The outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939 and Japanese expansion in Asia and the Pacific motivated the United States government to begin preparing for possible involvement in the expanding world conflict. As in World War I, Army engineers would be needed to provide critical support to Allied forces by building roads and bridges, clearing obstacles, providing maps, and engineering demolitions. To prepare engineers adequately for their wartime role, Fort Belvoir once again became one of the Army's primary engineer training sites.
Fort Belvoir again expanded. To accommodate the influx of draftees after 1940, an additional 3,000 acres north of U.S. Route 1 were acquired to make room for the new Engineer Replacement Training Center (ERTC). As in the past, numerous local families were displaced from their small farms by this acquisition. It was during this phase of Belvoir's expansion that the small historic African-American community at Woodlawn disintegrated. The Woodlawn Methodist Church and many residents moved north to the community of Gum Springs along U.S. Route 1. The new Army housing complex known as Young Village was constructed on the site where the community's school, church and Odd Fellows Hall had stood.
In March 1941, the ERTC facility began to provide basic military engineer training to draftees. Originally, the ERTC program was designed as a 12-week course, but its duration was shortened to eight weeks early in 1942, when the demand for troops escalated dramatically after Pearl Harbor. A similar curriculum was offered at the ERTCs at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and later at Camp Abbot in Oregon. Recruits were schooled in reconnaissance, unit coordination, road and obstacle construction, and demolition. After mid-1942, Belvoir began training engineer specialists in operating construction machinery, carpentry, drafting, and surveying. Instruction also was offered for such non-engineering specialties as truck driving, cooking, and baking. As the war progressed and new weapons were developed, specialized courses in weapons operation were added to the curriculum. Engineers learned about tanks and their uses, flamethrowers, and anti-aircraft guns. By the end of the war in 1945, the ERTC at Fort Belvoir had trained roughly 147,000 engineer troops.
One of the most innovative troop training strategies developed during World War II was the obstacle course, invented by Brig. Gen.William Hoge, who later commanded the Engineer School (1947- 48). A Fort Belvoir invention, the course was designed to teach recruits how to handle themselves and their equipment in simulated field conditions. Belvoir's obstacle course incorporated walls to climb over, hurdles to jump over, barbed wire to crawl under, ditches to swing over, and pipes to crawl through. The course was put into operation at the ERTC during the spring of 1941, and was replaced in November 1941 with a more rigorous one designed by Major Lewis Prentiss. Proven to be a highly effective training exercise, the obstacle course was adopted at Army installations throughout the country.
The demands of the global conflict created personnel shortages, and various strategies were developed to overcome these shortfalls. To remedy the shortage of qualified engineer officers during the early years of the war, an Engineer Officer Candidate School (EOCS) was established at Fort Belvoir in July of 1941. During the course of the war, EOCS commissioned over 22,000 new second lieutenants.
The Engineer Board, responsible for the Corps' research and development activities, also grew dramatically during the war years. The Engineer Board conducted most of its testing and development at the Engineer Proving Ground (EPG), acquired in 1940. The EPG was later renamed the Fort Belvoir North Area in 1963. In 1942, the organization moved from its original location off the Parade Ground to the southern end of Gunston Road. In 1947, the Engineer Board changed its name to the Engineer Research and Development Laboratories (ERDL) to more accurately convey its mission. The latest title was the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Center.
World War II also brought women into the Armed Forces on a regular basis for the first time in American history. The first detachment of Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) personnel arrived at Fort Belvoir in March 1943. Members of the WAAC communications, clerical, and service platoons worked as post office clerks, telephone operators, stenographers and typists, motor vehicle drivers, and mechanics. By April 1943, the 50th Headquarters Company WAAC had become a permanent unit at Fort Belvoir.
The social and regulatory dilemmas created by the presence of female military personnel at Fort Belvoir were common topics of discussion in the two installation newspapers, The Castle and The Duckboard: Breezy Bits from Belvoir Barracks. Belvoir's military personnel soon learned, for example, that female Warrant Officers, WAAC officers, and Army nurses were “entitled to the same privileges with reference to salutes as customarily enjoyed and prescribed for commissioned officers.” Marriages between base personnel were reported under such headlines as “Come hell or high water, cupid marches on at Belvoir.”
The massive influx of inductees at Fort Belvoir prompted another wave of temporary construction at the post during World War II. Housing was constructed for approximately 24,000 enlisted men and officers. Like the temporary structures built during World War I, the World War II-era, wood-frame buildings were designed to be simple and inexpensive to construct. Unlike the World War I facilities, however, these newer structures incorporated such improvements as indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity. These temporary buildings were constructed at U.S. Army installations throughout the country as the country mobilized for war.
As before, maintaining troop morale throughout the war years became just as important as technical training. The post offered numerous recreational outlets, from dances and art classes to amateur theatrical productions and a library. Fort Belvoir's two weekly newspapers devoted more space to the social aspects of life at Belvoir than they did to military news. Their pages carried barracks gossip; news of team sporting events; notices about dances; advice on etiquette; cartoons and jokes; helpful hints for surviving Army life; reports on visiting officials, dignitaries, and move stars; and capsule biographies of officers and enlisted men. Not until late in the war did these publications concentrate on hard military news.
At the end of World War II in 1945, Fort Belvoir once again became a demobilization center with facilities designed to ease the transition between military and civilian life. However, the relative calm of the post-war years was short-lived.