In the midst of World War I, the United States Department of War allocated one new “National Army” camp to Mississippi, with two possible locations in the state: Meridian and Biloxi.
But after a little intervention from a Hattiesburg physician, the Hub City was added to that list as a possible site. Following a visit from a high-ranking military official, the city was awarded in 1917 what would come to be known as Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center.
In the 100 years since then, Camp Shelby, located off U.S. 49 just south of Hattiesburg city limits, has served as one of the country’s premier military installations. With the exception of the Korean War, the base has served its part in every American conflict in the last century, playing major roles in World War II, the Vietnam War and recent conflicts.
These days, the base is the largest state-owned training site in the nation, comprising 135,000 acres and contributing an annual economic impact of $500 million to the state and almost $100 million to the local community. In Fiscal Year 2015 alone, 135,000 troops trained at the base, with eight major exercises conducted that year.
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“Most people ride up and down Highway 49 and see that little road that runs past Dru’s Inn and say, ‘Well, there’s a military installation back there, and they do some military stuff,’” base commander Col. Greg Michel said. “But it is much, much more than that.
“It’s overwhelming, in some aspects, to know that we’ve come this far and to see Camp Shelby grow like it has over the course of a hundred years.”
The Hattiesburg American takes a look at the past, present and future of the iconic military base.
1917-19 (World War I)
Hattiesburg was chosen as a third option for the camp after Dr. Walter Crawford — with the help of Dr. George McHenry of Stone County — persuaded Gen. Leonard Wood, Army Adjutant General of the East, to consider the Hub City.
Wood visited Hattiesburg on June 23, 1917, and awarded the camp to the city on July 14.
“They were pretty much already decided on Meridian,” said Chad Daniels, director of the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby. “But Gen. Wood was so impressed with everything that had been prepared for him, and that the land was secured for the post.
“So really, with just a couple weeks left, he just apparently marked off ‘Meridian’ and wrote ‘Hattiesburg.’ So that was a big deal. You have to understand, that was very early in Hattiesburg’s history — Hattiesburg may or may not have been the city we live in today without that happening.”
Although the Hattiesburg Commerce Club suggested the name “Camp Crawford” in honor of Crawford’s efforts, the War Department settled on “Camp Shelby” to commemorate Isaac Shelby, the first governor of Kentucky. That decision was made because camps were named to reflect the states where the troops were from, rather than the states that hosted the camp.
“The Army did not tell people this, but they had already named all the camps,” Daniels said. “The reason it was named (Camp Shelby) is because the soldiers that were coming to Camp Shelby were coming from Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia.
“Isaac Shelby is sort of a forgotten hero of the Revolution, as well as the War of 1812. If you go to a lot of place names that we don’t really think about today — like Memphis, Tennessee, in Shelby County — it’s the same guy.”
During World War I, the camp boasted a troop capacity of 36,000, mobilizing or training 50,000 troops throughout 1917 and 1918. The 38th and 101st divisions trained there, along with elements of six other divisions and independent engineer and artillery units.
In 1919, following the war, Camp Shelby was closed and its assets auctioned throughout the next year.
1920-38 (Interwar period)
Camp Shelby came to a standstill of sorts in the early 1920s, with the remnants of the camp being used for training by the Mississippi National Guard beginning in 1924.
Not long afterward, with another war looming, activities at the base began to pick back up.
“The assets were still in good enough shape that when we started looking like we were going to get into World War II, (the Third Army) started doing protective mobilization maneuvers using Camp Shelby in 1937 and 1938,” Daniels said.
In 1940, the camp was expanded to house and train a second full division, with the 38th Infantry Division arriving in February 1941. As part of the “Peacetime Mobilization” of 1940-1941, the 37th Infantry of the Ohio National Guard arrived for training and remained at the camp until the end of 1941.
1941-45 (World War II)
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, more than 40,000 soldiers were in training at Camp Shelby. The base, which already housed two divisions, was further expanded to quarter independent brigades, groups and smaller units equating to an additional over-strength division.
In 1943, a German prisoner of war camp was added. Approximately 2,500 Germans were held at Camp Shelby, which served as the administrative camp for all German prisoner of war camps in Mississippi and lower Alabama.
Between 1943 and 1945, troop capacity at the base was approximately 89,000. Counting installation support personnel and civilian workers, the base boasted more than 100,000 people on site each day between 1942 and 1946.
“World War I was, of course, the ‘war to end all wars,’” Michel said. “When we entered that conflict, we thought that would be the end, and then we turned right around and entered into World War II.
“Once again, Camp Shelby was a huge part of that. During World War II, Camp Shelby was the second-largest military installation in the United States, second only to Fort Benning, Georgia. If that doesn’t speak volumes, I don’t know what does.”
More than 750,000 American personnel were inducted, trained or demobilized at Camp Shelby from 1940-1946. That number includes nine infantry divisions, several artillery brigades, tank destroyer groups and engineer elements.
“By about 1943, (the camp) is at its height, and from 1943 to 1946, it’s the largest ‘city’ in Mississippi for three years,” Daniels said. “Of course, Hattiesburg was dwarfed by Camp Shelby at the time, because for every one person you had in Hattiesburg, you have four people at Camp Shelby.
“They opened up special bus lines so the soldiers could actually go places and eat at a restaurant because you couldn’t in Hattiesburg — it was overcrowded.”
Among the troops that trained at Camp Shelby was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-American volunteers. That unit later became the most decorated (for valor) unit for its size and length in Army history.
The camp also featured a detachment of Women’s Army Corps, who were assigned to installation support details.
Daniels said one of the great things about Hattiesburg in both world wars was the way the community welcomed the soldiers. That was particularly true in the case of the Japanese-Americans, who in those turbulent racial times were declared “legal Caucasians.”
“Soldiers came from all over the country, and the Japanese-Americans came mainly from Hawaii and places like that,” Daniels said. “So you’ve got people who didn’t know what to expect when they got to Mississippi.
“But the local communities, far and wide, would invite the soldiers as groups to their area. They would feed them, do entertainment stuff for them, then they would truck them back to Camp Shelby.”
1947-90s (Cold War, Vietnam and beyond)
Camp Shelby was closed in 1947 — with its assets auctioned over the next two years — and remained inactive throughout the Korean War.
In 1953, the Mississippi National Guard gained control of the camp, and from 1956-1965 the base was established as the main training camp for the 31st “Dixie” Division.
The 199th Light Infantry Brigade conducted its pre-deployment maneuvers at Camp Shelby in 1967 before shipping off to fight in the Vietnam War. The 199th was the only combat unit to train at Camp Shelby for that conflict.
The legacy of community friendliness that was shown to soldiers in the two world wars continued into the Vietnam War era, with Reed Green Coliseum on the Southern Miss campus utilized to host “Shelby Sunday” for the 199th in preparation of its deployment. The event featured beauty pageant contestants, musicians from New Orleans and sports representatives.
“It was just this big day,” Daniels said. “And at the end of it — for those that wanted to — you had a whole bunch of families from the Hattiesburg area that were willing to take the soldiers home for Sunday dinner, and bring them back to Camp Shelby in their cars.
“That’s how (the soldiers) were sent out from Camp Shelby in Mississippi.”
After being recognized as a National Guard training base, Camp Shelby increased training to nearly 100,000 personnel annually through the late 1990s.
To address the need for a state military history museum, camp officials opened the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum in 2001, adjacent to the parade field. The new facility — which replaced the previous museum that had served Camp Shelby from 1984-2000 — offers displays and items from military history.
“That was huge,” Daniels said. “It’s really been a community effort. The thing that worried us is that our scheduled opening date was Oct. 27, 2001.
“So were just closing out contracts and getting the last bit of stuff installed, and 9/11 happened. So for several weeks, we didn’t know if we’d even be able to be operational anymore because we didn’t know if people would be allowed to come to Camp Shelby.”
During the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, 250,000 service members passed through the gates at Camp Shelby.
“What is unique about Camp Shelby is the role that it’s played in every one of our nation’s conflicts — that is what is unique and what is significant,” Michel said. “That (250,000 soldiers) is significant not only to Mississippi, but to the nation.”
Second Lt. Rachel Henson, who serves as public affairs officer for Camp Shelby, played her part at the base — and overseas — during that conflict. Henson, who has mobilized twice at Camp Shelby with the 155th ABCT for deployments to Iraq, echoed Daniels’ sentiments about the welcoming nature of the camp and its community.
“I spent six months mobilized at Camp Shelby in 2004 waiting to deploy,” she said. “At that time, our barracks didn’t have air conditioning or heat, so needless to say, we were roughing it during the summer and winter months.
“Even though our living conditions weren’t great, I remember the way the soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby went out of their way to make us feel at home while we were away from our families waiting to go to Iraq.”
Henson’s troop also redeployed from Iraq through Camp Shelby.
“I remember coming home after being deployed for 12 months, getting off the bus and seeing my family waiting for me at Camp Shelby,” she said. “I frequently think of that day because I was so happy to finally be safe at home with my family.”
A hundred years after its inception, Camp Shelby — which is transitioning from a mobilization center to a steady-state training site — boasts an average monthly traffic count of 50,000 and daily full-time employment of 1,600. During the course of the 12 years the camp served as a mobilization site, about 250,000 soldiers passed through the gates, along with the 135,000 who trained in 2015 separately from mobilization.
Michel said the base, which currently trains about 130,000 a year, serves in a multitude of roles.
“We serve a two-tier mission,” he said. “We are a state installation, but because we’re designated as a mobilization platform for First Army, we have to be prepared to do a number of missions simultaneously.
“In the event of another mobilization, Camp Shelby will play a role in that, and we will be active as a mobilization site again at some point.”
One of the most significant recent developments in Michel’s mind is Mississippi being named as the Department of Homeland Security’s Unmanned Aircraft System demonstration site.
Even though that designation was the culmination of effort between several institutions, Michel said the lion’s share of the work will be done at Camp Shelby, which features 158 miles of restricted air space that works in conjunction with the base’s unmanned aerial vehicle program.
“The opportunities (for the program) continue to grow, and Camp Shelby continues to receive recognition for the uniqueness of our programs here,” Michel said.
In honor of the base’s anniversary, camp representatives will soon hold two events: the Camp Shelby Centennial Salute and Camp Shelby Family Day.
The Camp Shelby Centennial Salute, set for 6 p.m. Thursday at Lake Terrace Convention Center, will feature a multiple-course dinner, entertainment by the Victory Belles, a musical trio from the National World War II Museum, a historical highlight video, and official recognition and presentations. Camp Shelby Family Day, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the base’s museum and parade field, will feature country music artist Travis Clark, historic military equipment, World War II re-enactors, aerial flyovers, Special Forces demonstrations, food vendors and kid-friendly activities.
“I’m proud to be a part of this historic event,” Henson said. “Camp Shelby remains so many things to so many people, since all branches of service have trained here over the past 100 years. I’m proud to know that the WAC served here during World War II, paving the way for women in the military.”
Camp Shelby Family Day also will feature a change of command ceremony, when the retiring Michel will pass command of the base to Lt. Col. Bobby Ginn.
“I am humbled and honored to be selected as the 35th base commander at Camp Shelby after 27 years of military service, which includes 24 years at Camp Shelby with the past 14 years being the maneuver area training equipment site superintendent,” Ginn said. “My No. 1 priority as base commander will be training and will include all branches of service as well as special operations groups.”
Michel, who took over the base in 2015 as part of a 30-year military career, will meanwhile take a little time to do a lot of thinking about what comes next for him.
“First of all, (I’m going to take) a very long motorcycle trip that I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time,” he said. “So I’ll be doing that, and a lot of decisions will be made on the back of that motorcycle.
“So I’ll come back and I’ll be looking for a job in September, but in all honesty I don’t know. I’ll be transitioning to the private sector in some role, and I’m excited about that.”
As for the future of Camp Shelby, Michel expects the community will continue to see the base grow in its role and mission. In fact, the camp is steadily bringing in customers from active component bases who are facing pressure from other training units or encroachment from their local communities.
“In this community, we don’t have those problems,” he said. “Camp Shelby operates with an enormous amount of support, and it’s indicative of the same level of support that you saw in 1917 when this community went out and said, ‘We want this here,’ and they got it here, and they continue to support Camp Shelby.
“Because you have that — because of the economic initiatives and the opportunity that exists here — Camp Shelby will continue to be a vital player in Mississippi, as well as in the Department of Defense nationally.”
Camp Shelby timeline
1917: Gen. Leonard Wood, Army Adjutant General of the East, visits Hattiesburg on June 23 and awards the camp to the city July 14. Camp named after Isaac Shelby, first governor of Kentucky. Camp established July 18 with a troop capacity of 36,000 and a main hospital with 500 beds.
1919: Camp closed and assets auctioned.
1924: Mississippi National Guard begins using remnants of the camp for training.
1937: Reconstruction of the camp begins and proceeds through 1940 to house and train a full division. The “White House,” which serves as post headquarters and commanding general’s quarters, is moved to Camp Shelby from Biloxi.
1938: Protective mobilization maneuvers held in the DeSoto National Forest by the Third Army.
1940: The 37th Infantry Division of the Ohio National Guard arrives in October for training and remains through the end of 1941. Camp is expanded to house and train a second full division.
1940-1946: More than 750,000 American personnel are inducted, trained or demobilized.
1941: 38th Infantry Division arrives in February. More than 40,000 soldiers are in training at the camp when Pearl Harbor was attacked Dec. 7.
1943: German prisoner of war camp added.
1943-45: Troop capacity 89,000, second in the United States to Fort Benning, Georgia.
1947: Camp is closed. Assets auctioned from 1947-1949.
1953: Mississippi National Guard gains control of the camp and establishes it as the main training camp for the 31st “Dixie” Division from 1956-1965.
1967: The 199th Light Infantry Brigade conducts its pre-deployment maneuvers before shipping off to fight in the Vietnam War.
Through late 1990s: Camp recognized as a National Guard training base and increased training to nearly 100,000 personnel annually.
2001: Mississippi Armed Forces Museum opens on the base.
2015: Four barracks in the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center Operational Readiness Training Complex are dedicated to soldiers who died overseas in the line of duty.
Present day statistics
- Average monthly traffic count: 50,000
- Daily full-time employment: 1,600
- Troops trained in Fiscal Year 2015: 135,000
- Major exercises conducted in Fiscal Year 2015: 8
- 135,000 acres and more than 300 miles of forest service roads maintained
Source: All numbers and historical information provided by Camp Shelby