By David San Miguel
Public Affairs Officer
Life on the farm was harsh. Days began before dawn and continued well into night. For the residents of Caroline County, Virginia, it was life – a life they etched out of the earth through hard times and good.
Still, life was simple. It had been that way since the mid-1700s when settlers first took root and began to farm the fertile Virginian soil.
In the spring of 1940, that life would change. The nation’s pending entrance into World War II would forever change the life and landscape of this once tranquil community.
Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged to keep the United States out of the fight, events in Europe proved difficult to ignore. France had already fallen and England had come under siege by Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.
Calls for America to enter the war could not be easily dismissed, and soon the War Plans Division of the Army General Staff developed a plan to raise a 4-million man Army to conduct simultaneous operations in the Pacific and European theaters. By July, the War Department had initiated a search to identify approximately 60,000 acres, independent of any post, and lying somewhere between the Potomac River and the upper Chesapeake Bay.
No one knows who suggested Caroline County as a site for heavy weapons and maneuver training facilities, but what is known is that Lt. Col. Oliver Marston, an artillery officer stationed in Richmond who was acting as an agent of the Third Corps Area commander, made a detailed investigation of the area in September 1940.
Seven months later, on April 5, 1941, the Army staff announced its decision to establish a 76,000-acre training camp in northeastern Caroline County.
On June 11, 1941, Camp A.P. Hill was established pursuant to War Department General Order No. 5; and almost overnight, military convoys moved in and troops set up camp. A strong military presence soon became commonplace.
Named after Confederate Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill, that presence is still felt today as the installation annually trains thousands of Army, Marine, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard personnel for military contingencies worldwide.
Despite being uprooted from their farms, most residents accepted this land acquisition grudgingly, silently; others voiced their displeasure, but in the end, the majority complied for the common good of the nation. As a result, nearly one-third of the county’s families, farms, schools, churches, cemeteries, potato storage houses, grist mills and stores were appropriated by the Army.
In the book, Wealthy in Heart: Oral History of Life Before Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, Wright Durrett recalls how neighbors came together, pooled their resources and endured hardships.
“Dad farmed, and you better believe it, he made every inch productive,” she said. “He was a good farmer … dad would go up to his neighbors and mow the hay; his neighbors would come down and help him shuck corn, and it was that kind of a camaraderie among them down there.”
Such cooperation and respect for neighbor carried this agricultural community through the Great Depression, and it served them well when the nation called.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 of that same year, the families closed ranks in full support of the war effort. Many, in fact, sacrificed their sons and daughters to serve in the military.
It is a sacrifice and service to the nation that has become their trademark – a heritage which has continued for every combat operation since, to include the Korean War, the Vietnam Conflict, Desert Storm and current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Today, Fort A.P. Hill boasts a reputation as the training destination of choice for all our military forces; and the veterans, the community and its leaders have all played a role in its success,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Q. Jordan, garrison commander, U.S. Army Garrison, Fort A.P. Hill.
He cited the command’s long record of achievement in the Army’s Communities of Excellence Award program, and its recent receipt of the Army Superior Unit Award.
“The training and resources Fort A.P. Hill provides undoubtedly supports, sustains and has saved the lives of our nation’s most valuable resource on the battlefield, the Soldiers of our great Army,” Jordan said.
“In fiscal year 2015, more than 58,000 warriors trained here. That is indicative of the value this installation provides in support of our nation’s warfighters,” he said. “It is our commitment to excellence and dedication, I envision will continue for the next 75 years.”
Editor’s Note: Quotes were taken from Wealthy in Heart: Oral History of Life Before Fort A.P. Hill, produced by the Cultural Resources Division of Paciulli, Simmons & Associates, Ltd., for the Department of the Army, Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia.