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At its inception, Fort Pickett was originally named Camp Pickett. The name was chosen to honor Richmond, Virginia native Major General George E. Pickett, whose ill-fated charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania during the US Civil War, holds a unique place in the history of warfare. Situated just east of the town of Blackstone, Virginia, the location of Camp Pickett was chosen for its central location and access to natural resources. Approximately 46,000 acres were acquired and cleared, and construction began in January 1942. The camp was formally dedicated in ceremonies at 3 p.m. on July 3, 1942, exactly 79 years to the day and hour of Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg.
Development at the base continued at a rapid pace after the United States’ entry into World War II, and by the end of 1942 approximately 1,000 barracks for enlisted, 70 officer’s quarters, and another 400 various buildings were completed and in use. These other buildings included 12 chapels, a post hospital, six fire houses, warehouses, and headquarters and administrative facilities.
For recreation, there were four movie theaters, a gym, several enlisted clubs, and a main post exchange; as well as several satellite PXs. Transportation infrastructure was critical and involved both an Army airfield and railways being constructed to facilitate moving troops on and off base. Blackstone Army Airfield consisted of multiple runways, an air-control tower, and the post’s only hangar. Two rail spurs to the camp were connected to the nation’s existing rail infrastructure.
The Army also built and maintained its own water and sewage plants to assure adequate sanitation and potable water for the post. In the 1980s, these facilities were transferred to the control of the town of Blackstone. Two prisoner-of-war camps, and nine smaller satellite camps in nearby counties, housed approximately 6,000 German POWs. Many of these POWs were brought to the United States to perform farm work and other non-war-related jobs as allowed by the Geneva Convention.
Training for War
The first of the fighting units to train at Camp Pickett was the 79th Infantry Division, under the command of Mag. Gen. Ira T. Wyche. Cadre of the 313th, 314th, and 315th Infantry Regiments and the 310th, 311th, 312th, and 904th Field Artillery Battalions began the two-month basic training of thousands of new recruits. They had the advantage of training on one of the newest rifle ranges in the country. Among the innovations of the range were a dyke that allowed simultaneous short- and long-range rifle practice and the moving target range that provided training proved invaluable in the combat that the troops would soon see in Europe.
The 78th Infantry Division, under Maj. Gen. Edwin P. Parker, arrived in April of 1944 and sent it’s already-trained troops to Europe as replacements. To fill its ranks, the 78th began retraining of troops from the Army Air Corps and the Army Specialized Training Program to become infantrymen. After five and a half months of extensive general combat training, the new infantrymen departed for the European Theatre. They distinguished themselves during 1945, with units participating in decisive actions from the Hurtgen Forest and Siegfried Line to the Ruhr Pocket.
Various non-divisional units of almost every type also trained at Camp Pickett. Hospital and medic troops, combat engineers, anti-aircraft units, chemical warfare companies, signal companies, and firefighting units were among the many special troops that went through both basic and advanced training on the ranges and maneuver areas. The bivouac areas of the camp also served as a field training ground for more than 5,000 ordnance basic trainees of the Army Service Forces Training Center, from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
Medical Replacement Training Center
Camp Pickett initially was the home of the 79th Infantry Division but also became the primary training center for medical field as the Medical Replacement Training Center. Camp Pickett had numerous lakes, wooded terrains and rolling countryside and made it suitable for various military training programs. The War Department decided to use this camp and established a new basic medical training center for political reasons in order to reduce the short- and long-range heavy training loads at Camp Lee. In June 1942, the medical trainees from Camp Lee marched for 35 miles in three days. According to Brigadier General William Dear, the War Department saved 5,000 gallons of gasoline in moving the trainees from Camp Lee in the “interest of national warfare”. Several thousands of cadres and trainees from Camp Lee arrived with the 79th Division simultaneously. The training center also established number of specialty schools for cooks, clerks and ambulance drivers, NCO and officer candidate schools. The camp became the bustling center for all types of training.
The average training period for specialty school took about 13 weeks. In 16 months of training, the MTRC produced 150,000 trained medical soldiers. The soldiers received training in various areas of laboratory, pharmacy, dental, optical, and general hospitals to perform special duties from the frontlines to medical units or general hospitals. The trainees also learned first aid, evacuation procedures over difficult terrain and treatment of all types of diseases. Soldiers had to be trained fast and be technically proficient so they can be shipped to their duty stations. The MRTC grew to 14 medical battalions and continued on supporting the war missions. Then in 1943, the demands for replacement training declined, the MRTC was finally deactivated after the last graduating class ended.
The Hospital Center
As the last of the trainees left, the War Department announced that Camp Pickett would be one of four temporary general hospitals for ill and wounded troops returning from overseas on June 1942. Both officers and enlisted medical personnel were called upon to convert the Station Hospital into a full-scale General Hospital. The former Station Hospital had 67 wards and was equipped to handle all types of illness and injuries. Colonel Leonard W. Hassett became the commanding officer of the General Hospital in December 1943. He ordered repairs and improvements both inside and outside of the hospital building at maximum speed before receiving large number of patients. Bed capacity was increased from just over 2,000 beds to 2,700 beds by utilizing former barracks buildings as new hospital wards. They received medical, surgical, and psychiatric care during their time at the General Hospital. The hospital treated over 15,000 orthopedic cases with 60 medical officers, 200 nurses and medical technicians who worked around the clock.
After the General Hospital was completed, a separate Convalescent Hospital was then established to provide recovery care for combat veterans intended for short stay and recuperation. The veterans also received care in readjusting and reorienting to civilian life with counseling, educational, and physical reconditioning programs. The Army spent 1.25 million dollars to repaint the building with cream color and removed the camouflage paint so it reflected a home-like environment. Wood working shops, machine shops and recreational activities were added so the soldiers could be released back to their duties or discharged from the Army. The hospital processed over 12,000 patients with two to four weeks of stay. It also had a successful four dental clinics and laboratory that accounted for large part of Pickett’s history.
Once the two hospitals were fully operational, their activities as a Hospital Center were led under the supervision of a commander, adjutant and liaison officer. Colonel Frederick Potters took command of the first Hospital Center and then succeeded by Colonel Oramel Stanley. The hospital mostly treated soldiers from their home station at Third Service command of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
Prisoners of War
From 1943 to 1945, Camp Pickett housed approximately 2,700 and reported that it peaked to 6,000 German prisoners of wars throughout Virginia branch camps in September 1945. The POWs performed various jobs in farming, harvesting, canning of fruits and vegetables, and construction. As the United States sent thousands of soldiers overseas to fight the war, the shortage of labor force resulted in using the German POWs for installation improvements such as the construction of stadium in Camp Pickett. POWs received minimum pay of $.80 a day and part of their wages helped pay for the POW program. The prisoners also received the same rations as U.S. soldiers and provided with entertainment and education. After the war, most German POWs were released and sent back home with several hundreds in earnings.
Today, the stadium is still being used by the Army for holding football camps and conducting physical fitness training and testing.
The Cold War
After the war, the role of Camp Pickett changed to standby status in February 1946 and continued until May 1948. Then, the 17th Airborne detachment arrived and the camp was reactivated to train 12,000 trainees for basic training. After post-war stabilization, it was necessary to deactivate the 17th Airborne Division and once again, Camp Pickett returned to a smaller post with minimum assigned personnel.
In November 1949, the 3rd Infantry Division was mobilized to support the Operation Portrex. Camp Pickett became the staging post and provided logistical support to 10,000 troops for three months in 1950. After completion of Operation Portrex, the post made preparations to support 10,000 troops from Virginia and Maryland National Guard for their annual training exercise during July and August 1950. Post activities increased from constant flow of new officers reporting for permanent assignment and the arrival of 43rd Infantry Division elements. The gradual build-up of military and civilians employed at Camp Pickett resulted in the opening of additional PX, service clubs, theaters, laundry and clothing sales stores. Classes were given to new units in combat village training, infiltration courses and close-combat training.
By 1960, Camp Pickett repurposed portions of the post to accommodate battalions for specialized training with one and two week durations each year. It was not until 1974 that the “Camp” became a “Fort” and the first permanent brick building and new barracks including supporting facilities were finally completed. In 1994, the Blackstone Army Airfield runways were also renovated and expanded for transporting troops and equipment and training. The regular Army garrison at Fort Pickett was then inactivated in 1997 and the post was turned over to the Virginia National Guard. In recent years, a firehouse was added and the remaining NCO Club was renovated making it a location for post functions, as well as for events for the town of Blackstone.
Today, both Virginia Army National Guard and Air Guard units occupy the installation and employ hundreds of permanent active duty Soldiers, state civilian employees and contractors. The Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett, under the command and control of Virginia Army National Guard Headquarters, provides directorate support in logistics; planning, training and security; public works; and personnel, morale, welfare, recreation and community activities. MTC’s primary mission is to provide realistic and challenging training to our customers.
Fort Pickett continues to develop and implement various structural and service improvements to meet many challenges and new missions. The post also brought many jobs and success to the local businesses and tourism. Fort Pickett has many services to offer ranging from recreational sports, lodging, social, and educational services that attract local residents, service members, families and retirees.