Military museum recalls WWII history

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

Now-retired NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, in his celebrated book "The Greatest Generation," pays homage to the generation who came of age during The Great Depression, fought in the bloody battles of World War II, and helped create the America we know today. When that war was over, 12,000,000 men and women put their uniforms aside and returned to civilian life. Sadly, the nation is now losing these precious veterans at an alarming rate every day.

Not too many people in the United States today know the role of preparedness the pine clad hills of North Central Louisiana played as a staging area for the Louisiana Maneuvers in 1940 and 1941, and then as a training ground at various Central Louisiana-based U.S. Army Camps for literally thousands of troops who then departed for all parts of the globe.

In the late 1930s not many Louisiana residents were paying attention to rumblings of war in Europe, mainly because they were mired in the poverty of the Great Depression. But the September 1st, 1939 invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht commanded the attention of nations all around the globe.

Prior to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, it was already abundantly clear that the United States was not ready to cope with the inevitable war soon to engulf Europe, or even any kind of major skirmish, for that matter. The U.S. Army ranked 17th in manpower and effectiveness, and soldiers still were using left-over equipment and logistics from World War I. This included mounted cavalry, horse-and-mule drawn wagons and cannon, and antiquated rifles. But, under the leadership of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, mechanization soon would begin. But new-fangled tanks and trucks had to undergo field testing, plus new soldiers needed to experience a simulated baptism of fire.

Due to its location in a sub-tropical climate, the Army seized upon Central Louisiana, where Pineville and Alexandria face each other across Red River, plus the availability of 3,400 square miles of similar territory spilling over into East Texas for war games and field testing of men and equipment. Camp Beauregard near Pineville became U.S. 3rd Army Headquarters, with construction beginning on several new bases to accommodate a massive influx of troops into the area at Camp Polk near Leesville, Camp Livingston near Simms, and Camp Claiborne near Forest Hill, Louisiana. Nearly two-thirds of the military personnel which trained for action in WWII occupied these three camps for a short period of time.

Amid the flurry of cost-plus construction, 66,000 men and loads of equipment swarmed into the Pineville area in the spring of 1940. They were divided up into the Red and Blue armies.

Generals George S. Patton, Jr. and Dwight D. Eisenhower would come on the scene in the next year's maneuvers in 1941 which would involve over 500,000 men and women who came in to defend Louisiana\'c6s bridges, fortify her towns, and patrol her skies. For the first time since the Civil War, the bulk of the nation's armed forces were mobilized for the occupation of Louisiana, from Shreveport to Lake Charles.

Knowledgeable Pineville residents will declare that the effects of what transpired in the 1940's in the Central Louisiana are still being felt today, and that was one reason to establish the Louisiana Maneuvers and Military Museum. The powers-that-be began assembling memorabilia, artifacts and contributed souvenirs in 1995 and the doors were first opened to the public in 1997.The museum provides a nostalgic look into our country's past, as well as present, military might.

Originally Camp Beauregard included the property that is now Pinecrest State School, now housing Louisiana National Guard offices, and also a large tract of land behind the Proctor and Gamble property just off US Highway 165 and including the present day post boundaries. Within these areas was located an artillery cantonment, a cavalry auxiliary remount depot, with over 1000 horse and mule stables, and a services cantonment.

Also in the same area was located the Camp Beauregard Base Hospital which in 1919 became a U.S. Public Health Hospital, and in 1920 a U.S. Veterans Hospital.

Considering that the present day Veterans Hospital site is one of the most outstanding historic spots in Louisiana, the history of Camp Beauregard actually goes back to 1852, when the Louisiana Legislature authorized the purchase of 438 acres of land which was occupied by the Louisiana State Seminary and Military Academy from 1858 until 1869. William Tecumseh Sherman would be the President of the institution until the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, when he resigned his post and returned to Ohio to war against the South. The region became known as Camp Stafford in 1905 until 1917; Camp Beauregard Base Hospital from 1917 to 1919, the U.S. Public Service Hospital in 1919-1920, and the Veterans Administration Hospital since 1920.

Housed in a replica of a WWII military barracks, the Louisiana Maneuvers and Military Museum's contents pay tribute to the soldiers and civilians involved in the maneuvers with exhibits on display including uniforms, equipment and maneuverss-era armament, with contrasting presentations of Mounted Cavalry next to Tank Commanders. Also included are displays of uniforms and equipment dating from the Louisiana Colonial Period up to the Desert Storm era.

The job of Museum Administrator is very capably directed by 1st Lieutenant Richard Moran who grew up in Grant Parish, where after graduating high school, he attended Louisiana Tech in Ruston, majoring in European History, with a Master's Degree in Military History. He completed two tours of duty in Iraq, returning to the states in 2005. Lieutenant Moran is well versed in the colorful history of the area, and can readily answer questions concerning the origins of Camp Beauregard, which dates from World War I.

Handling duties as Museum Archives Director is Richard Holloway, who is an Alexandria native, and has attended LSU, NSU and Louisiana College. He entered the political arena. He had the opportunity to accompany then-Governor Edwin Edwards on a junket to Paris, France in 1983. He was employed as a State Archives consultant in 1990 and later worked in the same position at George Washington University, before coming to the Louisiana Maneuvers and Military Museum in the late 90s. His main duties consist of cataloging and earmarking all of the literally thousands of items of memorabilia that has amassed in the museum vaults and storage areas.

Visitors looking for historical sites to visit are always welcome at the Louisiana Maneuvers and Military Museum, which is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and any questions concerning the historical aspects of the museum can be readily answered by Moran and Holloway.