I have obtained a few “patriotic”-themed covers over the years and I especially like the one featured today, featuring the text of the “Pledge of Allegiance”. As a schoolboy in Texas and Tennessee, i recited this on a daily basis as school but cannot recall having to do so once we moved to Kansas. A few days ago, I was talking to my students here in Thailand after watching them do a prayer at the morning assemblies during which they hold their hands over their hearts just as we did. I told them we did a prayer everyday to our flag but I could not remember any of the words past “I pledge allegiance to the flag….” Luckily, I have this cover to remind me.
Late in 1941 a team of Army surveyors visited the site of a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp near the small rural town of Blackstone, Virginia. There they found enough land, water and other resources needed to establish a post large enough to simultaneously train more than one infantry division. The site also offered easy railroad access to both mountain and coastal training sites. By December 1941, 45,867 acres (185.62 km²) of land in Nottoway, Dinwiddie, Lunenburg and Brunswick Counties were acquired and cleared to prepare for construction of the first buildings.
Elements of the Virginia National Guard had their first taste of what is now Fort Pickett on 6-7 December 1941 when the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, camped here on the way back to its home station at Fort Meade, Maryland, having completed a series of war games in North Carolina.
The procurement of the land to build the base forced 263 families (totaling 1,181 individuals) from their farms early in 1942. Many relocated to other farms but some had to abandon the only way of life they had known. Within months, their homes were demolished, the graves of their ancestors moved elsewhere, and the camp erected. Because of the sacrifices of these citizens, more than one million men trained at Camp Pickett and fought bravely on battlefields around the world.
The name was chosen to honor Richmond, Virginia native Major General George E. Pickett of the Confederate Army, whose ill-fated charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania during the U.S. Civil War, holds a unique place in the history of warfare. Today, Fort Pickett is one of ten U.S. Army installations named for former Confederate Generals. The camp was formally dedicated in ceremonies at 3 p.m. on 3 July 1942, exactly 79 years to the day and hour of Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg.
Development at the base continued at a rapid pace after the United States’ entry into World War II, and by the end of 1942 approximately 1,000 barracks for enlisted, 70 officer’s quarters, and another 400 various buildings were completed and in use. These other buildings included 12 chapels, a post hospital, six fire houses, warehouses, and headquarters and administrative facilities.
For recreation, there were four movie theaters, a gym, several enlisted clubs, and a main post exchange; as well as several satellite PXs. Transportation infrastructure was critical and involved both an Army airfield and railways being constructed to facilitate moving troops on and off base. Two rail spurs to the camp were connected to the nation’s existing rail infrastructure. Air transportation to and from Pickett became available with the completion of a Blackstone Army Airfield in late 1942. The tower was placed beside the only hangar built on post, and its steel beam frames and cinder block foundation are still visible today. Since each cement runway was 5,269 feet long and 300 feet wide, the four-runway airfield was large enough to allow the safe landing of the Douglas C-47 “Gooney Bird.” Fighter planes could use the runway in an emergency, although none were stationed at the airfield. Aircraft fuel was delivered by rail and contained in fuel trucks, since permanent storage tanks were not constructed until after World War II. The airfield remained virtually unchanged until the 1990s.
The Army also built and maintained its own water and sewage plants to assure adequate sanitation and potable water for the post. In the 1980s, these facilities were transferred to the control of the town of Blackstone.
Two prisoner-of-war camps, and nine smaller satellite camps in nearby counties, housed approximately 6,000 German POWs. Many of these POWs were brought to the United States to perform farm work and other non-war-related jobs as allowed by the Geneva Convention. As the U.S. sent thousands of soldiers overseas to fight the war, the shortage of labor force resulted in using the German POWs for installation improvements such as the construction of a football stadium at Camp Pickett. POWs received minimum pay of $.80 a day and and part of their wages helped pay for the POW program. The prisoners also received the same rations as U.S. soldiers and were provided with entertainment and education. After the war, most German POWs were released and sent back home with several hundreds in earnings. Today, the stadium is still being used by the Army for holding football camps and conducting physical fitness training and testing.
The first of the fighting units to train at Camp Pickett was the 79th Infantry Division, under the command of Major General Ira T. Wyche. Cadre of the 313th, 314th, and 315th Infantry Regiments and the 310th, 311th, 312th, and 904th Field Artillery Battalions began the two month basic training of thousands of new recruits. They had the advantage of training on one of the newest rifle ranges in the country. Among the innovations of the range were a dyke that allowed simultaneous short and long range rifle practice and the moving target range that provided training that proved invaluable in the combat that the troops would soon see in Europe.
The 78th Infantry Division, under Major General Edwin P. Parker, arrived in April of 1944 and sent its already-trained troops to Europe as replacements. To fill its ranks, the 78th began retraining of troops from the Army Air Corps and the Army Specialized Training Program to become infantrymen. After five and a half months of extensive general combat training, the new infantrymen departed for the European Theatre. They distinguished themselves during 1945, with units participating in decisive actions from the Hurtgen Forest and Siegfried Line to the Ruhr Pocket.
Various non-divisional units of almost every type also trained at Camp Pickett. Hospital and medic troops, combat engineers, anti-aircraft units, chemical warfare companies, signal companies, and firefighting units were among the many special troops that went through both basic and advanced training on the ranges and maneuver areas. The bivouac areas of the camp also served as a field training ground for more than 5,000 ordnance basic trainees of the Army Service Forces Training Center, from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
Camp Pickett initially was the home of the 79th Infantry Division but also became the primary training center for medical field personnel as the Medical Replacement Training Center. Camp Pickett had numerous lakes, wooded terrains and rolling countryside and made it suitable for various military training programs. The War Department decided to use this camp and established a new basic medical training center for political reasons in order to reduce the the heavy training loads at Camp Lee. In June 1942, the medical trainees from Camp Lee marched for 35 miles in three days. According to Brigadier General William Dear, the War Department saved 5,000 gallons of gasoline in moving the trainees from Camp Lee in the “interest of national warfare”. Several thousands of cadres and trainees from Camp Lee arrived with the 79th Division simultaneously. The training center also established number of specialty schools for cooks, clerks and ambulance drivers, NCO and officer candidate schools. The camp became a bustling center for all types of training.
The average training period for specialty school took about 13 weeks. In 16 months of training, the MTRC produced 150,000 trained medical soldiers. The soldiers received training in various areas of laboratory, pharmacy, dental, optical, and general hospitals to perform special duties from the frontlines to medical units or general hospitals. The trainees also learned first aid, evacuation procedures over difficult terrain and treatment of all types of diseases. Soldiers had to be trained fast and be technically proficient so they can be shipped to their duty stations. The MRTC grew to 14 medical battalions and continued on supporting the war missions. Then in 1943, the demands for replacement training declined, the MRTC was finally deactivated after the last graduating class ended.
After the war, the role of Camp Pickett changed to standby status in February 1946 and continued until May 1948. The 17th Airborne detachment arrived at that time and the camp was reactivated to train 12,000 trainees for basic training. After post-war stabilization, it was necessary to deactivate the 17th Airborne Division and once again, Camp Pickett returned to a smaller post and minimum assigned personnel.
In November 1949, the 3rd Infantry Division was mobilized to support Operation Portrex. Camp Pickett became the staging post and provided logistical support to 10,000 troops for three months in 1950. After completion of Operation Portrex, the post made preparations to support 10,000 troops from Virginia and Maryland National Guard for their annual training exercise during July and August 1950. Post activities increased from constant flow of new officers reporting for permanent assignment and the arrival of 43rd Infantry Division elements. The gradual build-up of military and civilians employed at Camp Pickett resulted in the opening of additional PX, service clubs, theaters, laundry and clothing sales stores. Classes were given to new units in combat village training, infiltration courses and and close-combat training.
By 1960, Camp Pickett repurposed portions of the post to accommodate battalions for specialized training with one and two weeks duration each year. Pickett experienced two significant interrelated events in 1974. The first was its redesignation from “Camp” to “Fort Pickett” as a reflection of its new mission to offer training opportunities, not only to Reserve units, but also active duty forces on a yearly basis. The second important event was the completion of the first new building on the post since the Korean War. Building 467 contained space to house enlisted personnel, a mess facility, and administrative offices. It was built of brick.
Ten years later, a new complex of barracks and support structures was completed. Large enough to house an entire brigade, the complex was dedicated on 8 June 1984, in memory of Technical Sergeant Frank D. Peregory of the 116th Infantry, 40 years to the day after he earned the Medal of Honor during the D-Day invasion. Other upgrades of facilities included a doubling of the existing telephone system from 2,600 to 5,100 lines in 1991 and renovation and extension of the Blackstone Army Airfield’s runways in 1994 to allow use by C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft. This permitted easy access for airmobile troops and equipment coming to Fort Pickett for training.
In more recent years, other structures were added or converted to meet the post’s changing missions. Among these were a new firehouse and renovations on the remaining NCO Club, making it more of a community center where local town events as well as post functions are held. Good community relations have always been important to the success of Fort Pickett. From its very beginning, the post has dramatically changed the lives of the citizens of Blackstone. It has created a number of good jobs and supported the town in a variety of other ways, from hosting elderly fishing trips at the on-post lakes to Fourth of July celebrations. Boy and Girl Scouts organizations also have camped, fished and hiked the nature trails for many years. Currently, many activities attract a large number of local citizens and former staff and personnel who had been stationed there during the war.
Fort Pickett is also the home of an annual exercise with elements of 36 Canadian Brigade Group, located in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Exercise “Southbound Trooper” is a joint exercise between the Canadian Forces Primary Reserves and Virginia National Guard that helps forge solid NATO doctrine between the two militaries. Soldiers from 37 Canadian Brigade, located in New Brunswick and Newfoundland also hold an annual exercise “Maritime Raider”, usually shortly after Southbound Trooper.
While the facilities at Pickett are geared to train military personnel and units, non-military organizations use them too. These include the United States Marshals Service, FBI, ATF, the Virginia Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, Virginia State Police and local law enforcement agencies.
The decision to inactivate the regular Army garrison at Fort Pickett and turn over operation of the post to the Virginia National Guard was finalized in 1995 and enacted in 1997. Since that time no regular Army personnel have been assigned to Pickett.
Today Fort Pickett has 42,000 acres of Maneuver areas and provides many state of the art facilities. Both Virginia National Guard and Air Guard units occupy the installation and employ hundreds of permanent active duty soldiers, state civilian employees and contractors. The Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett, under the command and control of Virginia Army National Guard Headquarters provides directorate support in logistics; planning, training and security; public works; and personnel, morale, welfare, recreation and community activities. MTC’s primary mission is to provide realistic and challenging training to our customers.
Fort Pickett continues to develop and implement various structural and service improvements to meet many challenges and new missions. The post also brought many jobs and success to the local businesses and tourism. Fort Pickett has many services to offer ranging from recreational sports, lodging, social, and educational services that attract local residents, service members, families and retirees.
This cover was mailed from Camp Pickett in April 1943 by Private R.E. Meeker to Bill Meeker (father or brother?) in Mansfield, Ohio, using the Free franking system provided for active duty personnel. The newly-minted private (an engineer, apparently) added a U.S. Army pennant sticker on the envelope’s back flap.