Unearthing the Forrest
Arnold experts lead a search for the remains of one of the nation’s largest WWII prisoner camp
Earlier this month, the Manchester Times met up with AEDC Historian Chris Rumley, AEDC Archaeologist Shawn Chapman and base Public Affairs Chief Jason Austin for a tour of what is now dense secondary-growth forest near Tullahoma on the western edge of Arnold Air Force Base to see just what remains of the former Camp Forrest prisoner of war compound.
The site is alive with history. Overall the base processed over 68,000 European prisoners, and at its peak, was home to about 20,000 a year.
Now only the concrete skeletons hidden in 68 years of overgrowth remain.
Rumley said that no maps remain of the original compound, but National Archive aerial photos from 1943 give researchers an idea of the layout.
According to Rumley, the oldest parts of Camp Forrest dating back to Camp Peay National Guard summer camp, located south of what is now the Wattendorf Memorial Highway, was first used for POWs.
“The first inspection report, dated Sept. 4, 1943, notes the presence of 3,532 German prisoners housed within three compounds,” he said.
“Problems were cited in terms of poor drainage within the compound and insufficient latrine and shower facilities; however, the POWs had already constructed two theaters and had plans for an orchestra.”
The buildings were standard 16×50-foot theater of operations barracks each used to house 20 POWs, and 15 foot, 10 inch “victory-type” hutments each used to house six men.
“Recreational buildings were standard 20×100-foot theater of operations buildings. Fourteen towers surrounded the stockade and four towers surrounded the recreational field. The fence line comprised a standard double fence with three-strand overhang of barbed wire.”
Today all the towers are gone, but the 12-by12 foot concrete pads originally build for guardsmen’s tents and used as foundations for the huts are still there, as are the foundations from the barracks.
Lost in the Army-National Guard-leased property stands a five-cell stockade that held law-breaking G.I.s.
Camp Forrest earns place in history
As the threat of a second world war loomed, the Camp Forrest as a whole was expanded from its Camp Peay size to 85,000 acres. The camp’s rudimentary infrastructure was developed; 10 miles of paved roads were built and 15 miles of gravel roads were added. In comparison, records show that the county as a whole only had 75 miles of paved roads.
A quarter of a million troops were trained there in its short history.
In May of 1943, the camp, by then bustling training center, was officially activated as a POW camp. As the buildup of soldiers waned, more of the whole camp was used for “anti-Nazi” POWs.
A history of the base, commissioned by the Air Force and written by local historian Michael Bradley, indicates that Camp Forrest was an internment camp before then.
“In a period of just under a month [workers] had constructed housing for approximately 800 civilians,” Bradley writes in the 1993 work.
The first Germans were moved to Camp Forrest in June of 1943, following successful operations in North Africa.
A Nov. 10, 1944 clipping from the Manchester Times. Microfilm archives are available for viewing at the Coffee County Manchester Public Library.
Rumley described these soldiers as hard-core Nazis, but clarified that the majority of the prisoners that were housed at the camp were draftees that were content with the change.
An area of
Fighting our way through dense groundcover to where the harden Nazi would have been kept the group barely avoids stepping in one of the hidden, open manholes.
“This is something you have to watch out for,” Chapman warns. “You wouldn’t see this if you weren’t watching.”
When the War Department auctioned off the buildings, equipment and materials as surplus, workers left the sewage systems and other possible pitfalls open.
Convalescence wards and a hospital area were located adjacent to the Camp Peay site. It was located in low swampland.
Rumley recounts a story of workers filling the area would dump gravel one day, only to return the next to find it settled into the soft ground.
“There must be 20 feet of gravel underground there.”
The last POWs were repatriated between January and March 1946. While at Camp Forrest prisoners were loaned out on work details, used for camp improvements and helped build camouflage netting. Strict attention was paid to insure the proper treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Convention.
According to Rumley, prisoners made $.80 a day for day labor and amassed good sums of money when they returned to Germany. Reportedly, the use of prisoner labor was enough that local farmers pressed to have prisoner repatriation delayed until after harvest.
Camp Forrest was turned over to the U.S. Engineers and dismantled beginning Aug. 1, 1946. Buildings were sent to colleges across the state. Over 2,948 buildings were demolished or removed.
The concrete foundations and chimneys were too difficult to remove.
In places coal lumps still litter the ground were they were dropped in 1946.