Just for the period of time it takes to read this post, I’d like you to imagine the words are being read to you by Charles Kuralt. All of you under forty are probably asking, “Who in the hell is Charles Kuralt?” Charles Kuralt was “the voice” of a CBS program that aired for years. It was titled On The Road. His distinctive voice was the signature for this show … a show that was all his. On The Road was just that, Charlie nosed around the nooks, crannies, highways, and byways of the US. I know it may be hard for the younger folks who read this post to believe, but once upon a time their were actual journalists on national television that were true to their vocation, not their political beliefs. It was a time before we were divided into blocks for political opportunism. Kuralt found and touched the heart and the soul of his viewers. As you read my words, hear them through his voice.
I’m speaking to you today from a few hundred yards off of Florida Highway 16. It’s about midway between two places you probably never heard of, the towns of Starke to the west and Green Cove Springs which lies eastward. The grass field I’m sitting in the middle of, is part of the Camp Blanding Museum. Around me are the tools of wars past. They’re reminders of what this place was, one of the important training areas for a war that would engulf the world. What remains of this site as an active military center is behind the entrance south of the museum. It’s only a token of what was once arguably the largest city in Florida. Over 300,000 men and women trained or worked here. Look around and you see what young men came to this place to learn to use. They had to do this to help win a war we could have lost and as importantly to give them their best chance of surviving it.
Looking inside the drivers compartments of these vehicles is a shock to some. The levers, switches, and mechanisms are crude by 2017 standards. A young man asked, “Did they really fight in these things?” An old man answered, “We sure did and we did a damned good job of it!” There was more in his voice than pride in having served and survived. In his eye and tone there was that reverence those who have experienced combat have for those they knew who did not return to stand here today.
The lawn around the museum is home to many vehicles. Half-tracks, DUKWs, ambulances, trucks, field pieces, all are pages of a book that tell us a story. Even a C-47 transport plane with D-day markings graces a concrete pad, a reminder of 508th Paratroop Regiment who trained in the sands beyond the guard gate.
Mixed in with the vehicles are monuments to the Army units that trained here and the people that were flesh and bone that gave them life. Among them was the Big Red One – the first army division. Nine infantry divisions lived here and learned about war on these grounds. There are monuments to the extra brave who began their journey into hell at this place. One honors distinguished service cross recipients and another the nations highest award, The Medal of Honor. Both have a significant number of names chiseled into stone to remind us of sacrifice and that sometimes forgotten word – honor.
Going inside the museum is like stepping through a time portal on Star Trek. We see what we were. What we did. Right and wrong.
The pictures and exhibits show us what a base for a quarter of a million men looked like. Row upon row of small cabins, barracks like the one the museum is housed in, hospitals, theaters, commissary buildings, maintenance facilities, everything that a city of that size needed to exist was built in Florida’s wilderness. Work on Blanding was a seven day a week, three shift schedule in 1940-1941. Today, most of the 150,000 acres that is Camp Blanding has been reclaimed by the pine barrens and swamps from which it was hacked. Concrete foundations, weathered and hidden by nature, dot the ground and are the ghosts that haunt these woods.
Reminders of the past always bring bitter to go with sweet. Exhibits remind us of where we’ve been, some of them telling us of what we did wrong. The Army of 1940 was one that was still segregated. Separate facilities, living areas, even swimming lakes are indictments of what just one of our societies mistakes has been.
It tells us of things we did correctly. Few know that many German POWs were transported to the USA. Camp Blanding hosted around 2,000. They lived in the same type facilities as our GIs. They were given jobs and paid to do them. Contrast that to the fate of POWs in German or Russian hands. Less than 10% survived the war and literally this amounted to millions of deaths. More than 15% of Germans elected to stay in the US and become citizens and over 98% survived.
Places like this, Camp Blanding, are places that should bring us together. We can attempt to change history, there are those who do, but it really won’t change. Camp Blanding is a string tied around our finger, like ones used by our country men before computers, to remind them of something they had to do. If we forget the good and bad that history teaches, we’ll neither continue our virtues or avoid our mistakes. Humans are on a long voyage of discovery. That discovery is how imperfect we really are. We have to embrace what we have become, not languish in what we were, but learn from where we’ve been.
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