President Roosevelt, in 1941, took a look at the U.S.’s readiness for war following the surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. “Dismal,” he might have said. “We must rally in a hurry.”
Within weeks, army training posts popped up across the nation. A 46,000-acre area southwest of Salina, Kansas, was one. Emory Frost remembers the hubbub. He was 15 years old, and his family’s farm, along with 106 other farms, was purchased by the government. They were ordered to be out in four weeks, along with all their livestock, machinery, and personal effects. No harvesting one of the best wheat crops in years. It was burned after the family moved out. Anything not removed would be confiscated and destroyed. “My mother was very sick,” Emory continued, “in the hospital. We had livestock to sell and with so many other farmers looking, the price for other land rose higher every day. It was a bad time for all of us, especially those whose land was homesteaded by their ancestors in the middle 1800s.”
Seven thousand construction workers overtook the small town of Smolan, population 100, following the “go-ahead” announcement in May 1943. By September 1943, more than 3,000 buildings were completed, awaiting the arrival of the first troops for training. A complete infrastructure to support a population of more than 10,000 greeted the first of three divisions to be trained there. One hundred fifty tons of native road-building material had been brought in from a rock quarry opened near the camp. More than 200 railroad cars loaded with construction material were unloaded into the area every 24 hours. Three months later, military personnel arrived and the show was on the road.
Hospitals, chapels, theaters, officers’ clubs, mess halls, barracks, recreation facilities, etc. filled the area and served more than 150,000 troops during its two-year existence. When the war was over August 1945, Camp Phillips disappeared nearly as fast as it came into being. Hundreds of the barracks were dismantled and shipped to college campuses, including more than 150 sent to Purdue University. Others were torn down and the lumber was sold.
A drive past the area now shows almost no evidence of Camp Phillips. The only remaining structure that draws attention is the water tower base, which was purchased by a family and converted into a five-story home. A few windows here and there invite a second look; otherwise, it doesn’t get much notice. Another story tells about one farm home that the government did not level. It is a large two-story home and was used by the camp’s commander for a personal residence. It still stands.
All of this plus many more factors and anecdotes calls for some story-writing. I’m putting together a piece for a regional magazine, and am thinking about something for children. Magazine article, picture book, longer historical fiction book.
Most everyone who hears about my endeavor has a new incident to share. That was 70 years ago, but the memories are as vivid as if it happened last month. Some chuckle at memories of meeting new people, being employed on the camp, and employing prisoners of war who resided there. Others tear up at the thought of the personal traumas of such a mammoth undertaking with little warning and a short life in the end. It was a significant and brief time in the history of the area. Did it really happen, their eyes communicate? Yes, it really did.