Fort D.A. Russell, Marfa
This text was first presented by historian Lonn Taylor as a lecture at the Chinati Foundation on May 1, 2011.
On January 29, 1911 one hundred officers and men of Troops F and H of the Third Cavalry climbed down from railroad passenger coaches in Marfa, Texas, unloaded their horses from box cars, and set up their tents south of the railroad tracks. None of those men knew that they were founding a military post that would be here for the next thirty-five years and would eventually become Fort D.A. Russell. They could never have imagined that a hundred years later that post would be an internationally-known art center. Those troopers and their officers regarded Camp Marfa, as they called it, as their temporary home and supply base while they patrolled the Texas side of the Rio Grande, trying to prevent illegal shipments of guns and ammunition from Texas across the river to the revolutionists who were about to unseat Porfirio Diaz, long-time president of Mexico.
That temporary home became the nerve center for the army’s efforts to control the turmoil along the border created by the Mexican Revolution. By the 1920s the tents had been replaced by the last large cavalry post built in the United States, a post whose presence made Marfa into an army town, with nearly half a million military dollars a year flowing into the local economy; in 1930 the post was promoted from a camp to a fort and re-named Fort D.A. Russell. In 1933, in the depths of the Depression, the army closed the fort as an economy measure, but it was reopened two years later. During World War II it played a dual role as a training base for regiments going overseas and as a prisoner of war camp for captured German soldiers. The fort was decommissioned and closed in 1946. This afternoon I am going to try to give you a few highlights of its history and tell you a little about what life was like for the officers and men stationed here during the post’s heyday.
Fort D.A. Russell is here because there was a revolution in Mexico in 1910. I do not intend to try to explain the complexities of the Mexican Revolution, or we would be here until dark without ever getting to Fort D.A. Russell. But in an oversimplified nutshell, here is what happened that first brought troops back to Marfa and then kept them here through the 1920s. The exercise will be relatively painless; you will only need to remember five names and you already know one of them.
In 1910 Porfirio Diaz had been president of Mexico for 30 years and had allowed no opposition. That year he announced that he would permit an opponent to run against him. Francisco Madero, a wealthy Chihuahua landowner, announced his candidacy. Diaz changed his mind and threw Madero in jail. Madero escaped, came to San Antonio, Texas, and raised a successful revolution against Diaz, overthrowing him and becoming president himself in 1911. Madero stayed in office until 1913, when the commander-in-chief of the Mexican army, Victoriano Huerta, overthrew him, murdered him, and placed himself in office. Huerta was a particularly nasty piece of work who wore little purple-tinted rimless glasses. When he had Madero assassinated all hell broke loose and half a dozen leaders emerged with armies to oppose him. The two that concern us were Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa – that is the one whose name you know. Carranza proclaimed himself First Chief of the Constitutionalist Revolution and by August 1914 he and his allies had forced Huerta out of office and into exile. The allies then started squabbling among themselves over the presidency and for several years their armies fought each other across Mexico, with Carranza in the lead and Villa a close second most of the time. In the fall of 1915 the United States recognized Carranza’s government as the legitimate government of Mexico. This infuriated Villa who retaliated the next spring with a raid on Columbus, New Mexico in which 20 American citizens were killed. More raids across the border by both Carrancistas and Villistas followed in Texas, and those kept the army in the Big Bend busy until the political situation in Mexico stabilized somewhat in 1920.
I said that the army originally came to Marfa in 1911 to try to control arms smuggling from Texas into Mexico. Let me explain that. When the Madero revolution broke out every storekeeper in the Big Bend became an arms merchant. Their merchandise was smuggled across the Rio Grande in violation of federal law, specifically the Neutrality Act of 1794, which makes it illegal for anyone on American soil to make war on any government at peace with the United States. Since the Border Patrol had not yet been established, the army was the only enforcement agency the federal government had.
The arms and ammunition the local merchants sold was purchased wholesale from El Paso hardware companies, which sold munitions like hotcakes all through the Mexican Revolution. Between September 1911 and September 1912 the Shelton-Payne Hardware company there, which normally dealt in pistols and hunting rifles, sold 40,000 Springfield military rifles, 2 million cartridges, and 4 machine guns, all of which went illegally to Mexico.
Here is how they got there. The revolutionists would steal a herd of cattle from a hacienda in Mexico, drive them across the Rio Grande, and sell them to a Big Bend rancher for five or six dollars a head. The rancher would give them an order on his local store for the money and the revolutionists would go to that store and collect what was due to them in guns and ammunition, deliverable in Mexico. The storeowner would then hire some local man to take the weapons across the river. This was a violation of the law in two ways. The ranchers were buying imported cattle without paying the duty on them, and the merchants and their delivery boys were violating the Neutrality Act.
Now although the army was originally sent here to curtail the arms smuggling, they quickly got involved in more complicated issues. I want to describe two events that will give you some idea of what the men stationed here at Camp Marfa faced during the very early years of the post.
In January 1914, just three years after Camp Marfa was established, Pancho Villa’s army took the city of Ojinaga, Chihuahua from the Federal forces of Victoriano Huerta and started shooting Federalists. The Federal army of 2500 men fled across the river to Presidio, accompanied by 1500 civilian refugees and 1200 horses and mules. The Mexican soldiers and the refugees were taken in charge by the U.S. troops stationed in Presidio and were escorted here to Camp Marfa on horseback, muleback, and foot in a 12-mile-long column that marched up the Casa Piedra Road, taking four days to get here. Daily rations consisting of 2500 pounds of beans, 2500 pounds of flour, 500 pounds of sugar, and 250 pounds of coffee were hauled by wagon from here to each night’s campsite. When they got here, the Mexican soldiers and civilians were held under guard for several days before special trains took them to an internment camp at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Two years later, on May 5, 1916, a mounted group of 60 Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande and swept down on the little community of Glenn Springs, Texas, now in Big Bend National Park, where there was a candelilla wax plant, a general store, and a U.S. army outpost manned by a cavalry sergeant and six troopers. The Mexicans rode into town about midnight, firing into every house and killing a 7-year-old boy, Tommy Compton. The soldiers, barricaded in an adobe hut with a roof made of sotol stalks, fired back until the attackers set the roof on fire, and then the soldiers had to run for it. Three were killed; the others escaped into the night. The Mexicans then looted the general store, which was evidently their target, and disappeared into the dark.
That same night a second party of Mexicans looted the general store at Boquillas, Texas, kidnapping the storekeeper, Jesse Deemer, and his assistant, Monroe Payne. They joined up with the Glenn Springs raiders and splashed across the river back into Mexico, taking Deemer and Payne with them. Three days later Major George T. Langhorne with two troops of the 8th Cavalry crossed the Rio Grande in pursuit of the bandits. The expedition was partially motorized; it included two Fords loaded with correspondents and photographers and Langhorne’s chauffeur-driven Cadillac. They penetrated 100 miles into Mexico and found Deemer and Payne alive in the village of El Pino, Coahuila, where the bandits had abandoned them. Langhorne’s men remained in Mexico for 14 days before returning to Camp Marfa.
The raids on Glenn Springs and Boquillas transformed Camp Marfa into the headquarters of a huge military operation. President Wilson called up the National Guards of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona and sent them to the Big Bend, along with two battalions of Pennsylvania National Guardsmen, the 6th U.S. Cavalry, and the 34th U.S. Infantry. All of these were headquartered at Camp Marfa. The army established 12 subposts along the Rio Grande from Lajitas to Candelaria, all of which were supplied from Camp Marfa through an elaborate system of wagon trains and pack mules. Supplies were shipped from El Paso and San Antonio to Camp Marfa by railroad, unloaded here, and then transhipped to the outposts. The wagon trains consisted of twenty-eight army wagons drawn by six mules each; sometimes the wagons were hitched together in groups of fourteen and pulled by steam traction engines. But some subposts were so remote that they could only be reached by mule trains. A mule train consisted of 64 mules, 50 of which carried cargo and 14 of which were the mounts of the packers, the cook, and the blacksmith. Each mule was loaded with two hundred and fifty pounds of cargo. The mule train trip to Lajitas, the most remote outpost, took 3 days, with overnight camps at Casa Piedra and in Fresno Canyon.
In spite of the massive troop presence, raids across the Rio Grande continued through 1916, 1917, and 1918. They included raids in which people were killed on the Brite Ranch and the Neville Ranch, followed by bloody reprisals on local Mexicans by civilians and by the Texas Rangers.
In June 1919, the 11th Aero Squadron, 5 De Havilland DH.4 biplanes under the command of Major Edgar Tobin of San Antonio, was sent to Camp Marfa to aid in patrolling the border. A flying field, called Royce Field, was built east of town, near the present golf course. The planes flew reconnaissance missions along the Rio Grande twice a day, but of course bandits could still cross undetected at night.
The arrival of the fliers led to one dramatic incident. Two months after the airplanes arrived, one of the pilots returning from a patrol down the river mistook the Rio Conchos for the Rio Grande and flew up it. He and his observer were 80 miles into Mexico before they had engine trouble and were forced to crash land. They were unhurt, but they were taken into custody by one of the most dreaded bandit leaders, Jesus Renteria, known as El Gancho (“The Hook”) because he had lost one hand and wore a steel hook in its place. Renteria sent a note to the army subpost at Candelaria demanding a $15,000 ransom for the two fliers. The note arrived on a Sunday morning and Captain Matlack, the commander at Candelaria, called Colonel George T. Langhorne here at Marfa and read it to him over the phone. Langhorne was perplexed about how he was going to get $15,000 in cash on a Sunday morning, but he called the vice-president of the Marfa State Bank, H.M. Fennell. It happened that the annual Bloys Camp Meeting was in progress. Fennell drove out to Bloys, interrupted the men’s Sunday prayer meeting, and in 5 minutes had pledges from local ranchers for the entire amount.
The money was sent to Captain Matlack at Candelaria, who then negotiated by note and messenger with Renteria to ransom the fliers one at a time. Matlack took $7,500 across the river in the dead of night and came back with the first flier, but when he went back for the second he overheard Renteria’s men saying they would kill him and the second flier at the river crossing after the ransom was paid. When he arrived at the rendezvous, he told the flier to climb up behind him on his horse, and instead of taking the ransom money out of his shirt pulled a pistol out, said, “Tell El Gancho he’s had his last American dollar,” and galloped back across the river at a different crossing with the flier behind him.
As soon as the aviators were safely on this side of the river, five troops of the 8th Cavalry from Camp Marfa crossed the Rio Grande in pursuit of the kidnappers and spent five days in Mexico searching for them. They were accompanied by one of the De Havilland planes, which served as their aerial scout. On the first day of the expedition the De Haviland pilot and his gunner spotted three men on horseback who started shooting at them with rifles. They swooped down on the horsemen and fired their Lewis machine gun at them, and on their second pass saw a dead white horse and a man lying face down on the ground, apparently dead. At the end of one of his arms was a gleaming hook. They made several more passes and the man did not move, and so they reported that they had killed El Gancho.
But El Gancho was only playing dead, and he lived to fight another day. I know a man here in Marfa whose father’s first wife was El Gancho’s daughter. He told me that his father said that El Gancho was the meanest old man he had ever seen. “He liked to sit on his porch with a bottle of sotol and a barrel of cartridges and shoot at things,” my friend said. “What kind of things?” I asked. “Anything that moved,” my friend said, “chickens, dogs, children. …”
1919 and 1920 were pivotal years for Camp Marfa. Just south of Washington, D.C., on the Maryland side of the Potomac, there is a huge stone fortress called Fort Washington. It was built in 1824 so that the British could never again sail up the Potomac and burn Washington, as they did in 1814. It was a classic case of locking the stable after the horse was gone. Exactly the same thing happened at Camp Marfa in 1919 and 1920. When World War I ended in November 1918 the army had an enormous amount of money left in their appropriations for that fiscal year. They used it to build and improve facilities all over the country.
At Camp Marfa the army moved out of their tents and built permanent structures. They leased 420 acres from rancher W.G. Young at $125 per month to build them on. Young wanted to hold out for $150, but a committee of Marfa citizens, mindful of the benefits that an expanded Camp Marfa would bring to the town, called on him and persuaded him to accept the $125 by promising to pay him the extra $25 per month until the army would agree to raising the rent. The army never agreed to a higher rent, and I am told that Young never got his extra $25 a month. In 1927, the army bought the land from Young for $27,000. Young’s house is the old frame house on the right just as you drive up to the Chinati Foundation’s offices.
In 1919 and 1920 the army engaged in a massive construction program here. They built officers’ quarters, enlisted men’s barracks, mess halls, an officers’ club, administrative buildings, stables, hay barns, and blacksmith shops. A separate quartermaster depot was built on 45 leased acres by the railroad tracks, where Donald Judd’s home is now. By 1922 the post looked pretty much like it does today. 184 buildings had been erected in 3 years, and the post had a total complement of 92 officers and 2826 enlisted men.
However, 1920 marks the year that Mexico achieved relative political stability under the presidency of Alvaro Obregon, the one-armed general who overthrew Venustiano Carranza in 1919. The raids across the border ceased, the subposts along the river were closed, and Marfa was left with a huge and extremely profitable military establishment on the edge of town.
For the next 13 years Marfa was an army town. The cavalry officers stationed at Camp Marfa and their wives became part of Marfa society. The officers were well-traveled and well-educated men. Many had seen duty in Europe, in the Philippines, and in Cuba, and they broadened the universe of the average Marfan and elevated the tone of society here. The bachelor officers provided a stream of escorts for ranchers’ daughters and several married Marfa girls—on December 7, 1923, Hester Brite, daughter of Marfa’s most prominent rancher, Luke Brite, married Capt. Donald Dunkle of Troop C, First Cavalry, and several other young women followed her example. The civilian and military circles here became tightly intertwined.
There were dances at the Camp Marfa officers’ club attended by Marfa civilians and dances at the Paisano Hotel attended by Camp Marfa officers and their wives. On Thanksgiving evening 1919 the camp Medical Department gave a masquerade ball for 100 couples, with music by the 5th Cavalry orchestra. The citizens of Marfa thought of the cavalrymen at Camp Marfa as “our boys.”
An officer’s life on a post like Camp Marfa in the 1920s was the life of Riley at home. Officers of field grade rank had two enlisted men, called dog robbers – the term carried the connotation that they ate the table scraps that would otherwise be given to their employers’ dogs – assigned to them as personal servants, one as a valet and one as a housekeeper. The officers’ workdays were not strenuous, either.
General Hamilton Howze, who served with the 7th Cavalry during those years, recalled in his memoir, A Cavalryman’s Story, that he and his fellow officers went to the enlisted barracks after breakfast and supervised training exercises until 11:30 in the morning. They then went to officers’ call, a short meeting with the senior post officer, ate lunch, and had the rest of the day free for tennis, golf, swimming, or polo practice.
Polo was the great sport of cavalry officers. It trained them for bold and independent action and it was played hell for leather. Hamilton Howze recalled that he played in two separate matches in the 1930s in which one of the players was killed.
The polo field at Camp Marfa was in the southeast quadrant of the camp, more or less where Donald Judd’s concrete structures are now. In 1921 the first Polo Association was formed here by officers of the 5th Cavalry, who all became members. The games were played on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons and were followed by Polo Teas at the officers’ club. In 1923 the 5th Cavalry was replaced by the 1st Cavalry, a regiment famous for its polo, and that fall there were five teams here.
1930 was a year of polo diplomacy across the border. The Mexican Army invited a team from Camp Marfa to play in Chihuahua City. A delegation of officers and 50 Big Bend citizens went with them, but the 1st Cavalry team lost all three games. A Mexican army team came to Marfa for a re-match, accompanied by two Mexican generals in the President of Mexico’s private railroad car and a 66-piece Mexican army band, which played at the games and later at a series of after-game dinner dances at the Paisano Hotel. Again the Mexicans won. Finally there was a match at Chapultapec Park in Mexico City, and a special train carried the Fort D.A. Russsell team and accompanying officers, wives, and Marfa citizens to Mexico City. There seems to be no record of who won those matches, but everyone who went was royally entertained.
While the officers were playing tennis and polo, the enlisted men here had a somewhat rougher life. This was the Old Army described by James Jones in From Here to Eternity, and there was a very wide gap between officers and enlisted men. Enlisted men were required to speak to officers in the third person, if they spoke to them at all. Charles Williford, who enlisted in the 11th Cavalry in 1935, recalled that in 3 years he only had one conversation with an officer, and that was when he shot his commanding officer’s dog by mistake while on guard duty. Williford, in his book Something About a Solider., described a cavalry recruit’s basic training in the 1930s. It lasted 90 days and took place under the tutelage of a sergeant. Mornings were spent in learning to ride. Troopers started out bareback, with only a blanket and a bridle. They had to learn to mount by vaulting onto the horse from behind, with their hands on the horse’s crupper. They learned to turn completely around while sitting on the horse, first at a walk, then at a slow trot, a canter, and finally a gallop. The final test was to pull a T-shirt off over their heads and put it back on again while turning around on the horse’s back at a gallop. I know about this firsthand because my former wife, a San Antonio girl, taught me to ride this way. She had learned horsemanship from a retired sergeant at Fort Sam Houston who taught proper young San Antonio ladies to ride the cavalry way.
The recruits’ afternoons were spent in drill, classes, and gymnastics. They got passes to leave camp every Saturday from 1:00 P.M. to midnight, but since all but $1.50 of their $21.00 a month pay was withheld until their 90-day training period was over they could not afford much fun. The seasoned enlisted men at Camp Marfa must have found some entertainment in town, however, because a 1919 Presidio County grand jury report reads, “We find gambling and bootlegging carried on in the county to a great extent. Also lewd women visit town frequently.”
Even though national prohibition was in effect through the 1920s, Camp Marfa’s proximity to the border meant that alcohol was readily available. The border proved to be just as permeable to booze moving north as it had been to munitions moving south, and lewd women were plentiful. Enlisted men at Camp Marfa sought the sort of entertainment that soldiers have always sought and they it in abundance in Marfa.
Besides drill, training, and polo, the main army activity at Camp Marfa in the 1920s was maneuvers. These were large-scale war games, carried out by cavalry troops not only from Camp Marfa but also Fort Bliss, Fort Clark, and Fort Sam Houston. Camp Marfa was the ideal spot for these maneuvers because they could be held on adjacent ranches without disturbing the civilian population. The first one, held in the fall of 1923, lasted for two weeks and involved 6,000 men maneuvering across a block of land 20 miles wide and 30 miles long. It was a highly festive two weeks because in the evenings there were dances, receptions, and banquets for the staff officers, and the troops involved were paid off while they were here. The payroll came to $300,000, which was quite an infusion into the local economy. Similar maneuvers were held every fall through 1932.
Although Camp Marfa flourished through the 1920s, it was still technically considered a temporary post by the army. In 1929 the army decided to designate it a permanent post as of January 1, 1930, and change its name to Fort D.A. Russell. There had been a Fort D.A. Russell, named after Civil War General Davis Allen Russell, in Wyoming, and in 1929 that post was renamed Fort Francis E. Warren after a recently deceased Wyoming senator who happened to be General John J. Pershing’s father-in-law, and the name was transferred to Camp Marfa. The citizens of Marfa were ecstatic.
Two years later, in May 1932, very bad news came from Washington. As an economy measure, the Hoover Administration had decided to close 53 military posts, and Fort D.A. Russell was on the list.
Closing Fort D.A. Russell would be a crippling blow to Marfa in the depths of the Depression and Marfans organized to persuade the War Department to change its mind. Congressman Ewing Thompson and Senator Morris Shepherd and Tom Connolly swung into action, the Texas Legislature passed a resolution urging the army not to leave, and rancher Luke Brite went to Washington to call on his fellow-rancher, Vice-President-elect John Nance Garner. All to no avail. The army chief of staff, General Douglas McArthur, was adamant in his opinion that Fort D.A. Russell was redundant. He told Luke Brite, whose own ranch had been raided in 1917, that the days of border raids were over and, if they ever resumed, airplanes from San Antonio could reach the Big Bend in 3 hours. Fort D.A. Russell would close on January 1, 1933, and that was it.
This decision, in conjunction with another decision taken by the War Department, produced one of the most dramatic and at the same time one of the most misunderstood incidents in the history of Fort D.A. Russell, the burial of the Last Horse.
In the 1920s a great interest in mechanizing the army had developed as result of the use of trucks and tanks in World War I. When Douglas McArthur became chief of staff in 1931 he developed the doctrine that each branch of the service should embrace mechanization to the extent that mechanization enhanced its own mission. He felt that the cavalry, with its combined characteristics of mobility, firepower, and shock, lent itself to complete mechanization, and he ordered the 1st Cavalry Regiment to become a prototype by abandoning their horses and embracing mechanization on January 1, 1933, the day that their headquarters at Fort D.A. Russell was slated to be closed. The regiment was to be transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where they would learn to drive tanks and armored cars, but they were to leave their horses in Texas. The horses would be distributed to other cavalry regiments in the state.
Accordingly, on December 14, 1932, the 1st Cavalry held its last mounted review at Fort D.A. Russell. The regiment passed in review before Colonel William Austin, who then read the regimental history while the troopers stood at attention beside their mounts. One horse, a 31-year-old gelding named Old Louie who had served the regiment for 28 years, was riderless and draped in black. Louie was too old to be shipped to another fort, and instead of being sold to the slaughterhouse, the usual fate of superannuated army horses, he was chosen as a symbol of the demise of the regiment as a mounted unit. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, at the close of the review the troopers marched back to their barracks in formation, their horses were returned to their stables, but Louie was “disposed of painlessly” and buried on the fort’s grounds, under a tombstone with a plaque that read “Animo et Fide”—“Spirited and Faithful.” Louie was by no means the last horse in the cavalry, as has often been claimed, nor was the regiment being disbanded, as the Chinati Foundation’s website says. Louie was just a horse that was too old to be of any further use to the cavalry. But he is the only horse in the cavalry to be commemorated with a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which you can see on the other side of the barracks just west of this mess hall.
Two weeks after the final review, on January 2, 1933, the First Cavalry left Fort D.A. Russell for Fort Knox in a convoy of 84 army trucks, followed by the officers and their families in their own cars. The fort was empty for the first time since 1911. There was a brief hope that the buildings might be used for a veterans’ hospital, but that fell through. The Border Patrol moved into several buildings and used them as offices; the rest were in charge of a sergeant who served as a caretaker. The stables and the hay sheds were torn down and the salvaged lumber sold.
The Republican Hoover Administration, which left office in March 1933, tried to solve the Depression by cutting federal spending and reducing the army. The Democratic Roosevelt Administration tried a different tack and increased federal spending to create jobs and employ the unemployed. This included expanding the size of the army.
In 1934, in the face of German rearmament and Japanese withdrawal from the Naval Limitation Treaties, Congress authorized an increase of 47,000 men to the army, and Fort D.A. Russell was reopened as a training base, a function it would perform until the end of World War
In July 1935 135 Quartermaster Corps men arrived in Marfa to recondition the fort. They spent $150,000 on materials and hired local labor to do the work, which made them most welcome here. In October the 77th Field Artillery Regiment arrived, 600 men strong. This was a motorized regiment equipped with 155mm howitzers under the command of Colonel Robert H. Lewis, who was accompanied by his wife and their daughter, Laura. Colonel Lewis was probably the most popular commanding officer ever to serve at Fort D.A. Russell. When he left the local ranchers changed the name of La Viuda Peak, south of town, to Lewis Peak in his honor. His wife, a San Antonio native and the daughter of south Texas rancher John Rufus Blocker, was made president of the Marfa History Club, an unprecedented honor for someone not originally from Marfa. The History Club, a local woman’s club, was formed in the 1890s and is still in existence and I will guarantee you that Mrs. Lewis is the only temporary resident of Marfa ever elected to its presidency.
Colonel Lewis undertook an elaborate building program at the fort, using a $100,000 appropriation to convert it from a cavalry post to an artillery post. He built gun sheds, a motor repair shop, a warehouse, and a movie theater, supplementing his War Department funds with Works Progress Administration funds and labor. By 1939 the monthly payroll at the fort was $24,200 and Marfa was once more an army town.
In March 1940 war was raging in Europe and America’s first peace-time draft went into effect. This led to the final expansion of Fort D.A. Russell. The city of Marfa held a bond election to purchase 2,000 acres adjacent to the fort, which they leased to the army as an artillery firing range. At the same time, the army added four two-story barracks, two more mess halls, and bachelor officers’ quarters to the fort. This was when the post swimming pool acquired its bizarre surrounding battlemented wall and turrets, intended to represent “an old Spanish fort.” Colonel Lewis retired and Colonel Bertram Frankenberger became the post commander.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Colonel Frankenberger and his wife were on a quail hunt with some Marfa people when they heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the car radio. Fort D.A. Russell suddenly became a wartime military post.
The first weeks of the war are hard to document because for security reasons there was a blackout on all news from the fort. We know that no one from town was allowed to enter the post without the post commander’s permission, and that on January 12, 1942, Colonel Frankenberger organized a practice blackout in Marfa, just in case the Luftwaffe or the Japanese were planning a bombing raid on the town. There was a very real fear that saboteurs might slip across the border and try to damage the fort, and a mounted citizens’ militia called the Highland Hereford Rough Riders was organized by members of the Highland Hereford Breeders’ Association to patrol the region on horseback. Most of its members were well over draft age.
The full impact of the war hit Fort D.A. Russell and Marfa in early 1942, when the 77th Field Artillery departed for an unknown location and five officers and 76 men from the 81st Chemical Warfare Battalion arrived from Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. A chemical warfare battalion was not as sinister as it sounds. It was essentially a mortar unit that fought with the infantry, but its mortars could fire not only conventional explosive shells but also phosphorous shells that would start fires and smoke shells that would lay down smokescreens, and so according to army logic it was part of the chemical corps rather the infantry.
The officers and men from Edgewood Arsenal who arrived at Fort D.A. Russell in April 1942 were charged with forming a new battalion. They were followed by 800 draftees, and it was their job to mold those men into a fighting battalion during the year that they were at Fort D.A. Russell. The 81st Chemical Warfare Battalion trained on the newly acquired artillery range and on adjoining ranches, including the slopes of Cathedral Mountain, which appeared along with the Lone Star of Texas on the shoulder patches they wore as their distinctive unit insignia. Marfa adopted the battalion in the same way that they had adopted the cavalrymen 20 years earlier. The 81st Chemical Warfare Battalion became Marfa’s own. Families adopted groups of enlisted men and served them Sunday dinners. On September 12, 1942, the men of Company D reciprocated with a reception and buffet dinner right here in Mess Hall #35, and PFC Maurice Aronson decorated these walls with cartoons depicting army life for that occasion. The cartoons, as you can see, are still here.
In April 1943 the 81st Chemical Warfare Battalion was shipped out to Camp Pickett, Virginia, and from there they were sent to England to prepare for D-Day. They were replaced by the 85th Chemical Warfare Battalion, which was under the command of a colonel with the remarkable name of Napoleon Rainbolt.
In England, the 81st was attached to the V Corps of the First Army. They landed at Normandy, fought their way through the hedgerows, participated in the liberation of Paris and the Battle of Metz; and were in Austria when the war ended. The unit was awarded more than 500 decorations, including 353 Purple Hearts. The soldiers of the 81st corresponded with Marfa friends all through the war, and they were still wearing Cathedral Mountain on their shoulder patches when they were mustered out at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in September 1945.
Now I want to close by describing the final chapter in the history of Fort D.A. Russell as a military post.
When the North African campaign got underway in the spring of 1943 there was a huge bag of German prisoners, and about 150,000 of them were sent to the United Sates, because it was easier to house, guard, and feed them here than it was in North Africa. Seventy-nine thousand of those prisoners ended up in Texas in 120 P.O.W. camps and subcamps. In November 1943, 186 German P.O.W.s arrived at Fort D.A. Russell, where a compound was built to house them south of Officers’ Hill. That P.O.W. compound consisted of barracks, a mess hall, a laundry, and a softball diamond, and it was guarded by a Military Police detachment. The prisoners did maintenance work around the fort. Several Marfans can still recall watching them march to work in formation, singing German songs in chorus. The enlisted men were paid eighty cents a day in canteen coupons for their labor; they could use the coupons to buy cigarettes, candy, and beer at the prisoners’ canteen.
In 1977 a historian at Texas A&M named Arnold P. Krammer published an article on German P.O.W.s in Texas in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. He entitled it “When the Afrika Corps Came to Texas.” In doing the research for it he interviewed a number of men in Germany who had been P.O.W.s in Texas. His conclusion was that most of them had a pretty easy time of it. The one fond memory of prison camp life that they all shared was of the food—beef, tomatoes, green vegetables, milk, even ice cream. “We thought we were in heaven,” he quoted one of them as saying. “We ate food which was not even found in our mothers’ kitchens at home—white bread and real coffee. We were dumbstruck.”
The P.O.W.’s main enemy was boredom, and to combat that they organized chess clubs, concerts, classes, and other activities. It was probably boredom, plus a desire for artistic expression, that led two of the prisoners here, Hans Jurgen Press and Robert Hempel, to decorate the post officer’s club with murals, murals that have been preserved through the efforts of Mona Garcia of Marfa and the International Women’s Foundation, which now occupies that building, known as Building 98. It was definitely boredom that led three prisoners to attempt an escape in April 1944. They were captured near Sierra Blanca, and after three days on foot in the Chihuahua desert they were very glad to see their captors. They said they intended to walk to Mexico, then go to South America and get back to Germany from there.
Somehow this futile escape attempt seems to be a good place to end this talk. Fort D.A. Russell was placed on inactive status on May 25, 1945, shortly after the war in Europe ended. Although fighting was still going on in the Pacific Theatre, the War Department said that there was no longer a need to train troops. The last German prisoners of war left in November 1945, and the post was officially closed on October 23, 1946. It was turned over to the Corps of Engineers to be sold as surplus real estate. Who knew then that today, a hundred years after its founding, it would be a flourishing international art center, and that its grounds and buildings would echo not with the tramp of soldiers but the quiet footsteps of artists and visitors from all over the world?