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Camp Forrest Oral History Project Debuts at Arnold
Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn. -- The former occupants of a small, inconspicuous tract of land on Arnold Air Force Base (AFB) are now a center of attention.
The land bears remnants of concrete foundations almost hidden by dense brush. The concrete foundations are the physical record of the African-American barracks on Camp Forrest, one of the Army's largest training bases during World War II.
Arnold Engineering Development Center's cultural resources staff is overseeing an investigation of the former occupants and their descendants on that portion of Camp Forrest to determine its historic significance, as required by federal regulation and Air Force instructions.
Shawn Chapman said the Tennessee Army National Guard has plans to build barracks in that location and the historical investigation is only in the early stages.
"The African-American barracks portion of Camp Forrest is being investigated through archival research which will be followed by informant interviews," he said. "AMEC Earth and Environmental, Inc., the same company that is doing the archaeological work on Native American sites, is doing this as well."
Hillori Schenker is an architectural historian with AMEC.
"I am helping to lead the archival portion of the project," she said. "It will involve looking at a number of primary and secondary resources; primary resources being records in the local libraries and archives, whether they're marriage certificates, newspaper articles or other things from the contemporary period of World War II."
She will also be looking for secondary sources, including journal articles and other professional papers that have been published about the subject in the years following World War II.
"We have completed the preparations for the archival work," Schenker said. "We have another archival researcher, Amanda Kincaid, who will be heading to Atlanta to the National Archives to look at their information and papers."
Schenker acknowledged that acquiring oral histories will prove more challenging.
"We're also pursuing [those] leads at the same time, as to who we can talk to, the different people that may be willing to speak with us. Thus far, we've found a couple of groups that are mostly children of the soldiers. We haven't yet found any soldier to speak with, but we are hopeful after a trip down to the Tullahoma area that we may have some more leads on the soldiers and where to find them."
Lt. Col. Milton Thompson, the Battalion Commander of the 301st Troop Command and Environmental Branch Chief for the military department of Tennessee, is an African-American with more than 20 years in the Tennessee National Guard. It will be members of Tennessee Guard units who may use the new barracks slated for construction at Volunteer Training Site -Tullahoma on Arnold AFB when funds become available.
Colonel Thompson acknowledges that today's generation, both black and white, have forgotten much of their country's history.
"African-American have engaged and fought for their country and issues since the Civil War," he said. "When you look back at the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment that was depicted in the movie 'Glory' and other units you see evidence of men and women who fought and died for their freedom and ours.
"If you can imagine the conditions of separate living quarters, lack of uniforms, less pay and lack of other simple amenities that soldiers had to forfeit back then, yet they still wanted to serve and were willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom," he continued. "Today the military has achieved integration in all branches of the armed services. Military personnel have equal opportunities for advancement. We have seen African-Americans climb to the top of the chain of command. I'm sure it was not easy, but several have achieved the four-star positions and now even the Commander-In-Chief."
Colonel Thompson said he has no regrets about joining the military. "The military has afforded me professional growth and promotional opportunities that were not available 60 years ago," he said. "The experience, camaraderie and relationships built over time were invaluable. I have always been proud to wear the uniform and serve.
"I think the changes that I have seen over the last 20 years are steps in the right direction. I'm sure every branch still has issues and challenges when it come to race relations; however, I feel we have moved forward by making positive changes, adding diversity training, adding the resources and avenues for all soldiers that were not available 30 years ago."