Fort Leonard Wood was not the only large U.S. Army base built in southern Missouri as World War II loomed. On May 15, 1941, while Fort Wood was nearing completion, the Army announced plans to construct another training center 150 miles away in Newton County. The installation would encompass about 43,000 acres south of Neosho and cost about $22 million.
As was the case with construction of Fort Leonard Wood, many local residents were displaced from their homes, although no sizeable communities were wiped entirely off the face of the map, as was the case with Bloodland in Pulaski County. In Newton County, the main complaint came from farmers who felt they were not paid enough for their land. A parade planned in connection with the groundbreaking ceremony in August of 1941 was canceled partly because of rumors of a counter-demonstration to be staged by dissatisfied farmers.
The groundbreaking ceremony itself had to be rescheduled several times because of an inability of the Army Quartermaster Corps, the engineering and constructions firms in charge of the project, and the Neosho Ad Club and other civic groups to agree on a date. Part of the holdup involved a futile effort to recruit U.S. senator Harry S Truman as a guest speaker for the event. The Neosho civic groups finally pulled out of the ceremony altogether, and the groundbreaking was held August 30, 1941, without Senator Truman.
Original plans called for the Newton County installation to be used as an infantry training center. An urgent need for Signal Corps personnel and the fact that a Shell Oil pipeline cut across a proposed artillery area turned it into a Signal Corp Replacement Training Center. It was expected to house about 18,000 soldiers, but at its peak during the war, the base was home to over 45,000 service members. Over 350 buildings went up during initial construction; another 1,200 to 1,300 were eventually added.
About 20,000 workers took part in the construction. The population of Neosho, about 5,000 at the time, more than doubled or, according to some estimates, even quadrupled. There were no rooms to be found, and in some cases workers resorted to living in chicken coops.
Colonel George W. Teachout, the post’s first commander, arrived on September 30, 1941. The camp was still under construction, and there were only two roads on the entire post. On October 3, Teachout issued orders activating the post. The installation still had no name when Teachout arrived, but it was later christened Camp Crowder (sometimes called Fort Crowder) in honor of General Enoch H. Crowder, a Missourian who gained fame as the author of the Selective Service Act of World War I. Colonel Teachout’s headquarters was initially located in Neosho but was moved onto the base about the first of January 1942.
The first troops arrived on December 2, 1941, just five days before the Pearl Harbor attack. America’s entry into World War II spurred rapid construction, and Camp Crowder was dedicated on April 12, 1942.
Among the thousands of soldiers stationed at Camp Crowder during the war were several who went on to post-war fame. Cartoonist Mort Walker used his time at Camp Crowder as inspiration for “Beetle Bailey” and Camp Swampy. Actor Dick Van Dyke’s experience at Camp Crowder during the war inspired the fictional events portrayed in Episode Number 6 of the Dick Van Dyke Show, which aired on November 6, 1961. Actor and producer Carl Reiner also served at Camp Crowder during World War II.
Crowder served not just as a training facility for U.S. soldiers but also as a prisoner-of-war camp. It housed about 2,000 Axis POWs, the first arriving on October 6, 1943. In addition, about 500 members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) worked at Crowder performing clerical duties and operating machinery.
Senator Truman finally made it to Camp Crowder for an inspection on August 30, 1944, exactly three years after missing the groundbreaking ceremony.
When World War II ended in 1945, activities at Camp Crowder began to wind down. In 1947, much of the land was declared excess property and sold back to the public for agricultural use. The now-smaller camp served various purposes until 1958, when it was deactivated. Most of it was declared surplus property in 1962.
Crowder College was formed in 1963 and moved onto a portion of the land where the Army had moved out. The Missouri National Guard retained over 4,000 acres for a training area, which is still used today.
Larry Wood is a free-lance writer specializing in the history of Missouri and the Ozarks. His latest book is A Concise Encyclopedia of the Ozarks.