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World War II Camps - Introduction

In response to the German army's invasion of continental Europe, the United States quickened mobilizing for war in June 1940. Through legislation supported by President Roosevelt, Congress appropriated over a billion dollars for the construction of munitions plants, seacoast defenses, and rifle manufacturing. In addition, the monies were used to implement a program of construction that created facilities to house a new and expanded army. Before the G.I.'s could fight abroad, they had to be housed and trained in the continental United States. The building program began in earnest in the fall and, responding to current military events, rapidly surged forward.

In fall 1939, the army consisted of little more than 200,000 men, a number that, while relatively small, nevertheless strained the War Department's housing capacity. By November 1944, however, the army was able to provide adequate housing for over 6 million troops in the United States alone. While a small proportion were billeted in tents, most of these troops were lodged, fed, and supplied in more than thirty thousand "temporary" wooden buildings, nearly all of them constructed in a few short years. Only 270,000 out of the total 6 million troops were lodged in buildings labeled "permanent." Altogether, by the close of the war the nation had witnessed a program of military construction which had few parallels in world history.

The prevailing army plan for mobilization -- the Protective Mobilization Plan of 1938 -- envisioned little actual construction. It called for an initial force of 400,000 men, which would subsequently be increased to 1 million within eight months of mobilization day. The troops would be housed in existing facilities and tents only for the initial mobilization. Shortly thereafter, they would be sent overseas to complete their training, thereby vacating the facilities for new troops. How could the army justify the construction of cantonment structures when the only existing mobilization plan did not require them?

The German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the consequent beginning of World War I1 sparked U.S. military construction. On September 8, 1939, Roosevelt proclaimed a limited national emergency. Among other measures of defense preparation, this executive order expanded the army from 210,000 to 227,000 soldiers and increased the national guard by 100,000 troops. At first, these new troops were housed in tents, but the army quickly decided to provide "temporary shelter" for them. Consequently, the 700 Series was implemented. Army memos indicate that the construction division began building 700 Series barracks at various camps that fall.

The roots of the 700 Series go back to 1928, when the General Staff granted permission to the Quartermaster Corps to update the World War I cantonment drawings. A few rough sketches gained G-4's approval early in 1929, but this was only a tentative beginning. Based on the 600 Series plans of World War I. As eventually built, the 700 and 800 Series designs reflected the technological improvements achieved over the subsequent years. Indoor barrack lavatories replaced separate latrines and bath houses, central heating replaced stoves, iron pipes replaced wood staves, and garages replaced the outdated stables. While structural evolutions since World War I mandated some changes in appearance, the overall domestic look and scale was retained with six-over-six double-hung windows, wood-drop siding, and two-story height.

With German armies on the English Channel, the housing expectations of the Protective Mobilization Plan had to be totally reevaluated. Suddenly, the European option was no longer viable. With France gone, England had major problems housing soldiers from several European countries in addition to their own soldiers. There was little room to train American troops. Thus, unexpectedly, the War Department faced a new situation that required a new type of barrack. For the first time, it had to accommodate a huge standing army that would remain in the domestic U.S. for an indefinite period.

Not only did troops stationed indefinitely in the United States require better accommodations than did troops on a brief stopover on their way overseas, but also increased public expectations as to what constituted decent and healthy facilities played a part in reassessing the design of army accommodations. The rise in the standard of living since World War I, in spite of the depression, and the million concerned mothers raising their voices in the public sphere were determinative factors in the shifting conceptions of acceptable army housing during this period. This meant that the structures would be well-heated, well-lit, and well-insulated. They would have indoor plumbing and they would be solidly constructed and built to last for a number of years. It should be pointed out that permanent construction was not a consideration.

Peacetime mobilization was still a novelty in the American experience; therefore no one envisioned that the new army would be permanent. Thus, the buildings would be temporary--built to last five to twenty years. When the war was over the army would disband down to its professional core, as it had done after other wars. Indeed, as will be explored below, one of the criticisms of the 800 Series was that it was "too permanent." Yet at the same time, no longer could citizen-soldiers be housed in rough canvas tents quickly thrown up in a vacant field, or in warehouses converted to dormitories.

The War Department envisioned that the cantonments would be built on 125-man company blocks. Each company unit would contain two 63-man barracks (the housing capacity of the basic Plan No. 700- 1165) with inside lavatories, one mess hall, one recreation building, and one supply building. For extensions of the camp, the directive ordered that more 63-man barracks be added and the mess hall capacity in each company unit increased. In areas in which the winter temperature rarely dipped below twenty degrees -- mostly in the deep south -- tents were the preferred housing option, though this still required wood-frame construction as well as wooden mess and administration faci1ities.

Facilities would be needed to accommodate 700,000 men as of February 1941, as well as 400,000 more that would be arriving between April and June. Due to the haste and the timing involved, there were problems with supply, with contracting, with labor, and with administration. the number of men employed on military construction projects rose from 5,380 in July 1940 to 396,255 in January 1941.

An ideal site for a camp was located on flat, well-drained but solid land that was cheap and easily obtainable but still close to centers of population and transportation and with a ready and bounteous water supply. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, the Construction Division faced building at sites that fell far short of this ideal. For instance, the site for Camp Blanding was pushed through by enthusiastic members of the Florida National Guard, who picked a beautiful, lush spot, covered with vines and palmettos, right next to sparkling Kingsley Lake in central Florida. When the constructing quartermasters began work, they discovered less attractive aspects: large patches of swampland and heavily timbered areas requiring extensive clearing. Other selected camp sites had similar problems. The weather during winter 1940-41 posed another, more serious, problem which affected nearly all of the construction sites. Construction in inclement weather would be difficult in any year but by all accounts that winter was "abnormally severe."

By the time a camp was considered complete, it not only had the appearance of an army camp, it also maintained many of the conveniences and functions of a city. In his annual report of 1941, Secretary of War Stimson noted: "A program of housing involving the construction of over 40 veritable cities qualified to receive populations running from a minimum of 10,000 to a maximum of over 60,000 inhabitants and containing all the necessary utilities and conveniences including recreation buildings, theaters, service clubs, chapels, athletic areas, hospitals, bakeries, laundries and cold storage plants, was camed through on time and with a minimum of hardship to the troops."

Focusing exclusively on the immediate crisis, the army built its mobilization structures with the expectation that they would be "temporary," lasting from five to twenty years. Nearly forty-five years later, however, an army inventory in March 1985 showed that nearly 24,000 of these "temporary" World War II buildings were still standing and that a large but undetermined number were still in use. While the existence of these buildings testifies to the soundness of army construction, their condition nevertheless deteriorated in subsequent years.

For forty years thereafter , millions of American "citizen-soldiers" passed through these buildings on their way to the battlefields of Western Europe, the South Pacific, Korea, and Vietnam. These structures loom large in the memories of millions of present-day Americans, for whom military service was a central, formative experience. From the perspective of social history -- which documents the historical experiences of "ordinary" individuals or "the masses" -- these simple structures are as historically important as any mansion. From the perspective of architectural history, the war mobilization buildings are significant for their design, construction and technological innovation. Techniques such as the standardization of plans, prefabrication of units, and assembly-line approach to construction were largely pioneered in the construction of these mobilization structures.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:45:03 ZULU