In response to dark forces gathering in Europe and to establish a place to train draftees for war, Congress authorized the fort in May 1917 because of its nearby railroad, a Baltimore port and Washington, D.C. The land sold for $37 an acre, and initial construction cost $18 million. The post was originally christened Camp Meade for Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, called “Old Snapping Turtle” by his troops and whose victory at the Battle of Gettysburg turned the Civil War in the North’s favor.
During World War I, more than 400,000 soldiers passed through the camp, a training site for three infantry divisions, three training battalions and one depot brigade. During that time Gen. Meade’s nephew, Maj. Peter F. Meade, stocked more than 22,000 horses and mules there for the remount station. The so-called “Hello Girls,” the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ bilingual telephone-switchboard operators, played a big part as well.
Around 1923 the post’s commanding officer attached an official pet to the 66th Infantry’s light tanks: Old Joe, the Army’s only tank-riding dog. By the time Old Joe died at the post hospital in 1937 he’d become famous, and the 66th Infantry paid him homage with a full military formation and procession of tanks and trucks to accompany him to his grave near a tank park.
In 1928, Army officials changed the post’s name to Fort Leonard Wood (an Army physician who rose through the ranks to high position and, eventually, the Medal of Honor), but members of Congress threatened to hold up appropriations until the Army agreed in 1929 to change the permanent installation’s name back to Fort George G. Meade.
Between 1942 and 1946, more than 200 units and 3.5 million men trained at Fort Meade. By March 1945, wartime peak military personnel numbered about 70,000 and the camp expanded services. The Cooks and Bakers School, for example, baked bread for the entire post (20,000 people including families of married men).
In 1942, the Third Service Command opened the Special Services Unit Training Center, which trained soldiers in all phases of the entertainment field. Actors, writers and musicians, including swing-band leader Glenn Miller, passed through.
German and Italian prisoners of war were also held there, starting in September 1943 with a first shipment of 1,632 Italian and 58 German prisoners. Some, including highly decorated German submarine commander Werner Henke, died and were buried at Fort Meade.
Throughout the war, more than 150,000 women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) — the first, other than nurses, to join the Army.
After World War II, Fort Meade reverted to routine peacetime activities until June 15, 1947, when the Second U.S. Army Headquarters transferred command over Army units throughout a seven-state area from Baltimore to the post. Almost 19 years later, the Second U.S. Army merged with the First U.S. Army at the fort to administer Army installations in a 15-state region.
In August 1990, Fort Meade began processing Army Reserve and National Guard units for Operation Desert Shield. The post also sent two of its own active-duty units — the 85th Medical Battalion and the 519th Military Police Battalion — to Saudi Arabia. In all, 2,700 personnel from 42 units deployed from the fort during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm.