Our military mission is global. As a strategic sustaining base for America's Army the work we do is vital to the success of the goals and objectives of the nation's defense strategy.
A list of the organizations who call Fort Belvoir home reads like a "Who's Who" of the Department of Defense. No other Army installation in the world can compare to Fort Belvoir and its singular mission to provide logistical, intelligence and administrative support to such a diverse mix of commands, activities and agencies.
1917-1918: Establishment of Camp A. A. Humphreys
The U.S. Army began utilizing the Belvoir peninsula as an engineer training facility in1915, which they named Camp Belvoir. The facility evolved from the U.S.Army’s Engineer School, which was established in 1866 at Willet’s Point (now Fort Totten), New York. In 1901, the school relocated to Washington Barracks (now Fort McNair) in Washington, D.C. Although Washington Barracks provided ample classroom facilities, that installation lacked adequate field training areas and rifle ranges. As a result, the school was forced to seek additional training space.
In 1912, the Engineer School began conducting summer training exercises on a government-owned parcel in Virginia, located approximately 15 miles south of Washington along the Potomac River. The District of Columbia had acquired the1,500-acre tract on the Belvoir peninsula in 1910 from the Otterback family, for development of a reformatory. However, local community groups and patriotic organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, opposed the establishment of a reformatory on ground so closely associated with George Washington and the other “founding fathers” of the country. Thus, the reformatory never materialized at Belvoir, but was later constructed in nearby Lorton.
In 1912, Congress transferred the Otterback property to the War Department, following an Army request to use the land as a training site. This site was chosen by the Engineer School because of its proximity to the existing school, its adequate water supply and its challenging terrain. Here, engineer students conducted rifle practice, trained in building ponton bridges, and billeted in temporary Camp Belvoir.
America’s entry into World War I in April 1917 led to the first wave of military construction at the Virginia training site. Construction of the semi-permanent cantonment, named Camp A.A. Humphreys in honor of Civil War commander and former Chief of Engineers (1866-79), Major General Andrew A. Humphreys, began in January 1918 under very difficult conditions. The Winter of 1918 was remembered for its extremely cold temperatures and unusually heavy snowfall. Despite these severe conditions, some 5,000 soldiers and 6,000 civilians cleared, surveyed, and constructed camp facilities in only 11 months. Much of the heavy labor was performed by segregated African-American service battalions. According to the first issue of the camp newspaper, The Castle, Camp A.A. Humphreys was “the wonder city in the midst of an unbroken wilderness of forest and swamp” where “the Washingtons and the Fairfaxes hunted the fox.”
The development of Camp A.A. Humphreys transformed the agrarian neighborhood around Accotink and Woodlawn; one historian described the establishment of the camp as “the second invasion by the armed forces” of the Woodlawn neighborhood. Many residents were displaced from their homes and farms, sometimes unwillingly. Many of the members of the Woodlawn Quaker Meeting, who had lost properties, moved elsewhere, and as a result, the long-standing Quaker influence in the Woodlawn neighborhood declined. Through purchase or condemnation, the Army acquired additional acreage during 1917 and 1918, fourteen farms on the peninsula between Accotink and Pohick Creeks were transformed into target ranges, two large parcels along Dogue Creek were taken through government condemnation proceedings, and the purchase of a 3,300-acre parcel that today comprises most of the North Post and Davison Army Airfield was in process by 1918.
Transportation systems and utilities also were improved. Previously, the most direct access to the Belvoir Peninsula had been by boat down the Potomac from Washington – the most efficient way of supplying the camp with building materials and other necessities. Road systems therefore were improved: the unpaved Washington-Richmond Highway was surfaced in concrete within six months (October 1918), and a plank road was constructed that linked the camp to the Washington-Richmond Highway. Standard gauge and narrow gauge railways followed. The Mount Air property was used to construct a railway linking Camp Humphreys with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Building these transportation system not only facilitated deliveries to the camp, but provided valuable engineer training experience for troops sent to the battle lines in Europe.
To accommodate the 20,000 men anticipated at the camp, plans called for the construction of 790 temporary wood-frame buildings. Quarters were filled as soon as they were completed. A consistent supply of fresh water was assured through the construction of a dam across Accotink Creek and a water filtration plant on the site of the former Accotink Mill. Within only four months of the start of the construction, Camp A.A. Humphreys operated in full swing.
Several schools operated at Camp A.A. Humphreys during World War I. One of the most vital components of the camp was the Engineer Replacement and Training Camp, where enlisted men were trained. Camp A.A. Humphreys was also active in training officers during the war. The Engineer Officers’ Training Center operated at Camp Humphreys until February 1919. Its program was designed to select the most qualified enlisted men for training as junior officers. Another school located at Camp A.A. Humphreys was the Army Gas School, necessitated by the advent of chemical warfare. The school of Military Mining taught trench warfare and field fortification techniques. The schools conducted most of their training on the South Post although parts of the southwest peninsula were used for rifle ranges. By the end of the war, over 50,000 enlisted men and 4,900 officer candidates had been trained at Camp A.A. Humphreys.
Life at Camp A.A. Humphreys did not consist solely of military training. Considerable attention was paid to maintaining troop morale. At least six charitable service organizations—the YMCA, Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, the Red Cross, the YWCA, and the Library Board—maintained a permanent presence on the installation. These groups offered social and recreational events for both enlisted men and officers. World War I trainees could participate in inter-installation athletics; improve their basic reading and writing skills; learn to speak French; watch movies and vaudeville shows; visit Washington, D.C.; and attend dances. Troops at Camp Humphreys suffered severely during the late Summer and Autumn of 1918 during the world-wide Spanish Influenza pandemic. The number of troops treated at the camp was at least 4,000; with a mortality rate of 35%.
At war’s end in November 1918, Camp A.A. Humphreys became a demobilization center where troops were prepared for their return to civilian life. By the close of 1919, more than 14,000 men had been demobilized at Camp A.A. Humphreys. The camp retained a small garrison after the war. In 1919, the 5th Engineer Regiment from Camp A.A. Humphreys was called to Washington D.C. to help quell racially motivated civil disturbances.
Inter-War Period: 1919-1939
Unlike many temporary Army installations established during World War I and closed following the war, Camp A.A. Humphreys remained active and continued to expand. By 1919 the camp had grown from its original 1,500 acres to approximately 6,000 acres.
The Army's commitment to the post was demonstrated by the official relocation of the Engineer School from the Washington Barracks to Camp A.A. Humphreys in 1919. Although the school had been utilizing the area as a training site since 1915, it was not until 1919 that the camp became the "home" of the Corps of Engineers. Following the Engineer School's move, Camp A.A. Humphreys was designated a permanent post in 1922 and renamed Fort Humphreys. Throughout the inter-war years, the Engineer School trained new engineer officers in the technical requirements of their duties. Programs offered included forestry, road and railroad construction, camouflage, mining, surveying, pontoon construction, photography, printing, and cooking.
The school also provided compressed courses for National Guard and Reserve officers. The four-week ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) camps, which drew would-be Army Engineers from universities across the country, continued the facility's pre-World War I tradition of using the original 1,500-acre site as a summer training camp. ROTC cadets received basic training in standard military tactics through such courses as bayonet drill and target practice; military administration and military law, first aid and sanitation; and two levels of engineering courses in such specializations as bridgebuilding, demolition, reconnaissance, and railroad construction. Of course, ROTC camp experiences were not all work; the camp had a yearbook, an orchestra, and an organized program of athletic competition. The camp hostess also made certain that the would-be officers socialized with acceptable young ladies from the surrounding neighborhood.
Another addition to Fort Humphreys during the inter-war period was the Engineer Board, which relocated to Fort Humphreys in 1924. The Engineer Board, forerunner of the Belvoir Research, Development and Engineering Center, was founded in 1870 to test engineering equipment. At Fort Humphreys, the Board's mission was to develop specialized engineering equipment. Its establishment marked the beginning of the installation's role in military research and development. During the inter-war period, the Board developed numerous items to make troops more effective and more comfortable in combat. Among the many innovations were assault boats, portable steel bridges, mine detectors, and even portable bathing units.
One of the more dramatic changes to Fort Humphreys during the inter-war period was its physical transformation. By the 1920s, the installation's original temporary buildings had deteriorated, as had most of the Army's other temporary training cantonments that were hastily built during World War 1.
In 1926, the Army initiated an ambitious, nation-wide building program designed to address growing concerns over the deplorable living conditions reported at the nation's military installations. The program aimed to replace World War I temporary wooden buildings with permanent buildings. The program was financed through the sale of 43 military installations; money received from the sales was deposited into a special fund designated the "Military Post Construction Fund."
The Army's nationwide re-building program resulted in a massive construction effort that involved both military and civilian architects, planners, and designers. Standardized architectural plans were developed by the Army's Quartermaster Corps to carry out the construction program effectively and economically. These plans included designs that adapted to local climatic conditions and that reflected local architectural history. The Georgian Colonial Revival style, characterized by red brick facades, strict symmetry, and pedimented central pavilions, was used most often in the eastern areas of the country, where English settlements were clustered in the colonial period. The Spanish Colonial Revival style, characterized by stucco walls and clay tile roofs, was favored for posts in the south and the west, in areas of traditional Spanish influence.
Many of Fort Belvoir's most important buildings were constructed as a result of the nation wide rebuilding program. Most of Fort Humphreys' temporary wood-frame World War I buildings were demolished; in their place, new permanent masonry construction buildings were erected. At Belvoir, the new buildings included officers' housing, barracks, and a hospital, all designed in a Georgian Colonial Revival style.
The landscape plan adopted for Fort Humphreys also exemplified Army efforts to improve the quality of life for its personnel and the aesthetic beauty of its installations. George B. Ford, planning adviser to the War Department during the 1920s, encouraged installations to turn away from more formal, traditional planning practices, particularly the use of straight lines and rigid geometric patterns. He advocated creating useful and aesthetically pleasing environments that took advantage of natural vistas and used irregular lines. Quartermaster Corps officer, First Lieutenant Howard B. Nurse, also influenced Army planning at this time. Like Ford, he advocated the integration of natural topography in the design and layout of streets, especially in residential areas. The results of Nurse's and Ford's philosophies are most apparent in the configuration of the officers' housing sections at Belvoir today.
These new planning concepts were implemented at installations nation-wide, including Fort Humphreys. The elaborate new layout for Fort Humphreys called for separate functional areas united in a formal plan. Administrative and instructional buildings were arranged along one side of the parade ground, with barracks, theater, gymnasium, post exchange, and post office in two squares on the opposite side of the parade ground. Non-commissioned officer housing was arranged in two blocks behind the barracks area, while the officers' housing was placed along a picturesque, curving road in a park-like setting, Warehouses and support buildings were located at the edge of the new post plan.
Another development at the post during the inter-war period was a renewed interest in the history of the area, particularly of William Fairfax's Belvoir Plantation. During the 1920s, two lieutenants at the post, Karrick and Kohloss, surveyed and described the ruins of the old Fairfax mansion, and attempted to reconstruct its historic appearance and layout. At about the same time, Fairfax Harrison, a locally-prominent historian and President of the Southern Railroad, sponsored the construction of the monument obelisk that today marks the graves of William Fairfax and his wife. In 1931, Colonel Edward. H. Schulz, Commanding Officer of Fort Humphreys, initiated the first archeological project at the plantation ruins. Vegetation was cleared, and excavation revealed the foundations of the large mansion, its outbuildings, and the outline of an elaborate walled flower garden with two garden houses that overlooked the Potomac River from the 100-foot bluff.
While Schulz' excavation techniques were somewhat primitive by modern standards, the archeological project generated a tremendous amount of public interest. There was some talk of reconstructing the manor house to serve as the commanding officer's quarters, and, in 1935, the name of the installation was changed from Fort Humphreys to Fort Belvoir. It is said that the name change occurred after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's visit to neighboring Gunston Hall, whose owner informed the president of the post's historic past.
World War II Period: 1940-1945
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.
Post-World War II: 1946 - Present
Following World War II, the engineer training role at Fort Belvoir waxed and waned according to wartime needs. In 1945, both the Engineer Replacement Training Center and the Engineer Officer Candidate School were phased out; however, both programs were reactivated in the 1950s during the Korean Conflict, and again in the 1960s with the Vietnam build-up. Both conflicts required a reassessment of the installation's training function and methods, and a revamping of its physical plant.
For example, by 1950, many World War II temporary barracks had been adapted for other uses. When new enlistees and draftees arrived on the post, they had to be housed in six-man tents while the barracks buildings were reconverted back to their original function. The types of training offered also reflected shifts in warfare technology and philosophy; a Close Combat Range was installed on the peninsula south of the village of Accotink, and on North Post, a Chemical/Biological/Radiological School was instituted.
In general, emphasis at Fort Belvoir in the 1950s began shifting from training to research and development. Throughout the decade, the Engineer Research and Development Laboratories (ERDL) were involved in experimentation with a wide range of technical military applications. The laboratories developed and tested new techniques for electrical power generation; camouflage and deception; methods of handling materials and fuel; bridging, and mine detection. They experimented with portable map copying machines, fungicides for use in tropical environments, and heavy earth-moving equipment. The Castle reported on ERDL’s development of pre-fabricated buildings for use in Arctic environments, and the subsequent testing of these structures in Greenland and Canada. During the 1960s, the primary focus of research at Fort Belvoir shifted to the development of Army vehicles.
Perhaps no structure on the post illustrated more graphically Fort Belvoir’s research and development phase than the SM-1 (Stationary, Medium Power, First Prototype) Nuclear Plant. This facility was developed to generate electricity for commercial use, and to cut back the Department of Defense’s dependency on fossil fuels. The SM-1 Plant, which represented the first national nuclear training facility for military personnel, became operational in 1957 and remained in operation until its de-commissioning in 1973.
The innovative initiatives pursued at Fort Belvoir during the post-war period were also illustrated in its residential architecture. In 1948, the well-known architectural firm of Albert Kahn & Associates designed the Thermo-Con House. This house form was intended to provide a prototype for low-cost, mass-produced housing. The construction of the house employed an innovative technique that used chemically-treated concrete that rose from its foundation like bread rising in a pan. Another major residential project during the 1970s was the McRee Barracks, a complex of mid-rise buildings constructed in 1975 to house 1,200 single enlisted Soldiers.
Fort Belvoir’s mission expanded in other directions between 1950 and 1980. The post began playing host to a variety of organizations, including the DeWitt Army Hospital, the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC), and the Defense Mapping School (DMS). The DeWitt Hospital, constructed in 1957, provided regional healthcare services. DSMC, founded in 1971, was a graduate-level institution that offered advanced courses of study in weapon systems acquisition management for both military personnel and civilians. DMS, a component of the Defense Mapping Agency (now the National Geospatial-Intelligence School), was established in 1972 to provide instruction in tactical mapping, land geodetic surveys, and cartographic drafting.
Fort Belvoir’s educational role also expanded in new directions. Every summer from the 1950s through the 1970s, the post hosted a group of United States Military Academy (USMA) cadets for a week-long training visit. The course was designed to emphasize military engineering as a field of specialization for career development. Fort Belvoir’s USMA Preparatory School also provided a yearlong course of academic study to prepare selected enlisted personnel for entry into West Point; until it moved to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
Fort Belvoir personnel also became intimately involved with two of the most poignant events of the post-war years. In 1963, engineers from Belvoir surveyed the first temporary John F. Kennedy gravesite, and designed a prototype eternal flame—all in less than a week. Lt. Gen.Walter K. Wilson recalled the events of that weekend. “. . . they decided suddenly. . . [that] they were going to bury him in Arlington. That really put us in the middle of things. We had to get over there and locate the grave, work with the cemetery staff, survey the plot, and recommend its location.” After the President’s widow requested the installation of an eternal flame, recalled Wilson: “We all got together on the floor of an Engineer School building. . . where we laid out different things that might work. We designed it right on the floor there, the concept of what would be the eternal flame.”
In 1982, divers from the installation’s 86th Diving Detachment assisted local disaster management agencies in recovering victims and debris from the frozen Potomac River following the disastrous crash of an Air Florida Boeing 737 jet in the midst of a heavy January snowstorm. The post’s 11th Engineer Battalion installed float bridging out to the wreck site. Map personnel from the 30th Engineer Battalion also surveyed the wreck site and produced a series of maps that identified each fragment of baggage or equipment on the river bottom.
Fort Belvoir remained the home of the Engineer School and Center until 1988. Due to a shortage of land for training at Belvoir, the Engineer School relocated to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, thus ending the 70-year association between the Engineer School and Belvoir.
Although its role as an engineer training center diminished after the move in 1989, Fort Belvoir continued to fulfill an important and valuable role. The 8,600-acre post was one of the larger installations in the Military District of Washington (MDW), which also included Fort McNair, Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and Fort Hamilton. The post’s mission was to provide essential administrative and basic operations support to its tenant organizations. Fort Belvoir housed tenants from all armed forces, as well as such Department of Defense agencies as the Army Management Staff College and the Defense Acquisition University. To carry out this mission effectively, Fort Belvoir evolved from a traditional military installation to a more broadly based community. It functioned in many ways like a small city, with its own ordinances, land use plan, building codes, utilities, public parks, and academic institutions.