Inside the walls at Camp White
By Paul Fattig | Mail Tribune, Medford, Ore. | Published: September 15, 2013
When Lisa Rice checked out a concrete bunker Saturday that had been used by soldiers at the U.S. Army's Camp White during World War II, she could only shake her head.
"It is amazing how peppered this side is," said the archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District during a tour of the area.
The bunker, located just north of Upper Table Rock, is pockmarked by rounds, presumably during WWII training. There are gun turrets only on the southeast side, suggesting the training assaults came from one direction.
Hot enough to bake bread on Saturday, the bunker is one of more than a dozen in the Agate Desert near Upper Table Rock.
Rice was there as part of a National Public Lands Day and Oregon archaeology celebration on Saturday. More than 30 volunteers lent a hand to remove an old fence near Upper Table Rock in the morning, followed by an archaeological interpretive hike on the old Camp White Army base.
The work to remove the fence was coordinated by the BLM and The Nature Conservancy to enhance local wildlife habitat. Both the BLM and the conservancy manage land in the area.
With the help of the volunteer staff at the Camp White Military Museum, Rice displayed items Saturday from the camp that hailed from the World War II era. There were C-rations, an M-1 carbine, the shell of a 105-mm howitzer, entrenching tool, photographs, ration books, a gas mask and letters to loved ones back home.
"We had a lot of this stuff in Vietnam — a lot of it looks the same," observed George Greer, 72, a retired Air Force major who served in an air-rescue unit in the Vietnam War. He was representing the Nature Conservancy on Saturday.
"They didn't shoot the big shells at the bunkers," Rice said, noting the 105-mm shells would have blasted through the thick concrete.
The concrete bunkers — dubbed pillboxes — were built in Camp White's Beagle Range to simulate Germany's fortified positions along the coasts of Europe. Often using live ammunition, infantry troops practiced taking the enemy strongholds, Rice said.
"Time magazine had an article about it being like Alcatraz," Rise said of a report in the periodical late in 1942. "The guy writing the article noted how horrible it was for the soldiers crawling around with bullets whizzing over their heads and dynamite explosions all around. He couldn't believe it."
Indeed, the writer appeared to be mightily impressed by the training techniques employed by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, commander of the 91st Infantry Division. The magazine writer referred to Camp White as the "Alcatraz" of Army training camps.
"Perhaps the toughest trainer in the U.S. Army is a wiry little man who carries a full pack and rifle while marching his troops across a stony Oregon desert and who expects middle-aged staff officers to be as taut-bellied as the hardiest young private," he wrote.
"Maj. Gen. Charles Hunter Gerhardt breaks in the new men 'gently' by sleeping them in pup tents in the rain, making them swim icy Oregon rivers," he added.
Hyperbole aside, the training was as challenging as the general could make it, Rice will tell you.
"They tried to make everything as real as possible," she said.
Part of that training included long marches, like the 91-miler that some 2,000 young soldiers, armed with rifles and bearing 40-pound packs, concluded on Sept. 14, 1942 with a march down Medford's Main Street.
They were members of the 91st based at newly minted Camp White. The six-day forced march took them throughout the Rogue and Applegate valleys.
As the magazine suggested, Gerhardt was a hard-charging West Point graduate who took no prisoners when it came to preparing his young charges for war. They would bivouac in Sams Valley, Bybee Springs, the Applegate Valley. They waded across the Rogue and Applegate rivers.
"General Gerhardt, commander of the 91st, has personally led the column through its long march, carrying an infantry pack and a rifle," reported the Mail Tribune on Sept. 11, 1942, while the soldiers were still hoofing it.
"Purpose of the march, headquarters explained, is to harden the soldiers to long, forced marches that may be a requisite in the combat zones," it added.
The march, whose parade was cheered by thousands in Medford, was coordinated to end the day before Camp White was dedicated 71 years ago today — Sept. 15, 1942.
But the challenging training involved more than just grueling marches.
In addition to the pill boxes, a "Nazi village" was created on the camp's Antelope Range a few miles to the east. It consisted of old farm buildings and newly constructed buildings where troops practiced combat skills in a realistic setting, storming the town occupied by the enemy, Rice said.
Each division — the 96th Infantry Division followed in the 91st footsteps — had its own church, mess hall and barracks, she said.
Later in the war, Camp White even housed POWs, largely from Germany, she noted.
"The POWs here were in a stockade, but they were also allowed to go out and work," she said. "A lot of the local men from here were out fighting the war. There were also a lot of orchards, so the POWs were put to work in our orchards."
They also did reclamation projects and sewed military uniforms, she added.
"They were paid 80 cents a day, plus one bottle of beer," she said, adding they were paid in a denomination that identified them as POWs.
"Some people were displaced by Camp White," Rice said. "There was a little town called Beagle that had been around early on. The government came in and said, 'We are going to buy your land.' That created a lot of hard feelings."
But Uncle Sam did cover a local cemetery with a blanket of dirt to ensure none of the live rounds would disrupt the eternal sleep of the cemetery occupants.
Army nurses provided most of the staffing for the 79th General Hospital at the camp, Rice said.
"There were over 1,400 rooms in the hospital," she said. "General Gerhardt made sure that the nurses and others in the Women Army Corps knew how to use a machine gun.
"They had to go through a lot of the same training the men went through," she added. "He wanted to make sure everybody was fully prepared."
Not many veterans who trained at Camp White are around today.
However, in an interview with the Mail Tribune last year, Robert "Bob" Palassou, then 89, of Ashland, recalled a 93-mile march with the 91st in the spring of 1943. Like the march in September of 1942, they made a circuitous route covering the Rogue and Applegate valleys in six days.
"It seems like we marched everywhere," Palassou recalled. "Those marches were Gerhardt's deal — marching was his philosophy.
"When I got to Camp White, it was still being formed," he added of arriving on Nov. 20, 1942. "My company, which would have about 200 guys, had less than 30 when I got there."
Palassou would be deployed to North Africa, then on to Italy with the 91st. His medals would include a Purple Heart, having been wounded on four different occasions.
"A German tank got me and two buddies in a barn," he said of his worst wounds. "I was blown 35 feet into a stone wall."
Shrapnel sliced into his neck, back and left hip.
"That was Oct. 18, 1944," he said. "I remember dates. They are very important to me. I lost a lot of buddies during that war."