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Camp Claiborne was a U.S. Army military camp during World War II located in Rapides Parish in central Louisiana. The camp was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Eighth Service Command, and included 23,000 acres (93 km²). The camp was just north of the town of present-day Forest Hill, near the intersection of U.S. Highway 165 and Louisiana Highway 112.
It was established June 10, 1930, as Camp Evangeline, named for the Evangeline District of the Kisatchie National Forest, where it was situated. It was later renamed for the Governor of the Territory of Orleans and first governor of the State of Louisiana, William C.C. Claiborne. In 1939, construction crews were sent to expand the camp, and it was activated in 1940.
From 1939 to 1946, over half a million men went through Camp Claiborne. The camp was mainly used for basic training and artillery practice, which included the nearby Winn District-Kisatchie Precision Bombing Range. It was also home to the Engineering Unit Training Command (EUTC). Special service forces training was also conducted there, including railroad battalion training. The 34th Infantry Division (United States) came to Claiborne for its basic training and would be the first American force sent to the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
In 1941, prior to the United States declaring war, the camp was used as part of the Louisiana Maneuvers, a 400,000-man training exercise involving two imaginary countries fighting each other. The two armies faced each other across the Red River, over 3,400 square miles (8,800 km2) of land, part of which was in East Texas. Near the end of the war, German prisoners of war (POW) were held at the camp.
Many of the men, like the ones from the 34th Infantry Division who were from Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, had never been to the South. Not only did they have to get used to basic training, they had to get used to the climate (weather and altitude) of Louisiana.
Many units were created or reactivated at Camp Claiborne to include the 84th Infantry Division, 5th Armored Group, 784th Tank Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, 407th Brigade Support Battalion, 332nd Engineer General Service Regiment, 333rd Engineer Special Service Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, 327th Infantry Regiment, 205th Infantry Brigade renamed to 103rd Reconnaissance Troop, 325th Infantry Regiment, 412th Engineer Command, 761st Tank Battalion, 497th Transportation Company, 33rd Infantry Regiment, 18th Engineer Brigade, 1195th Engineer Base Depot Group Redesignated 1195th Engineer Combat Group HHC, 361st Special Services Engineers Regiment, 393rd Special Services Engineers Regiment, 712th Railway Operating Battalion, 725th Railway Operating Battalion (ROB).
It ran from Camp Claiborne—on the Missouri Pacific south of Alexandria—westward 48 miles to Camp Polk—on the Kansas City Southern south of Leesville. Construction began on 4 September 1941, and the Golden Spike ceremony was held on 11 July 1942. In October 1942, the soldiers who had built the Claiborne-Polk Military Railroad shipped out to Iran, where they helped operate the Trans-Iranian Railroad. The foundation of the locomotive shop and other remnants can still be seen.
The 725th and other ROBs referred to it as the "Crime and Punishment" railroad, and was built by the 711th ROB and Army engineers. The engines used were 40 years old, and the freight cars, some not US made, were two generations old. Some European cars had only 4 wheels, and did not do well on curves. Derailments occurred so often that they pulled a crane to pick up derailed cars and repair the roadbed. Often, even the crane derailed. Sometimes the rails sunk under the swamp, and cars were lost in the quicksand. More than one engineer reported seeing the rails swaying and vibrating for some time after the train had passed. It was reported that one engine was lost in the quicksand and is still there. In other cases, buildings were erected on top of the lost equipment, using it as a foundation.
When the camp was closed in 1948, many buildings were donated or sold in the area and were moved. Some can be found in Forest Hill.
The Camp Claiborne chapel was relocated to Clarence in Natchitoches Parish, where it is still used for worship services by the Clarence Baptist Church. The balcony, now a storage area, was used by African American troops who were segregated in worship from white soldiers who used the pews of the lower tier.
Some buildings were purchased by Southeastern Louisiana University.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages the property where the camp once was. Not much is left: part of a gate and a handful of scattered shells of buildings, some of which have been fenced off and sealed with sheets of metal. Many streets still exist, as well as parking lots and footings of the original buildings. The USFS also maintains Claiborne Trail, a 26-mile (42 km) trail system for hiking, walking and biking through the area.
- Army General Order 114