Memories of Camp Crowder continue to fade as the people here at that time age and pass away. Our son, Mike, brought home a book titled "The Enemy Among Us" by David Fiedler from Fenton, Mo. It is an account of prisoner of war camps in Missouri. In the Camp Crowder chapter, Kay Hively's "Red Hot and Dusty: Tales of Camp Crowder," published in 1983, was quoted extensively. A good part of this article is from these two sources. Larry James' 2008 book "From Camp Crowder to Crowder College," is another excellent source of information with many pictures from the era.
With war clouds rising, new military camps were being established across the nation. Congressman Dewey Short was successful in landing a camp for Southwest Missouri. In May 1941, six men arrived in Neosho to begin the process. Within days, nine field survey crews were at work. In August, a federal court gave the go-ahead for the government to take the first 8,900 acres needed for the camp. Those living in the areas designated for construction were given 10 days to clear out. Many thought that prices paid for the land acquired through eminent domain were unfair. Most of the land went for $50 an acre or less. Farmers displaced took a beating trying to dispose of livestock and equipment. A spread in LIFE magazine brought national publicity to the area. Much of the coverage at that time was negative, portraying local people as isolationists, hard headed and ungrateful for the $0 million gift horse.
At its peak in early 1942, over 20,000 workers were on the job. The pay scale was from 80 cents to $1.50 an hour, with time and a half for overtime. As the population of Neosho exploded to 40,000, workers rented every conceivable space, even barns and chicken houses. A bus line transported workers from Joplin. Traffic and mud were ongoing problems. Nothing was allowed to slow the progress. I recall George Henry telling about spending his time ripping 1 by 12-inch boards with a handsaw into two 1 by 6-inch planks. The first troops arrived Dec. 2, just five days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Incredibly, the camp was completed in only 10 months.
Camp Crowder was an Army Signal Corps training center. The camp also housed a training and breeding center for pigeons. The pigeons were used extensively in communication within the camp. Members of the Women's Army Corps (WACs) arrived in November 1942. The troop count at Crowder averaged about 40,000, and some 300,000 passed through the center during the war. To recount the impact the camp had on Neosho and the many acts of kindness extended to the GIs by local folks would require a large book.
In October 1943, Crowder began receiving prisoners of war (POWs). The motto of the military escort guard was to "treat prisoners as you would wish to have our soldiers treated." Prisoners at Crowder enjoyed considerable freedom, but the camp commander would put his foot down when circumstances warranted. They worked effectively in many areas of the camp. Various inspection parties, including the Red Cross, viewed the Crowder POW camp as a model operation. Unseen were occasions when Nazi leaders tried to intimidate their fellow prisoners. Troublemakers were shipped out to camps with more rigorous controls.
Page 2 of 2 - Incidents of mischief among the prisoners were minor. On one occasion, prisoners were discovered climbing a ladder to observe WACs in their second floor shower. Escapes were rare. A pair caught in McDonald County found confinement preferable to the ticks and chiggers encountered on the lam. Another outfitted himself with a GI uniform taken from supply, but was caught immediately wearing a WAC cap. From February through May 1946, prisoners were shipped out. Each POW was given a military payment order for funds earned at 80 cents a day through the prison work program, which could be cashed when they arrived home.
The impact of establishing Camp Crowder was matched by its closing. Many of the 1,600 buildings and much of the equipment was acquired by area colleges and universities. My first dormitory at the University of Arkansas probably was an old Crowder barracks. Ann and I were married in a former Crowder chapel. This beautiful building became Brightwater United Methodist Church (just north of Rogers, Ark.) following a tornado in the late 1940s which destroyed the existing church. Pigeons were sold in pairs, but after a year, the 12,000 remaining were given away.
Roy Shaver writes a weekly column for the Daily News.