was essentially like an extended Basic Training for the 31st, 43rd and each of the seven other Divisions that followed. They spent much of their time out on maneuvers, at the firing ranges, and conducting long marches. Initially, they started out with five mile adventures, but soon worked up to longer distances. Often they took the fifteen to twenty mile trek to Keystone Heights, camping out overnight on the nearby reservation and then returning back to Camp the following day. Troops coming out of Basic Training, which at the time was conducted elsewhere, filtered into the Divisions during their stay at Camp Blanding. However, it was not uncommon for these Divisions, especially the early arriving units, to actually loose personnel during their stay. The explanation of this trend is fairly simple. Essentially, the Army looked to these now "experienced" soldiers as cadre in the training of greener troops in newly established units.. Moreover, others were enrolled in military schools and attended such things as

Officer Candidate School, NCO development courses and other specialty courses. Regardless of where they were redistributed, many of these troops would not return to their original units. The 31st & 43rd Divisions both eventually made their way to the Pacific Theater, and did not return to the United States until late 1945. These were the only two of the nine Divisions to train at Camp Blanding which did not go to war in the European Theater. The Divisions following the originals were subject to essentially the same rigors as their predecessors, although the length of time spent on the Post was generally shorter.

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Following the departure of the initial Divisions earlier in the month, the 36th Infantry Division relocated from Camp Bowie, Texas, on February 19, The 1st Infantry Division, as it would be redesignated while at Camp Blanding, would follow on February 21st. The 36th was a Texas National Guard Division, while the 1st was a Regular Army unit. In fact, the latter was the only Regular Army Division to train at the Post in preparation for World War II.

The 1st Infantry Division left Camp Blanding on May 21, 1942 and moved quickly enough to participate in the assault on Northern Africa in November. The 36th Infantry Division stayed until early July, and did not leave the U.S. until the early stages of 1943. This Division also went to North Africa, and later participated in the assault into Salerno, Italy.

The 79th, a Reserve Division, spent August of 1942 on Post and shared the facility with the 29th Infantry Division, a National Guard Division from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The latter arrived at Camp Blanding on August 15, 1942 and stayed until September 19th. Each of these units bounced around in the United States for over a year before moving over to England and taking part in the landing at Normandy. The 29th assisted the 1st Infantry Division in the assault at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The 30th Infantry Division, a National Guard unit from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, arrived on October 6, 1942 and stayed until May 1943. This Division, like the 29th and 79th, spent in excess of a year stateside before shipping off for a date with the coast of Normandy in France.

In addition to the nine Divisions training at Camp Blanding, a substantial number of smaller units utilized the facility as well. Perhaps most noteworthy among these is the 45th Engineer General Service Regiment Colored), and the 97th Engineer General Service Regiment (Colored). African-Americans, who at the time were segregated from their white counterparts, comprised the entirety of each of these units. The 45th moved on to Africa, and eventually participated in the construction of the Lido Road in India. Meanwhile, the 97th spent time in Alaska constructing part of the Alaskan-Canadian, (ALCAN), Highway before moving on to New Guinea.

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Incomplete records make it difficult to estimate the exact number of African-Americans who trained on the Post, however, it is safe to say that a definite presence existed during the World War II era. Moreover, it is possible that a Colored training regiment(s) existed at the Infantry Replacement Training Center during its years of operation. Unfortunately, lack of documentation precludes verification of this. The earlier alluded to "Infantry Replacement Training Center", established in 1943, was to become the largest of eight such sites in the U.S. Army. This center included some eleven regiments, ranging in nomenclature from the 60th to the 70th, with a peak capacity of approximately 60,000 men. Soldiers did their basic Training here, then were shipped out to fill slots in Divisions that were deployed overseas, to fill up their ranks due to war casualty losses. Another contribution of Camp Blanding includes the use of the facility as a Prisoner of War camp. Nearly 378,000 German POW's reached American soil, and Florida became one of forty-five states that quartered these soldiers. Camp Blanding, due to its rural and isolated nature, was an ideal place for such a site, and it became the main POW base in Florida.

During the summer of 1942, the first German prisoners arrived, however, this group consisted not of soldiers, but rather a number of German civilians who were living in Latin America. These not so fortunate few were interned and brought to the United States as enemy aliens. At Camp Blanding they were separated by sex. Interned without trial, they had been transported to Florida against their will, forced to wear fatigues with the letters "E.A." (Enemy Alien), and left to camp out in the hills of northern Florida, with little assurance of what the future held for them. Mixed within this group were sixteen Jews, who received the same treatment as the most ardent Fascist sympathizers. These original prisoners were soon moved on to more permanent facilities in Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina. A new site, approximately one mile from where the internees resided, took in the first wave of German military personnel.

On September 24, 1942, fourteen prisoners off German U-boats arrived, and soon this number grew to two hundred-sixteen. In November of 1943, the German Army personnel began arriving and were housed in a separate compound about a half mile from its Naval counterpart. The former was one of only four Naval internment facilities in the United States.

Approximately 1,000 prisoners found themselves incarcerated in the Army compound at Camp Blanding, and the Post administered for eleven original, and an eventual fifteen branch camps. These held between 250 and 300 men, thus totaling nearly 3,000 prisoners collectively. The final chapter of the war era saw the Post become an Army Separation Center, serving much of the southeastern United States. Here soldiers completed their paperwork before being discharged, and shipping home. The end of federalization meant a return of a now 30,000 acre Post to the State of Florida, thus drawing to a close, Camp Blanding's role in the WWII effort.

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WORKS CITED

  • Billinger, Jr., Robert D. "With the Wehrmacht in Florida: The German Facility at Camp Blanding" Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 27,pp. 160-173
  • Cooper Jr., Ralph W. and Frisbee IV, S. L. "The Genesis of Camp Blanding", an unpublished essay.
  • Stanton, Shelby L., "The Order of Battle" Presidio press. Novato, CA 1984. Florida Dept. of Military Affairs: Special Archives Publication. Document #65, 1988.
  • Towers, Frank W., "Notes from Interview", February 1996.

Contact

For further information, Contact:

Camp Blanding Museum & Historical Associates
5629 SR #16 W
Starke FL 32091

904-682-3196
E-Mail: CBMuseum@aol.com

Web Site: campblanding-museum.org

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Updated August 22, 2000