With the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt actively began the task of awakening the country to the danger posed by Hitler’s armies. Through 1940, he was able to persuade the Congress to pass almost $7 billion for rearmament. War in Western Europe stirred the Congress to create the Selective Service in September. By December 1940, he warned of danger ahead as he presented his vision that America become the “Arsenal of Democracy.” While armaments were one part of national defense, the training of drafted servicemen was an equal challenge. New bases were required for the estimated 1.4 million men called up for duty in February 1941, reported the Associated Press.
The Army’s 7th Corps area based in Omaha contracted the Kansas City engineering firm of Burns & McDonald for possible sites in addition to the new Fort Leonard Wood near Rolla. By June 1941, the company presented plans for its premier site south of Neosho, 6 miles wide and 9 miles long, in southern Newton and northern McDonald counties. The conjunction of the Frisco and the Kansas City Southern rail lines and U.S. Highways 66 and 71 were major factors in the choice.
On June 18, the Globe reported Gen. U.S. Grant III, Fort Leonard Wood commandant, was in Neosho and Joplin discussing the benefits to the area for an army garrison near Neosho. He said the camp would be the equivalent of a city of 30,000 to 35,000 residents. Local merchants would be called upon to supply things the army could not. A second story that day reported a triangular division of light motorized equipment could be stationed there.
Camp is official
On Aug. 14, Sen. Harry Truman’s office confirmed to the Globe that the Neosho site was authorized to accommodate 17,000 men with an initial appropriation of $16.5 million. Plans called for it to be an infantry replacement center with a triangular division to be added and a signal corps replacement center. It would require 66,650 acres, which the government would purchase from landowners.
Despite the enthusiasm of business leaders for the camp, the News Herald reported farmers were indignant at prices offered for land and crops. Farmers in mid-August refused to allow survey crews to cross their property. One even threatened surveyors with a shotgun. Instead of individual negotiations, a blanket condemnation of land was the government’s alternative. Unsatisfied landowners could take their cases to federal court.
Ground was broken on Aug. 30. Condemnation of property began in September on 8,000 acres and title exams for the rest of the proposed 66,000 acre site. By mid-September, employment had reached 1,324 laborers, carpenters, electricians, cement finishers, clerical workers and numerous others. Dirt moving for roads and building sites for permanent and portable buildings was well underway. Neosho even experienced its first traffic jam as workers seeking jobs and farmers attending the weekly sales day flooded the town. The camp was officially named after Maj. Gen. Enoch Crowder, author of the Selective Service Act of 1917, on Sept. 30.
Farmers’ conflicts continued in October as orchardists said 30,000 bushels of apples were lost because they were not picked at the proper time. Of the estimated 50,000 bushels on the trees only 20,000 were salvaged for sales and vinegar. The quartermaster’s office allowed a salvage price $1,700 whereas if picked at the right time the apples would have brought $15,000.
While the camp was a beehive of activity, a civilian engineer pointed out a potential problem. The camp was traversed by a Shell Oil Co. pipeline, which crossed the infantry’s artillery impact area. Plans were quietly scrapped for a infantry replacement center. The news was not made public.
As this was going on landowners were moving off the land. Some stayed in the area, some took jobs at the camp. Others were relocated by the Farm Security Administration to other parts of the state such as Bates County.
Rain delays construction
By mid-October employment had reached 10,000 workers, close to the goal of 12,000 to complete the camp. As much as a million feet of lumber arrived a day on 50 rail cars. Some days, a record 67 rail cars were unloaded. Even though supplies and machinery were brought by rail cars, materials had to be moved to sites on new roads. That month, work came to a standstill when rain softened the ground beneath asphalted roadways making them impassable. One general on an inspection tour learned the hard way when his car became stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out by a tractor. Maj. Gen. Richard Moore adjusted the schedule adding two months to the completion deadline because of the heavy rains, pushing the date to March 1. The first week of November rain halted work for four days straight. Empire District estimated it had installed 29 miles of power lines on 1,000 poles for the camp.
On Dec. 1, Crowder officials announced the first 60 troops would arrive on Dec. 3. Within two weeks, another 931 officers and enlisted men would be housed. Two barracks and a mess hall were supplied and ready for the men. On Dec. 5, the camp was officially turned over to the signal corps, which would be trebled in size, reported the News Herald. The first signal corps officers had arrived in November. Crowder was to be used for the signal corps only with an expected number of trainees to be around 18,000 when in full operation. No longer was it to be an infantry replacement training center.
By Dec. 7, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Camp Crowder — though still under construction — had begun operations training men of the signal corps.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.