While driving back to Madison from Minneapolis in spring 2016, I made a sudden decision to revisit Camp McCoy (now Fort McCoy) located midway between Sparta and Tomah in central Wisconsin. The reason? I wondered what the place looked like now more than 65 years after my first visit there. Camp McCoy was where I did my basic and advanced military training after being drafted into the Army in January 1951, just a few months after the Korean War began. Though I had driven to and from Minneapolis any number of times since then, I never stopped at Camp McCoy because I did not think my wife Sally, and often our two daughters, would find this old military installation of much interest. But being by myself this time, I did stop for a visit. So, I turned off the Interstate at the Tomah exit, and drove west along old Highway 21 until I arrived at the entrance to what is now called Fort McCoy.
I am so glad I made the decision to revisit what I will continue to call Camp McCoy. My visit brought back a flood of memories of my six-month stay there from mid-January 1951 through early July 1951, where I received my six weeks of basic training followed by eight weeks of advanced training while serving in an artillery unit. But I also learned about the transformation of Camp McCoy to Fort McCoy; the name change occurred in 1974 when it became a permanent military installation. McCoy had a long history, being established in 1909 and used extensively in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The camp was deactivated shortly after the end of World War II in 1945. The camp was reactivated during the Korean War and again in the Gulf War. In the interim, the camp hosted a State Patrol police training center, served as a Job Corps training center in the 1970s, housed a considerable number of Cuban refugees in the early 1980s, and in recent years provided a place where Army Reserve and National Guard units came for their summer training.
Camp McCoy is located in a large saucer-like area, surrounded by a ring of low-lying hills, about halfway between Sparta and Tomah in central Wisconsin. The installation is located in the flat central area and has a triangular shape. The longest part of the triangle runs parallel to the east-west highway that parallels the camp. The other two sides angle together and meet at what might be viewed as the back end of the camp. The headquarters is located in the middle of the triangle surrounded by open space for parades and other military activities. All of the service facilities such as warehouses, repair facilities, the PX, and the like are located at the front of the camp near the railroad tracks and highway.
I had no trouble getting into the camp. All I had to do was show my identification and sign the visitor book. I was provided with a detailed map to help me find my way around the vast installation with its many different facilities and service areas. I quickly noticed that the map did not show the artillery ranges in the network of roads out in the hills surrounding the 60,000 acre installation.
I had no idea what to expect. After all, more than 65 years had elapsed since I arrived at Camp McCoy in mid-January 1951. To my surprise, I had no difficulty gaining entrance to Fort McCoy. After parking my car outside the front entrance, I was directed to the visitor’s center. After showing my driver’s license and signing a Visitor’s book, I was given a detailed map along with a pass that allowed me to traverse the entire site with the exception of the firing ranges. As I drove about, the signage made it easy to keep track of where I was.
The first thing I did was head for the barracks building where I lived from January 1951 until July 1951. I had no difficulty finding it, remembering its location adjacent to a small stream that separated our barracks from another group of barracks. Soon, I spotted my old barracks building as well as the other two barracks used by our unit. The battery office across the street housed the office of the battery commander and the First Sergeant; oddly, I remember their names, 1st Lt. Laurita and Sgt. Heaney, both World War II veterans. Behind it was a classroom building and next door was the mess hall. A bit further off the main road was the 187th Group Headquarters building, and even further back was the Bachelor Officer Quarters where single officers lived. Married officers faced much more difficulty finding housing in the small nearby towns of Tomah and Sparta.
Though the buildings look very much as they did years ago, they have all been upgraded. The asbestos shingles on the outside walls have been replaced with insulation covered by metallic siding, new roofing and gutters are in evidence, concrete foundations have replaced the open crawl spaces, and the old coal-burning furnace rooms attached to each building are gone. The modernization process continues but appears to be nearing completion. In short, the facilities appear to be in excellent shape.
When I arrived, the barracks building for our small group of Wisconsin draftees had probably been unoccupied since the end of World War II. We were moved into the second floor of the building, probably on the theory we would be warmer there than on the vacant first floor. Although the building was reasonably clean, we were challenged to get it sparkling clean and ready for the coming Saturday morning inspection. Being new and wanting to pass inspection, we went to work Friday night, cleaning the windows, scrubbing the floors, and getting the latrine clean and shipshape. What we did is what the National Guard members and the Michigan draftees had to do their barracks building when they arrived several months earlier.
What Most Impressed Me
In driving about I came upon a large outdoor display of the great variety of vehicles and armor that has been used and is currently used in military training. I was able to closely inspect everything from the familiar jeeps to 6x6 trucks, service vehicles of one kind or another, armored vehicles including tanks and troop carriers, and finally an array of artillery weapons, everything from the ancient 75 mm cannon from World War I, to the heavily used 105 mm howitzers used in World War II, and to the next generation of self-propelled and towed 155 mm guns, plus the 8-inch howitzers.
I also learned about the unique role of Fort McCoy in the training of Reserve and National Guard units. It is one of the few installations that can provide both summer and winter training environments. To be effective in doing so, it stocks the largest array of military equipment in the country. So, rather than having training units incur the costs of transporting their equipment to Fort McCoy, the base “loans” out its vast store of equipment to visiting training units. Evidence of this approach to training is quite apparent. One sees large parking lots of jeeps and trucks of various kinds as well as armored vehicles. I failed to see any heavy artillery; I suspect it is kept in the many large sheds found scattered throughout the installation.
I also came upon an NCO school (a noncommissioned officer’s school for sergeants)) that the Army found necessary to establish to manage the training and discipline required in a modern army. I would have liked to have gone into the school but decided not to do so.
I also learned a few interesting facts about Camp McCoy in World War II. At times it housed as many as 35,000 soldiers being trained for overseas deployment. But, it also housed some of the Japanese Americans who were interned during the war. And most surprising, it held a number of German but only a few Japanese prisoners of war, one of whom had been captured during the attack on Pearl Harbor. More history of the Camp McCoy was available in a tabloid newspaper handout. Back in 1951 we had no inkling of the history and importance of this military base.
One of the most interesting sights came when I visited the spacious PX located in the central area of the base. I was completely unprepared for the presence of female troops and the mixing of male and female soldiers. What a difference from early 1951. Back then, I don’t recall seeing any WACs (Women Army Corps personnel) at Camp McCoy. There was probably no need for them to be there to participate in the training of combat units, particularly artillery units. Both male and female soldiers now wear similar uniforms, the new camouflage light green clothing and for women trousers similar to those worn by men. I also noticed that everyone was dressed in fatigues, daytime attire I would suppose. The new mix of troops was also apparent when I noticed that the PX featured items that would be of interest only to female soldiers, including cosmetics, women’s clothing, and the like.
Unlike the camp’s enormous amount of activity back in 1951, there was not a whole lot of activity underway. I suspect that as summer approaches, more and more reserve and National Guard units are at the camp for their summer training. But I was struck by the contrast. No troops marching along the main roads, no long convoys taking troops and their weapons off to the artillery ranges, few if any trucks delivering foods to the mess halls, etc. I could not find out how many troops were at McCoy that month but it certainly paled in comparison with the tens of thousands to troop being trained there in early 1951 when we were engaged in a massive building up of the army to fight an unanticipated war in Korea.
Camp McCoy Memories
This visit brought back many memories of my time at Camp McCoy. One was the beauty of the setting. Most of my fellow soldiers were more focused on their back-home wives and girlfriends , all the while voicing the typical complaints about a soldier’s life. Being completely unattached, I could enjoy the place and the invigorating life we were leading.
I greatly enjoyed the physical training we experienced as well as the long 10 and 20 mile marches we did to toughen us up. Usually, we carried our full packs and carbines with us. These hikes took us off into the surrounding woods and the numerous small streams that flowed through the camp area. As the weather got warmer, we often went on field exercises which meant moving the entire battery off into a wooded area where we camped for several days as if we were readying ourselves to confront a not too distant enemy force. This was another important part of our training.
I must say I enjoyed our training, both the inside training on a wide variety of topics and the more invigorating outside training. Our group of draftees was trained by a senior sergeant named Steen. He did an excellent job of training us for those fourteen weeks. Moreover, he was kind, low-keyed fellow who treated us with respect and with no signs of favoritism.
I have several distinct memories. One was the cold weather we experienced in our first two weeks at Camp McCoy. A cold wave swept into Wisconsin and particularly the state’s mid-section that included Camp McCoy. One night the temperature dropped to -53 degrees; for an entire week we trained indoors because the temperature never rose above -20 degrees. For more details, see my essay “Drafted into the Korean War January 11, 1954.”
As winter waned, we experienced the beauty of the surrounding countryside during our frequent ten to twenty mile conditioning hikes, overnight field operations, and periodic assignments to direct and observe from secure concrete bunkers the accuracy of fire from our artillery battalions. The area was beautiful in the spring when melting snow filled the small streams, the wild flowers bloomed, and migrating birds passed through the area. By this time we were all in good physical conditions after a daily regime of calisthenics, including situps, pushups, and pullups, along with brisk walking and running exercises, plus those 20 mile marches. The food was ample and quite good.
One of the saddest days came when several officers and a number of the National Guard enlisted me were sent off to Korea. The rest of us all felt lucky we were not being sent along with them. All I knew about them came from a chance meeting in a New York bar a year later when I ran into two senior sergeants who returned unscathed and were happy to be back with their families and friends. When these guys left, I remember somebody telling me that if my orders for Korea came up, I should be sure to mention my typing skills, something that almost certainly would keep me out of combat.
One by-product of their leaving was my appointment as the battery’s TI&E (Troop Information and Education) specialist, replacing a sergeant who was shipped out to Korea. I think I was moved up to this position, in part because I was one of the relatively few college graduates and was known to have majored in economics and international relations. I don’t recall much about my duties except to remember speaking to my fellow soldiers while out on a field exercise. The subject of that talk: Why we were fighting in Korea, illustrated with a fairly large map of Korea pinned onto a nearby tree, with the birds singing in the background. I wish I had a picture. We all had to take our turn at KP, night guard duty, helping to "police" the outside area around our barracks every morning, and so on. Not glamorous stuff but interesting nonetheless.
Among the most memorable days at Camp McCoy was the celebration of Armed Forces Day, May 16, 1951. Thousands of us soldiers and our officers were assembled by 8 a.m, augmented by dozens of trucks, tanks, and artillery, on a large dusty field to the west of our barracks in preparation for an inspection and review by the Commanding General from Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago. It was an extremely hot day, the field where we assembled was dry, and when we marched to our place in the parade line-up, we were enveloped in a vast cloud of dust. When the parade began, even more dust was generated. We were all perspiring when the review began, even more so as we marched. While passing the reviewing stand, we were issued an "eyes right" command. More than a few guys passed out before the parade began and others collapsed during the review. Medics and ambulances followed to deal with these fellows.
Perhaps the most electrifying moment occurred when President Truman announced the surprising dismissal of General Macarthur from command of the fighting force in Korea. What to make of that action was difficult for us to comprehend until the details of Macarthur’s behavior were revealed.
That sums up a report on my 65 years later return visit to Camp McCoy. More details can be found in my essay, “Drafted for the Korean War January 11, 1951: My reflections.”
After I completed my tour of Ft. McCoy, I drove over to Sparta to see what the town looked like; actually, it looked rather prosperous. The same was true of Tomah, the location of a large VA Hospital. Then, I headed back to Madison, glad I decided to visit my old Camp McCoy and full of pleasant memories about the six months I spent there.
About the Author
At age 92 I decided to showcase my recent and current writings on a variety of topics outside of my career interests as an economist. My wife Sally’s dementia, my experiences of war, and my interests in improving higher education all compel me to write.
For most of the last decade I maintained a low profile, necessitated by my wife Sally's suffering from a decade-long siege of vascular dementia. After she passed away several years ago I wrote about our experience, in the belief that this would be helpful to the many others who suffer from dementia and their family caregivers. I am currently seeking a publisher for my book manuscript: The Forgotten: Dementia and the Right to Die.
Over the past few years I began working on several other writing projects that are described more fully elsewhere in my blog. These include a nearly-completed book manuscript on my "expected proficiencies approach to the college major'' as a vehicle for reinvigorating liberal education. I continue to write on the shortcomings of UW-Madison's affirmative action policies and programs that over the years have been renamed "diversity and inclusion" policies and programs.
Within two weeks of my graduation from UW-Madison in June 1950, the Korean War broke out. I was drafted and expected to be sent to Korea to join our fighting forces there. But instead I was sent to Turkey for 18 months. How lucky I was. I am also writing a memoir of my Korean War military experience when I served as an U.S. Army adviser in our military aid program in Turkey.
Until I began branching out beyond economics, I failed to realize what a profound effect the Great Depression and World War II had on me as I grew up. I have already captured some of these recollections, with more of them to follow.
With that introduction, I turn you over to my blog entries as well as my other writing projects described more fully elsewhere in my blog. Best wishes ~ W. Lee Hansen
Dear Friends: I want you to have an opportunity to sign up to receive my periodic postings. Instructions for doing so will be coming soon.
Award-winning author W. Lee Hansen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Full bio.