If there is one Army character known around the world, it is Beetle Bailey, the comic strip soldier who managed to avoid work almost as often as he found trouble. The comic strip debuted with King Features in 1950 and in those postwar years struck a chord with the readers of the comics. At the time of Mort Walker's death, Beetle Bailey was one of the longest running comic strips. The character and Camp Swampy, the Army post where Beetle has served for decades, is a part of Missouri history.
To understand the connection, a little history lesson is necessary.
Some of the earliest settlers who came to this corner of the state built their lives and livelihoods on land south of Neosho, Missouri. Their fertile farms and abundant orchards provided a living as they raised both crops and children. All of that changed in 1941 when the United States Army decided to build a new post in the area, drawn by the access to abundant water, both the Kansas City Southern and Frisco railroads and two major highways, Highway 71 running north and south and Highway 60 traveling east and west.
Those families were displaced and ground was broken for Camp Crowder on August 30, 1941.
Construction moved at a rapid pace and what was once farmland was transformed into a city more than eight times larger than Neosho.
The first troops arrived on December 2, 1941 - less than a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II.
Named for Missouri born General Enoch Crowder, who is best known for constructing the draft during World War I. He was also the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army from 1911 until 1923. Camp Crowder eventually became Fort Crowder and existed from 1941 until 1958.
Although Camp Crowder was named for General Crowder, the post would be best remembered by it's nickname - Camp Swampy.
In the Ozarks, it often rains and when it did, things became soggy at Camp Crowder, so much so that the men stationed on post called it "Camp Swampy". That name might have been long forgotten except for the imagination and talent of one soldier who was stationed at Camp Crowder. That was Mort Walker.
Walker, a native of El Dorado, Kansas, was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served four years. For a short time, he was stationed at Camp Crowder. After he returned to civilian life, he finished his interrupted college education at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In 1950, he launched Beetle Bailey and the rest is history.
Before the strip, however, Beetle first appeared in one-time cameo as a college student but Walker soon made him Private Beetle Bailey. The strip launched in 1950. Eventually, through King Features Syndicate, it ran in 1.800 newspapers in more than 50 countries with a readership of 200 million daily.
Walker died in 2018 but Beetle Bailey continues.
In Neosho, a community college, Crowder College, exists on part of what was an Army base. There is still a Missouri National Guard post adjacent to the campus where soldiers still train and in the vicinity, a number of the local industries are located in the Crowder Industrial Park.
In its heyday the real Camp Swampy's population hit 40.000, dwarfing Neosho with a 1940 population of just over 5,000.
For those who wonder how large Camp Crowder was, there were 17 Post Exchanges, five movie theaters showing first run movies, 16 chapels and chaplains, the largest laundry facility in the Army, a 3 service clubs, a post office, a weekly newspaper, radio broadcasts and a field house that could seat 5,000.
A small museum on the Crowder campus today holds memorabilia from the Army years.
As the nation observes Veterans Day and honors those who have served in the Armed Forces, it's interesting to note that Beetle Bailey hailed from Missouri and that Camp Swampy was, once upon a time, a real place in Neosho, Missouri.