by Tom Poland
February 20, 2013
One night talking to a stranger in a tavern so far South it’s not Southern at all, he asked me where I lived.
“Columbia, South Carolina,” I replied.
“Went through basic training there,” he said. “Fort Jackson. It’s the hottest place I’ve been. Hell on Earth.”
The guy had street cred. He lived in Florida’s belly, close to Orlando. He wasn’t far from the truth either. Heat rains down on Fort Jackson, and mugginess steams up from ancient sands. Too far from the Atlantic to catch sea breezes and too flat to enjoy alpine air, Columbia bakes.
Motorists passing through miss the heat a lot more. Columbia, South Carolina, is one of but ten cities with three interstates threaded through it. Heading south, I-77 flirts with Columbia’s eastern edge. This stretch of interstate sits midway between New York City and Miami; just to their east sits the country’s largest basic training center, Fort Jackson.
The famous and the unknown, the driven and drifters, have bonded at Fort Jackson with singular purpose: preserving freedom. Fort Jackson trains half the country’s soldiers in basic combat training, about 45,000 a year. This coming together of men, women, and machines in peace and war makes a fort a breeding ground for history. While the fort’s mainstream history—key dates and events—are documented, the colorful fragments and minutiae hidden in the fort’s great heap of days require a bit of effort.
I find myself drumming up clichés … Bugle calls at sunrise, synchronized boots, the crumpled concussions of artillery, and drill instructors barking out commands. Think of a bustling military establishment, and you don’t envision old family cemeteries, archeological sites, endangered species, time capsules, TIME magazine, and tragedies and plagues. Yet all these are part of Fort Jackson’s fabric. You’d never give the flagpole at headquarters’ much thought. A gift from New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, it stood at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York City. And that is but one jewel of the life, liberty, and lore flowing from this ancient-but-militarized seabed.
Karma attends the land where the fort sits, a sandy region of old river deposits and primordial ocean floor. The porous, absorbent soil here does not change into mud after heavy rain, a good thing. Once part of Colonel Wade Hampton’s estate, the land, it seems, was destined for military use and fated to bear Andrew Jackson’s name to whom Hampton was an aide at the Battle of New Orleans.
1916 … a cold January rain falls as military and civilian planners climb a sandy knoll overlooking pineland six miles east of Columbia. The planners’ mission is crucial to the War Department: evaluating a site for a US Army training center. The site is good, and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce raises $59,000 to turn the Hampton Estate over to the government.
On June 2, 1917, a new Army training center was established to train fighting men in the early, ominous days of World War I. This installation would become the largest and most active of its kind in the world. Hardaway Contracting Company of Columbus, Georgia, won the award to build the Sixth National Army Cantonment, to be named Camp Jackson. In six months, Hardaway built a city of 1,519 buildings that included theaters, stores, kitchens, barracks, officers’ quarters, training facilities, stables, warehouses, garages, an airfield, roads, bridges, railroads, a reservoir and water lines, sewers, wells, heating plants, and a laundry. Overnight, Camp Jackson changed from a sandy, pine and scrub oak forest to a thriving Army training center, complete with a trolley line and10,000 men. Two years later, Camp Jackson would boast the country’s largest government-operated laundry.
On 21 November 1917, a meningitis epidemic broke out. By December 11, 12 persons had died and the camp’s labor force deserted en masse. Troops worked tirelessly in subfreezing temperatures to finish essential work. Then influenza struck. By the time the plague ran its course, 300 had died. On the morning of May 10, 1918, three cars of a troop train left the tracks as it started across the trestle where the railroad entered Camp Jackson. Nine soldiers died.
Corporal Freddie Stowers of Sandy Spring, South Carolina, the grandson of a slave, was the only black Medal of Honor recipient from World War I. Two bursts from German machineguns hit Stowers as he led a battered squadron in an assault on Côte 188, a tall, heavily defended hill overlooking a farm near Ardeuil, France.
Some men achieved fame for their civilian accomplishments. One hot night, two lieutenants, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce, walked back to their barrack discussing “a paper” they would found. They wanted to dispel some of the ignorance they saw in many of their fellow recruits. From that discussion came TIME magazine.
The early years saw growth and accomplishment, the end of World War I, and then nothing. Camp Jackson was abandoned April 25, 1922 pursuant to General Orders No. 33, War Department. The roads disintegrated, and pine and scrub oaks reclaimed the ancient seabed.
In November 1939, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg swept across Europe. In July 1940, Camp Jackson became Fort Jackson and trespass rights were acquired on 265,000 acres in Richland, Fairfield, and Kershaw Counties for military maneuvers. It was the largest block of property ever handled in one single transaction in South Carolina at the time. Of the 2,000 landowners, 1,300 lived in Richland County.
Men poured into the fort and tanks arrived. A half million Americans received some part of their training at Fort Jackson during World War II. Some men blazed their way into history as members of the 4th Division, one of the first to hit the beaches of France. Many were boys who grew into men at Fort Jackson. Sixty-three years after World War II, you cannot stand in a World War II barrack and not be humbled. The wood flooring of Building 4408 seems beleaguered. It’s worn. Armies literally passed over these original pine floors, up at reveille to form up.
A Ghostly Presence
For those within earshot of the fort, the sounds of men forming up have long floated through early morning air. James Dickey described fort mornings for Esquire in 1981. “The dock from which I sight the noon and the moon is on the west bank of a famed lake on the other side of which is Fort Jackson, a basic training installation which is among the largest in the world. With daybreak each day comes the sound of firing, of voices marching in unison, of bugles, of militaristic hymns, as though coming from a ghostly takeover army waiting for the day.”
The soldiers marching in unison, learning warfare and takoever are a major part of history, and celebrities and world leaders have rightfully come to pay homage to them. Betty Grable, Life cover girl, came. So did Bob Hope. On June 24, 1942, Winston Churchill stepped from a train at Fort Jackson. Watching the thousands of recruits undergoing training, Mr. Churchill said “they’re just like money in the bank.” General Jimmy Doolittle came to Fort Jackson in 1992 and 1993. President Roosevelt twice visited the fort. President George W. Bush delivered a 20-minute speech, opening his remarks with a loud “hooah,” that familiar Army sentiment conveying “can do” or “good job.”
A Blend Of Old & New
The fort’s training techniques and equipment are the latest. Still, you can’t change history without the past having a firm hold on you. There’s a relic—what looks like a huge stone on a sturdy pedestal near the fort’s museum. It’s a remnant of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen—the last standing span over the Rhine during World War II. Said General Eisenhower, “the bridge is worth its weight in gold.”
American soldiers captured the bridge March 7, 1945, and the psychological advantage of having crossed the Rhine in force in pursuit of fleeing Wehrmacht troops bolstered Allied forces’ morale while destroying the Germans’. On March 17, 1945 the bridge collapsed, killing twenty-eight American soldiers. The chunk at the fort museum weighs 900 pounds, worth $6,500,000 today according to Eisenhower’s quote.
The fort conducts operations on many fronts. Its Environmental & Natural Resources Division manages more than 50,000 acres of forest, endangered plant species, and habitat for the red cockaded woodpecker. It oversees old family cemeteries and several archeological sites.
A time capsule lies at the foot of the Jackson Statue at the fort’s main entrance. Eight years from now, the capsule will be opened. The contents should prove insightful as to how fast time passes. In the early years, horses were common at the fort. In fact, about 800 horses stampeded and destroyed a number of themselves. Today, the fort is holding hydrogen power trials as the nation looks to lessen it dependence on the horsepower oil provides.
Today’s fort is a hustling, bustling place, and yet it maintains a sharp focus on its mission: training 50 percent of all new Army personnel, as well as all Army drill sergeants, all the chaplains in the Armed Forces, and certain Navy personnel.
Fort Jackson is a far-flung, complex institution that far transcends what was envisioned for Camp Jackson. Those planners who stood atop a sandy knoll back in 1916 would be amazed to see what they wrought.
Perhaps some of you trained there. Perhaps you, too, feel it is Hell on earth, the hottest place around. Perhaps you trained with friends here who are no longer with us. Perhaps you harbor emotions not so easily explained. A fort is always attended by a multitude of perhaps …
One thing is certain. Fort Jackson remains the only army base in the United States within a city, and a hot city it is come summer—the kind of city where you can train an army for most anything. Vietnam, the Middle East, most anywhere. Many motorists speeding along I-77 won’t know that, however, unless they happen to spot the signs, unless they went through basic training here. They, then, will remember those days.
They will recall that this is the place where “at daybreak each day comes the sound of firing, of voices marching in unison, of bugles, of militaristic hymns, as though coming from a ghostly takeover army waiting for the day.”
Tom Poland is the author of six books and more than 700 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press just released his book on how the blues became the shag, Save The Last Dance For Me. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture.