A Brief History Of Camp Atterbury

America's entry into World War II brought many changes in the lives of a group of Indiana farmers who were asked to give up homes and farms, many of which had been in the family more than one hundred years. The Army's announcement that a training camp large enough to house 30,000 men would be built, came from Washington on 6 January 1942 - less than a month after entry into World War II. 

The U.S. Army moved swiftly to start construction of the camp, and by April, 1942, more than 15,000 civilian workers were employed. The camp was built on the northern part of more than 40,000 acres of land purchased from farmers in Johnson, Bartholomew, and Brown counties.

The new post was named for Hoosier born Brigadier General William Wallace Atterbury, the famed World War I military transportation expert, and later President of the Pennsylvania Railroad. 

Six months after construction started, soldiers began pouring into the camp. No official dedication took place to mark the opening of the approximately $86,000,000 Camp, but on August 15, 1942, the 83rd Infantry Division was activated and the Camp was thrown open to visitors. More than 25,000 Hoosiers watched the colorful ceremonies and inspected the Camp and its facilities that day. 

According to most military men, however, a base is born on the day it's headquarters is set up and the first numbered Order is written. Atterbury's first Special Order rolled off a mimeograph machine on 2 June 1942, in a headquarters, set up in a red brick house, located on Hospital Road and formerly the home of Mr. Dale Parmalee, a local farmer. 

The 83rd "Thunderbolt" Division, commanded by Major General (later Lt. General retired) Frank W. Milburn of Jasper, Indiana, was the first of three divisions to receive training at Camp Atterbury during World War II. In April, 1944, they departed for overseas and fought in France, Luxembourg, and Germany. 

The 92d Division, second to arrive for training, 15 October 1942, was composed of black troops and eventually deployed to the Mediterranean Theater, participating in the Italian Campaigns. 

The "Old Hickory" 30th Division was the third to arrive for training. They arrived on 7 November 1943, and departed for England in January, 1944. The 106th "Golden Lion" Division was the last big unit to receive its training at Camp Atterbury during World War II. They spent nearly eight months in training and left for England in October 1944, for another brief period of training. The 106th took a position on a "quiet" sector in France on 11 December 1944. A few days later the Germans, led by General Von Rundstedt, made their final desperate bid for victory. The "Golden Lions" took the brunt of the attack, in the Battle of the Bulge, and suffered 8,663 casualties in a period of less than a month. 

During World War II, more than 100 units, nearly 275,000 men received their training at Camp Atterbury, and thousands more, who received their initial training elsewhere, were sent here for advanced training. 

The camp's hospital, Wakeman General Hospital, was named in honor of Colonel Frank Wakeman, a Hoosier educated Army Doctor.  The 9,000 bed hospital, one of the largest of its kind in the nation, treated more than 85,000 patients during World War II and was one of the Army's plastic surgery centers. 

The base also served as an internment camp for approximately 15,000 Italian and German prisoners of war. They were housed in a large compound located on the extreme western edge of camp. Many of them left the POW compound during the day to work on nearby farms and in canneries in Southern Indiana. Symbolic of these captured prisoners, is a place of worship aptly named "The Chapel in the Meadow" located about a mile from the Post Stockade. It is a building, 12 x 18 feet, of poured concrete. Inside the Chapel is an altar and a coating of red paint, in lieu of carpet, leads in from the open front. The Madonna, Angels, St. Anthony, and the Dove of Peace were painted, in fresco style, into wet plaster by Italian prisoner artisens. Barbed wire has been strung around the Chapel to protect it from animals. The German-American and Italian-American clubs of Indianapolis are making plans to preserve the Chapel and to hold yearly memorial services in honor of the 19 Germans and Italians who were in the Atterbury Cemetery. The remains of these POWs have since been moved to the National Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. 


Atterbury has been called "the Camp that died twice" and her first death throes were felt immediately following VJ Day. Late in 1944, the tide was turning in favor of the Allied Force and directives were received establishing a Separation Center at Camp Atterbury. In a period of 7 months, more than 500,000, mostly from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky, were discharged. Huge warehouses were used to process the thousands that arrived daily. In all, 560,595 World War II Veterans had their final taste of Army life at Camp Atterbury 

On 31 December 1946, Wakeman General Hospital was inactivated and other post activities slowed to almost a snail's pace. Late in 1948, the Defense Department, in a move to cut budget expenditures, decided to close the Camp. Many of the temporary buildings were dismantled and thousands of dollars worth of equipment sold. The number of civilian employees, which reached a peak of 5,000 during World War II, dropped to a few hundred. 

An immediate reverberation was heard from Hoosier townspeople surrounding the base. Committees were formed to try to convince the Army to keep Atterbury open and representatives of those groups went to Washington to present their case. They fought just as hard, in their effort to keep Camp Atterbury open, as the small group of farmers fought, in 1942, to retain their farms. Rumors flow, but Atterbury was "mothballed" with a staff of less than 50 employees and military personnel. 

The Korean conflict returned Atterbury's status to the public's attention. A month after the outbreak of the Korean War, in August, 1950, the Department of the Army announced the reactivation of Camp Atterbury and the station hospital. The Fifth Army sent a special team of civilians to assist the Commanding Officer in establishing the civilian personnel section, and in hiring the employees needed to prepare for the arrival of the 28th Infantry Division for training. During the first two weeks, 1,000 civilians were employed. 

After the Korea Police Action subsided in early 1954, Camp Atterbury again reverted to an inactive status. Wakeman General Hospital (now Job Corps Block 10) was closed and all the equipment was mothballed. All troop units were relocated to other stations. All buildings were weatherized and housekeeping equipment placed in storage. Camp Atterbury was assigned a mobilization mission and left with a housekeeping unit of approximately 60 personnel. 

With the scale down in military use of the post and the reduced labor force, it was decided to offer grazing leases to the public for control of weeds and grasses. The first lease was let to a sheep raising corporation and at peak period some 10,000 sheep were roaming the reservation. Later, cattle grazing leases were awarded and continue to this day, however, the sheep were removed in 1970. 

About this same time (late 1950s and early 1960s) the U.S. Air Force Reserve unit from Bakalar Air Force Base, Columbus, Indiana, developed and tested a new slingshot heavy equipment aerial delivery system, using the area west of the Driftwood River as a drop zone. 

In July, 1958, the Indiana Air National Guard established an air-to-ground gunnery range in the southwestern portion of the post and continues to operate, Tuesday thru Saturday, today. Fighter aircraft assigned to active Air Force, Navy, and Marine units, as well as Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units from the mid-western area, practice strafing and bombing gunnery on the range, with as many as 64 individual aircraft sorties flown per day. The range and post complex is included in FAA Restricted Zone R-3401A and R-34018 and controls all airspace up to 20,000 feet when the range is active, or when artillery and mortars are firing. At all other times, airspace up to 4,000 feet is controlled, to permit small arms firing and nap-of-the-earth helicopter pilot proficiency training. 

Beginning in 1964, Crane Naval Ordnance Depot established a special program at Atterbury, conducting almost daily test drops of aerial parachute flares, .50 caliber machinegun tracer ammunition, and the 40 millimeter Riverine Gatling Gun. 

Lockbourne Air Force Base, Columbus, Ohio established a target area in 1969, designed to train the AC-119 and AC-130 Gatling gun system used extensively in Vietnam. At about this same time, Lockbourne also tested a method of retrieving downed aircrews, by lowering a basket from a circling aircraft. When the basket came to rest, the airman climbed in, the aircraft increased altitude, the basket and airman hoisted to the plane, and the rescue completed. The theory was sound, the tests worked, but for some reason, it was difficult to get volunteers to climb into the basket ! 

Cummins Engine Company, Columbus, Indiana used Atterbury for an extensive testing program in 1971-1972, to develop engine and drive-trains to retool the World War II vintage half-track vehicle for the Israeli Army. 

Allison Division of General Motors, currently known as Rolls-Royce Corp. used the post in 1969 to develop and test fire an automatic cannon loader for the experimental main battle tank - 1970, and again in 1972 to test the engine used by Air Force and Navy in the A-7 aircraft. 

In 1966, a parcel of approximately 600 acres, bordering the Driftwood River, on the east side of post, was deeded to the U.S. Forestry Department as a National Forest Effective 31 December 1968, the post was declared excess to Army needs and was subdivided into five parcels of land, with the Princes Lake Water and Sewage Utilities taking control of the wells and sewage treatment plant and 70 acres of land. The remaining acreage was divided as follows: 5,500 acres was purchased by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources; 300 acres, encompassing the Wakeman Army Hospital was leased by U.S. Department of Labor for use as the Atterbury Job Corps Center; 561 acres were deeded to the Johnson County Park & Recreation Dept; and the remaining 33,484.64 acres leased to the Military Department of Indiana for use as a Reserve Forces Training Area.

For substantially more information, visit; http://www.indianamilitary.org/CampAtterbury/index.htm

Chapel in the Meadow

During WW II, Camp Atterbury had a large internment camp for German and Italian POWs. The internment camp covered 60 acres square and was guarded by six hundred men. Many of the Italian POWs were skilled artisans. In 1943 they received permission from the Camp Commander to build a small chapel. It measures 11´ x 16´, and is constructed of brick and stucco. Working with limited supplies, the prisoners mixed dyes from berries, flower petals, plants, and even their own blood. The chapel was dedicated to the Blessed Mother and was named "Chapel in the Meadow". The internment camp is long gone, and the only remaining evidence is the chapel.