Part 1 of 2….
In the railroad survey section at the Bend, Oregon, High Desert Museum’s Spirit of the West exhibit, visitors learn that young Lt. Henry L. Abbot led an Army Corps of Topographical Engineers (all West Point graduates) to survey a proposed Pacific Railroad from Sacramento, California, north to The Dalles. On September 2, 1855, they camped in the meadow at what is now the resort community of Sunriver.
In the Museum’s current exhibit, WWII: The High Desert Home Front, visitors learn that in October 1942, the U.S. Army bought 5,500 acres to establish the 3rd Engineer Replacement Training Center (ERTC) on that same site to construct roads and canals and to train corpsmen for amphibious assault combat in the European theater.
The area was selected for its winter weather and terrain similar to the conditions soldiers faced in France and Germany. The Deschutes River substituted for the Rhine, and trainees built pontoon and permanent bridges only to blow them up afterward.
In November 1942, construction of a self-contained community to sustain a population of 10,000 began with roads, water and sewage, barracks, café, post chapel, recreation building and tennis courts, repair and storage buildings, Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and an Officers’ Club.
On May 12, 1943, Col. Frank S. Besson, a 1909 West Point graduate with honors who also won the Sabre as the Academy’s outstanding athlete, transferred as commander of the ERTC at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to assume command of Camp Abbot, named for the first young lieutenant who camped there. Abbot was later cited for gallant service during the Civil War, and named by President Theodore Roosevelt to the Board of Consulting Engineers planning construction of the Panama Canal.
Camp Abbot was the third and largest of the nation’s three ERTC installations. The other two were Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Fort Leonard, Missouri. Ninety thousand men prepared for combat conditions in Europe, 10,000 trainees at a time. A nighttime temperature of 20 degrees below zero greeted the first trainees on their arrival in March 1943.
The 17-week training cycle included three phases:
- Six weeks instruction in basic military physical training, hand-to-hand combat, rifle marksmanship, map reading, camouflage, combat drills, hand and anti-tank grenades, defense against chemical, air and mechanized attack, and first aid.
- Eight weeks of specialist training in a choice of administration, cooking, carpentry, sawmill operation, automotive maintenance, motor vehicle or heavy equipment use, along with physical training, military orientations, and night maneuvers.
- Those not selected for specialist training advanced to the technical and tactical team for three weeks to build bridges under simulated combat and prepare the way through field mines for the troops. Sealed orders were revealed to the trainees one day at a time.
Col. Besson’s welcome to his recruits, published in the weekly Abbot Engineer, told about the Army Corps of Engineers’ reputation and skills to uphold. He believed in training soldiers who were the “first ones in and the last ones out when the going is toughest.” Besson participated in many training exercises with his men. He crawled through an obstacle course under live fire and officially opened the rifle range by hitting the bull’s-eye with his first shot.
Besson encouraged team and individual sports competition. The first baseball game on June 6, 1943, was won by the Bend Elks, 11 to 1. Although table tennis was the most popular activity, soldiers competed in boxing, tracks meets, bowling leagues, and volleyball tournaments. Besson tossed up the first ball at center court in the first basketball tournament in October 1943.
Radio listeners looked forward to the Big Band sounds. Camp Abbot personnel were especially proud to hear Fred Waring dedicate one of his Victory Tunes broadcasts “to the new camp in Central Oregon.”
Check back next week for Part 2.