Jerry Summers: Camp Nathan Bedford Forrest - World War II

Sunday, August 16, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

When one travels on Highway 111 in Van Buren County near Spencer there are few physical signs to recall the existence of what was once part of a 78,000-85,000-acre military base known as Camp Forrest.


A few concrete slabs and a Tennessee Historical memorial sign are all that remain of one of the main training centers for branches of the services during World War II.  What does remain is part of the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) primarily located near Tullahoma, Tennessee. 


Originally known as Camp Peay in honor of Tennessee Governor Austin Peay and sitting on 1,042 acres, it was rapidly expanded into the facility that included 1,300 buildings, 55 miles of roads, and five miles of railroad tracks which in reality was a mid-sized city during the war effort from 1940-1946.  Tullahoma grew from a small town of 4,500 citizens into a city of 75,000 that included all of the benefits and disadvantages of sudden and unexpected urban sprawl.  Over 20,000 civilians were employed in creating the camp.


The larger base was renamed after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Surprisingly it did not get tangled up on the issue of Forrest’s character and alleged cruelty to minorities or membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Civil War years.  Forrest’s reputation was a minor issue in wartime and resulted in little controversy.  Whether the name of the camp can survive the present nationwide controversy over anything connected to the Confederacy is a political and racial issue which will ultimately be decided.  One group that has not received as much attention over the issue has been the men that received their training at Camp Forrest as Rangers and scaled the cliffs of Normandy on D Day in June, 1944.  Should the few survivors and descendants have some input in the controversy over any proposed name change?


The needs of the military greatly exceeded the original capacity of the camp and it expanded rapidly to include an induction center where over 250,000 young men were examined to determine their eligibility and health conditions to become soldiers.


As the war clouds developed before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States in 1940 began preparations for combat and Camp Forrest was established on a limited basis to be a training base for inductees.  It was created as a projected $13 million facility on a 40-acre plot which eventually cost over $36 million covering 78,000-85,000 acres that included several Middle Tennessee counties all the way to Spencer in Van Buren County. 


As Camp Forrest expanded rapidly it added many amenities similar to other military bases throughout the country.  This included a post office, library, chapel, barracks building, offices, NCO service clubs, and guest houses. 


Recreational facilities such as a swimming pool, sports arena and nine hole golf course were constructed.


In 1941 the Army began construction of the 30,617-acre Spencer Artillery Range as an annex of Camp Forrest.  It was intended as a firing range for heavy artillery, but was also utilized by other units including infantry.


The 2nd Ranger Battalion practiced rappelling and bluff scaling at the range on the crags at the Rocky River Gulf.


It has been heavily documented and publicized that these Ranger units were the battalion that scaled the bluffs at Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach in Normandy on D Day, June 6, 1944.  A lesser known fact is that these brave men received their training at the Spencer Artillery Range.


William Northern Field, an air training base at Camp Forrest, was used as a training school for crews of four-engine B-24 Liberator bombers of the Army Air Forces.


Other historical significant facts are that Camp Forrest served as the first internment camp in our country housing over 800 alien citizens of German descent without the benefit of due process rights granted American citizens.


It grew and was one of several internment facilities across the country that kept in protective custody over 31,000 suspected enemy aliens and their families by the end of the war.


From late 1942 to early 1943, 24,000 prisoners of war who were members of the German Wehrmacht and other branches of the Army, Navy and Air Force of the Third Reich were imprisoned at Camp Forrest.  A limited number of around 700 prisoners of Japanese ancestry were also incarcerated at the base.


Prior to being deployed to Europe, Major General George Patten brought his 2nd Armored “Hell on Wheels” Division from Fort Benning, Georgia, for training maneuvers.


After the war ended in 1946 both Camp Forrest and Northern Field were declared surplus property by the government and public auctions were held to dispose of the buildings, water, sewage and electrical systems.  Concrete roads, concrete foundations and brick chimneys were all that remained as silent monuments to the history of the camps during World War II.


Following the closing of the camp, the Air Forces Air Engineering Development Center in 1951 was dedicated by President Harry Truman and renamed the Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) in recognition of the efforts by Air Force General Henry “Hap” Arnold.  He was the sole World War II Air Force officer to achieve a 5 star rank.  AEDC stands today as the most advanced and largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world and continues to serve our nation's needs just as its predecessor, Camp Forrest, did in WWII.


 * * *

Jerry Summers

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Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at  

Soldiers at Camp Nathan Bedford Forrest
Soldiers at Camp Nathan Bedford Forrest

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