Nov 10

Camp San Luis Obispo during World War II

Camp San Luis Obispo aerial February 1952 photo by McLain

Senator Harry Truman made a national reputation by exposing waste and corruption in the defense spending budget. He was a artillery veteran of World War I and took offense when he found troops being shortchanged. In 1941 his attention turned toward Camp San Luis Obispo. He would later, serve as vice-president and become president upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was often the in the field representative of her husband’s administration and she visited the camp. Historian Dan Krieger, author of “War Comes to the Middle Kingdom: Vol. I: 1939-42″ and has written several columns for the Tribune on Camp San Luis Obispo.

Published: Sunday, August 24, 2003


By Dan Krieger

Troops train at Camp San Luis Obispo, night photo - post card

Rain or the lack of it has been a major factor in the history of our region.
This past week we’ve been celebrating Camp San Luis Obispo’s 75th anniversary. The camp opened as a California National Guard facility in 1928. By 1940, the certainty of war in the Pacific caused it to be converted into one of our nation’s largest U.S. Army training bases.
The camp’s expansion occurred during one of the wettest winters ever experienced along the Central Coast.
In 1941, the heavy rains got us special attention from America’s first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the future president of the United States, Harry S. Truman.
Here’s the story:
The rural dairying, wheat and truck farming county “went to war” earlier than many other parts of the United States. Because of its proximity to the Pacific, its rail and highway connections to the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area, its nearness to California’s agricultural heartland and its vast quantities of rugged landscape, the Central Coast was picked as a key military training area by the War Department.

Field kitchen, Camp San Luis Obispo

Camp San Luis Obispo opened in 1928. Located in the southwestern portion of the Chorro Valley, it became the summer headquarters for the California National Guard. Activities were virtually suspended during the early years of the Depression, but the Guard was revived in 1934 by California’s new governor, Frank F. Merriam. Merriam called up the Guard to suppress the San Francisco General Strike. He made a strong National Guard an issue in the famous election between himself and Upton Sinclair. The camp was briefly renamed Camp Merriam in his honor.
During the fall of 1940, the War Department began the process of secretly leasing ranches adjacent to Camp Merriam.
Construction began immediately, hampered by a countywide average of 36 inches of rain between January and March 1941. A good deal more rain was concentrated in the Chorro Valley.
While the Central Coast has had larger rains since, especially in 1969, ’73 and ’83, drainage facilities were nonexistent in 1941. Whole portions of the camp were swamped and had to be rebuilt. Millions of dollars in construction equipment and material were lost. All this added tremendously to the bill for the camp: $17 million!
On Aug. 14, 1941, the Telegram-Tribune ran a headline announcing: “U. S. SENATE GROUP ATTACKS CAMP ABOUT BUILDING COSTS.” Sen. Harry S. Truman’s committee on wartime waste and mismanagement labeled Camp San Luis Obispo’s construction costs “unduly and unnecessarily high.” Only those who actually endured the rains could understand the reason why.
Cliff Nordstrom remembers:
“Rain and cold waged war with us when we built Camp San Luis Obispo, so much so that we even had to invent ways to enable us to hold our tools.
“I came to the camp in 1941 with a friend, Ross Becker. Ross became a carpenter foreman, and I was given a carpenter’s job building wooden floors for tent hutments. What I remember most is that it never seemed to quit raining. But we worked through it.
“The lumber for these tent floors was cut to length in a mill set up adjacent to where we assembled them. We made jigs to assemble the 2-by-4-inch framing and floor joists, then we nailed 1-by-4-inch tongue and grove flooring to them. When we completed a 16-by-16-foot floor, we stockpiled it to be picked up later and taken to be set up with the tent.
“We used what is called a rigging ax — a tool used those days in the oil fields — rather than a carpenter’s hammer. Because the weather was so wet and cold, we would rub paraffin on the ax handle. Then the heat from our hands would melt the paraffin and form grips that made it easier for us to hold onto the axes.
“Among our diversions was playing a form of poker based on the numbers on our paychecks. I recall a time when a dispute arose over who had won and one of the workers ended up with a broken jaw.
“We stayed in a tent area erected for construction workers and ate in a mess hall. Once on my way to eat, I stepped out of my tent into a driving rain, missed the steps and ended up knee-deep in mud.
“Some time later we moved to Pismo Beach and stayed in the Restwell Motel. We commuted to the camp by car pool, and the trips were very slow because of the narrow roads and the heavy traffic caused by so many persons who worked there.”
But there were other reasons for cost overruns besides the rain. These include the morale of the troops. Young American boys, fresh out of the depths of the Great Depression, had been inducted into the army. They were sent to training camps in remote areas far from home.
President Roosevelt was tied down by heavy leg braces and a wheelchair. His wife became his “eyes and ears” in the field. She was attentive to the human needs of a nation in the throes of economic crises. By 1941, she became acutely aware of the psychological needs of millions of army trainees.
San Luis Obispo’s Phil Amborn recalls how Eleanor Roosevelt changed the appearance of Camp San Luis Obispo:
“Eleanor Roosevelt selected the colors in which the barracks at Camp Roberts and Camp San Luis Obispo were painted. I know because I had other ideas that conflicted with the first lady’s choices.
“As a first lieutenant, I was assigned to the office of Col. Edward M. George, who was in charge of nearly all Army construction on the West Coast in early 1941.
“The heavy rains and mud of the winter of 1940-41 slowed the construction of both camps, and the press began to print articles about the adverse conditions under which the soldiers were serving.
The drab appearance of the unpainted buildings came in for criticism, although the articles failed to suggest how to paint wet buildings.
“When the rains let up and the weather warmed, I was sent to the Los Angeles factory of the paint firm, which was the low bidder, to expedite paint shipments to the camps. I impressed upon the firm’s managers that they should implement extra shifts until paint was arriving at the camps faster than it could be applied.
“Upon my return to the office, and with all the brashness of a young lieutenant, I pointed out to my superiors that the lead and zinc pigments called for in the contract were using metals that were in short supply and, furthermore, that earth colors would be better and would also have some camouflage value.
“I was told to forget it because Mrs. Roosevelt had picked out the cream color for the structures and the green for the roofs. She thought a bright, homey appearance would be of great benefit to the morale of our servicemen.”

Related posts:

  1. Camp San Luis opens
  2. Edna Military Camp
  3. Communist Tourist Nikita Khrushchev visits San Luis Obispo
  4. Cockfighting in San Luis Obispo County
  5. San Luis Obispo Gasworks