Sunday, June 12, 2011


On July 26, 1917, the first members of a storied U.S. infantry division disembarked at a Fort Worth train station.  Their destination was a patch of land cleared for a future army camp. Three miles west of the city, the new camp was christened Camp Bowie and was to be the new training center for 22,321 National Guardsmen from Texas and Oklahoma.  The training was to prepare them for World War I combat, which was mostly defensive warfare fought in open trenches with machine guns, poison gas, and massive artillery barrages.  The United States had joined the fray in April, 1917 and called for volunteers.  The 36th infantry division was the Texas answer to that call.

To facilitate the mobilization of troops, the U.S. federalized National Guard units throughout the country.  At Camp Bowie, the Guard units had their state designations dropped and were merged into two infantry brigades: the 71st and 72nd.  At the company level, the Guardsmen were grouped by their city or region of origin.  Prideful Oklahomans and Texans were distressed by the loss of their state designations and tried to have them restated, but to no avail.  This was to be a national struggle.

Inclement weather, shortages, and disease plagued Camp Bowie for the first several months.  A shortage of rifles and machine guns forced companies to share their weapons or use sticks until arm shipments arrived.  Before the arrival of blankets and overcoats, cold fronts or “blue northers” hit the camp in late September.  A mad scramble was on for wood or anything that burned safely in a tent stove.  As with any army camp, poor sanitation and bad weather brought disease.  Many members of the 36th grew up on rural farms where they avoided most childhood diseases and had little immunity built up as a result.  In December, a staggering 8,000 were hospitalized for measles, mumps and worst of all, the flu.  During the war, a severe Spanish flu epidemic broke out that killed thousands nationwide.  A two week quarantine was imposed on the camp.  The men were instructed to keep their tents well ventilated, avoid large gatherings, and not use the streets as open sewers.  One officer remarked, “It’s worse than fighting the Germans.”  Wooden floors installed in the tents, improved hospital plumbing, and additional doctors and nurses on call brought the epidemic under control.

Near Benbrook, a 10 mile series of trenches were constructed to simulate a World War I battlefield.  During short rotations, regiments were divided into aggressors and defenders.  Accompanied by flares and artillery barrages they fought “The Battle of Benbrook.” The Camp Commandant, Major Edwin Greble, watched the action atop his horse, "Gray Bill."  Most of the casualties were from fists, rocks, and the occasional sling shot.  The most serious accident was when a trench mortar went off prematurely, killing ten enlisted men.

The twin vices of alcohol and prostitution were a nagging problem for General Greble.  Fort Worth had 178 saloons and an ever growing number of bootleggers.  In compliance with Greble’s wishes, Fort Worth closed down its red light districts and appointed female officers to keep women of loose virtue out of the dance halls.  To divert their attention, the YMCA provided guardsmen with movies and musical instruments.  Football, baseball, boxing and wrestling contests were held among the various units while the American Library Association provided books for the more studious.  Homesick farm boys were provided with gardens to grow food for the mess halls.  To show their gratitude for Fort Worth’s support, the 36th adopted the name “The Panthers” in honor of Fort Worth’s nickname, ”The Panther City;” a name derived from an article by a Fort Worth lawyer who commented, "the city was so drowsy he saw a panther asleep near the courthouse."

On July 13, 1918, the 36th set out by rail to New York and then by ship to France.  Their new camp in France was at Bar-sur-Aube where their training continued until September. In late September, the 71st and 72nd brigades set out for the front lines in the Aisne Valley region of France.  A lack of draft animals kept the 36th short of supplies, especially water.  The horrors of World War I greeted the 36th as they marched passed the remnants of the Hindenburg Line, a nightmarish landscape of shell craters, barbed wire, dead animals, and decomposed corpses feasted on by rats.

Germany was worn down by the ending months of 1918.  Manpower shortages and internal revolts on the home front pushed the German Army on its heels.  The arrival of the Americans would provide the tipping point.  Despite their hardships, Germans still had plenty of ammo, machine guns and an effective air force to strafe Allied infantry.

The 36th first served as a reserve for the French 4th Army and then was ordered into the trenches to relieve the U.S. 2nd Division.  Following an artillery barrage, an assault on the German line was planned for October 8.  The barrage, however, didn’t hit its target but hit well beyond the German trenches.  To make matters worse, a battalion of French tanks failed to provide support for the 36th’s advance.   Undaunted by the hail storm of machine gun bullets, the 71st brigade advanced a mile past the German lines, capturing 600 prisoners in the process.  Their own casualties numbered 1,227 from artillery fire and point blank machine gun fire.

On October 27, the 36th advanced on the German strong point at Foret Ferme, capturing the position and 197 prisoners.  In textbook fashion, the 36th had advanced a total of 13 miles against veteran German units.  Prior to their assault, members of Oklahoma’s Choctaw tribe were used to send messages over the radio.  Totally unfamiliar with the Choctaw dialect, the Germans couldn’t decipher  any radio transmissions coming out of the 36th’s command post.  They were totally in the dark as to the 36th’s plan of attack.

During October 28-29, the 36th was relieved for the rest of the war.  On November 11, 1918, a defeated Germany signed an armistice.  In compliance with new uniform requirements issued to the U.S. divisions, a new shoulder patch was adopted by the 36th.   The purpose of these patches was to help identify men of divisions who became intermixed during combat and bring about an "espirit de corps" among the divisions.  With respect toward their native states, the insignia consisted of a cobalt blue arrowhead, representing Oklahoma, and a khaki letter T, for Texas, superimposed over the arrowhead.

In April, 1919, members of the 36th began returning home to their families in Texas and Oklahoma.  Despite their state pride, Oklahoma and Texas veterans always reflected years later on their service and were more than honored to don the T-Patch.

Taking advantage of Camp Bowie’s utility hookups, developers turned the 2,186 acre camp into a residential area after the war.  The main road through the camp became Fort Worth’s brick-paved Camp Bowie Blvd.

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