Camp Crowder is located on the edge of the picturesque Ozark mountain region, five miles south of Neosho, a thriving community with a pre-war population of 5,000. Joplin is 25 miles to the north. It was named for General Enoch Herbert Crowder, a native Missourian, who authored the Selective Service Act of World War I.
Fort Crowder was built in 1941 as a training center for the U. S. Army Signal Corps and at its peak had nearly 47,000 troops stationed there. Camp Crowder was activated shortly after the beginning of WWII and served as the temporary home of thousands of male, female, white and black soldiers. The construction of Camp Crowder, one of the largest army installations in the Midwest, doubled the population of Neosho in a matter of weeks. Camp Crowder received most of the Army’s signal recruits, each of whom spent three weeks learning the basics of soldiering: drill; equipment, clothing, and tent pitching; first aid; defense against chemical attack; articles of war; basic signal communication; interior guard duty; military discipline; and rifle marksmanship.
In July 1942, the Midwestern Signal Corps School opened its doors at Camp Crowder with a capacity of 6,000 students. The following month, the Signal Corps’ first unit training center also opened there. The headquarters established in October 1942 to administer this group of schools was designated the Central Signal Corps Training Center. The 800th Signal Training Regiment was located at Camp Crowder in the 1940’s. This unit provided technical training in radio operations, radio repair, high power station operation and maintenance. The camp, a U.S. Army Signal Corp Training Center, flooded the area with an average population of 40,000 uniformed men and women.
By 1943, the War Department had acquired a total of 42,786.41 acres of land that made up Camp Crowder. In order to establish this camp, major improvements had to be made in roads, utilities, railroad spurs, sewage system, and numerous buildings including barracks, mess halls and training facilities. It’s hard to imagine a post the size of Crowder. The Post Exchange had twenty-two branches, with three beauty parlors for WACs and female civilian employees. The post also had two cafeterias for civilian workers. Camp Crowder had its own post newspaper called the Camp Crowder Message with a circulation of 15,000. There were also four service clubs on post along with guest houses for soldier’s guests. Crowder had six movie theaters on post. There were sixteen chapels with a chaplain for each providing regular Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Christian Science services. Camp Crowder had its own large well-staffed hospital and in addition had 15 infirmaries throughout the camp and three dental clinics. There was a field house for athletic events and other activities that could seat 5,000 persons.
The 43rd Signal Construction Battalion (Colored) was activated at Camp Crowder, Missouri on 7 February 1944. Between December 1942 and May 1946, Missouri was home to more than 10,000 German and Italian prisoners of war who lived in 32 camps scattered throughout the state, including at Camp Crowder. The Blacks had WWI barracks, outside latrines and dilapidated facilities. Even the German POW’s had nicer facilities than the Blacks.
Mort Walker used his experiences at Camp Crowder as the model for “Camp Swampy” in his comic strip “Beetle Bailey.” The character “Rob Petrie” played by Dick Van Dyke was stationed at Camp Crowder, as was Van Dyke himself.