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Camp Kearns: Documents offer new glimpse into life at dismantled WWII base

SHARE Camp Kearns: Documents offer new glimpse into life at dismantled WWII base

Few signs of it remain. But 65 years ago, it was Utah's third-largest community. Movie stars toured it regularly. Harry Truman visited. Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole played to huge crowds here. So did the Metropolitan Opera's star baritone of the day.

The local amateur baseball team included residents who were former players for the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Browns. Some soon-to-be-famous artists were working there, but they were merely painting street signs or walls.

The community of 40,000 boasted what was maybe the nation's largest dental facility. It also had a 1,100-bed hospital. And unlike most Utah communities, it had a gas-warfare training range, a huge firing range and even a stockade.

It was Camp Kearns, an Army Air Forces base during World War II. It was razed after the war, and the Salt Lake County suburb of Kearns grew in its place to provide much-needed affordable housing for ex-GIs. The growing town utilized the base's abandoned streets, water and sewage systems and electrical lines.

A few Army buildings were converted to civilian uses that still survive. A theater for "colored personnel" became part of Kearns Junior High School. A base chapel is now part of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. The base train station is a day-care center. A cannon that had stood next to the headquarters' flagpole now decorates the corner of 40th West and 54th South.

The Deseret News just obtained through the Freedom of Information Act some once-classified, partial histories of the base from the U.S. Air Force. These materials, supplemented by other data, help show the base's missions, reveal some famous people who once served (or visited) there, and help give a flavor of what life was like.

A city overnight

Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Army chose 5,000 acres of wheat fields in the Kearns area for a basic-training site for future pilots and ground crews. Documents say it was chosen because it was far from enemy danger on the coasts and because Salt Lake Valley had good rail, highway and air connections.

In just a few months, nearly 1,000 buildings were completed for what at first was called "Basic Training Center No. 5." Some construction workers included young Japanese-American men being shipped to internment camps but who were temporarily diverted and hired.

"From wheat field and waste land has blossomed Utah's third largest community," housing 40,000 soldiers, said a proud base history written in November of 1943.

"Within its boundaries are the largest rifle range in the West, second largest in the nation, and Utah's second largest hospital. It has one of the largest dental installations in the United States with the finest of modern equipment — and when it was started, patients sat on a barrel to be treated ...

"Today we have the necessary facilities to carry on the business of training soldiers to outfight, outshoot, outmaneuver and out-think our enemies," the history said. "Everywhere they are taking the best the enemy can offer, and the enemy is finding that his best cannot equal the hard fighting Kearnsmen."

The base had four fire stations, five chapels, three theaters, two large gymnasiums, 16 mess halls, at least five Post Exchange stores, a huge warehouse complex and two big service clubs (one for whites and one for "colored personnel").

Modern pioneers

Histories say life at Kearns was rough at first.

"It is another tale of pioneering in the West," a base history says. "It was a dusty, desert land aggravated by puffing steam shovels, road plows and thousands of trucks.

"Dust flew about thickly, covering soldiers from head to foot with grime and grit. It filtered into barracks and rolled around in the bottom of mess kits. At times the dust clouds were so thick that trucks and automobiles were forced to drive with headlights on in broad daylight."

The post was soon named Army Air Forces Base, Kearns, Utah, in honor of former Republican U.S. Sen. Thomas Kearns. Pam Todd, founder of the Kearns Historical Society, said the base had as many as 16 official name changes, but it was usually simply called "Camp Kearns" by most people.

More than 90,000 airmen would complete basic training at the base before it had a major change of mission in late 1943, being transferred to the 2nd Air Force to house many of its technical schools (although basic and replacement training continued on a smaller scale).

Histories show that among schools based there were: navigation, intelligence, cryptography, radio, ordnance, chemical warfare, armament, clerical, camouflage, telephone switchboard operation, teletype and quartermaster.

For residents now living where the old base was, that chemical warfare school could raise concerns about contamination. While records obtained mention shipments of tens of thousands of gas masks and other protective gear, they do not specifically mention shipment or use of chemical weapons.

Records do talk about construction of a "gas chamber" and conducting training exercises within it. A latrine building was converted into a "decontamination building." And records talk about a chemical range for training on how to use masks and detection equipment.

While not mentioned in the documents newly acquired by the Deseret News, Todd said other documents she has obtained suggest that some men involved in the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb were sent to Kearns in 1945 from Los Alamos, but documents do not say exactly what sort of research or work they did in Utah.

Those who served

Rosters in records obtained by the Deseret News of soldiers at the base include some interesting people.

The base's third commander, Col. Converse R. Lewis, had won the Distinguished Service Cross for action on June 14, 1904, during the Philippines insurrection, "for extraordinary heroism in action against hostile Moros on the Buluan River, Island of Mindanao," according to the citation.

The base's fourth commander, Col. Walter F. Siegmund, was involved after the war in an interesting UFO sighting, often cited by those who believe in the modern existence of pterodactyls or the thunderbirds of Indian legend.

Siegmund and two companions in Alton, Ill., reported in 1948 seeing a bird the size of a large airplane (as did others in that area in later weeks). "I thought there was something wrong with my eyesight," he said at the time. "But it was definitely a bird and not a glider or a jet plane. ... From the movements of the object and its size, I figured it could only be a bird of tremendous size."

What Siegmund could recognize without any doubt was talent, which he saw in a young corporal named Duane Bryers, an artist at the base. One history noted that Bryers "has devoted his time to signs, charts, various posters, lettering, etc." But Siegmund had him paint his portrait.

Bryers created a nationally syndicated comic strip called "Corky" while he was still in the Air Forces. After the war, he worked as a commercial artist and eventually become a well-known Western artist, winning the Trustee's Gold Medal from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame for outstanding contributions to Western art.

Another enlisted man, Sgt. Claude Marks, appears to have become a famous artist. At Kearns, he did such things as paint murals on the walls of the music room in one of the service clubs.

He appears to be the same Claude Marks who became a portrait artist who painted such people as Sir John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Marlene Dietrich and Julie Harris.

Major league amateurs

Besides the arts, some stood out in sports. The camp's amateur baseball team was especially good, winning the Utah state championship at least twice — and once placing fourth nationally among college and service teams. Of course, it had some people who could be considered ringers.

Among them was Johnny Sturm, who worked in the Special Services Department at Kearns. He had been the starting first baseman for the World Series champion New York Yankees in 1941. It was his first, and only, season in the majors.

Sturm was the Yankees' leadoff batter during Joe DiMaggio's still-record, 56-consecutive-game hitting streak. Sturm and fellow rookie Phil Rizzuto (a future Hall of Famer) both began their careers on opening day, 1941. Sturm played first base, Lou Gehrig's old position. He enlisted in the Air Forces before the 1942 season began.

During the war while clearing a field to make a baseball diamond at a Missouri air base, Sturm had a tractor accident that mangled his right hand. He batted and threw left-handed after that, but he would not make it back to the majors.

He became a manager in the Yankees' farm system and is credited with first hearing about a young Oklahoma player he thought the Yankees should check out — Mickey Mantle. Sturm finished a long career as a scout for several teams.

Joining him on the Kearns baseball team were Harry Eisenstadt, who had played nine years in the majors for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians; Clarence "Hooks" Lott, who played two games in 1941 for the St. Louis Browns and would play again in 1947 for the Browns and New York Giants; and Jack Graham, who played in the minors before the war but would play from 1946-49 for the Dodgers, Giants and Browns.

Life on the base

The newly released documents give glimpses into what base life was like.

Chief Chaplain Fred M. Blick wrote in a history of his department, "Very often the soldier is depressed and discouraged, perhaps due to himself, and it is necessary that the Chaplain seek to get the man to disengage himself from himself and be balanced in his emotions."

He added, "The soldier may have so-called love entanglements which necessitates a speedy marriage or a better understanding of the two or more involved. The soldier's morale has more than once been lifted by the proper handling of these problems."

Chapel schedules show that marriages — the necessitated "speedy" type and otherwise — on the base were almost a daily occurrence. Sadly, the base's Legal Services Department at the same time reported a heavy caseload of divorces.

The Intelligence Office reported it was busy making sure spies had not infiltrated the base. It wrote in a history, "Investigation of all civilian employees was made and new methods for hiring civilians installed. All the students at the various schools were investigated."

The base reported brisk business in courts-martial for offenses large and small. For example, one log entry shows how dozens of men were rounded up at the same time one day for skipping duty to shop or eat.

"On instructions from the commanding officer, a tour of the Post Exchanges and Cafeterias was made by Major McClure to ascertain the number of men absent from their respective duties during duty hours. 184 men were found to be absent from duty in Exchange and Cafeterias on this tour."

The base had five libraries. Books were popular enough that a librarian complained that soldiers had stolen 360 books one year, which, she said, did not count those taken by soldiers with them as they shipped out overseas.

Big-name entertainers

Big-name entertainers sometimes transformed the dusty base into a bit of Hollywood, Bourbon Street or Carnegie Hall.

Legendary movie director Cecil B. DeMille went to the Kearns hospital to cheer up the sick and talked about his plans for upcoming movies. (His famed "The Ten Commandments" was still more than a decade away.)

Other stars who toured the base included Alan Ladd (who was in "Citizen Kane" and in the future would star in "Shane"); Ella Rains (who had just starred with John Wayne in "Tall in the Saddle." She kissed one lucky soldier in the hospital as others joked that it gave him a fever); and Maugerite Chapman (who would later star with Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch").

Heavyweight boxer Tony Galento (who had lost a championship fight to Joe Louis after famously promising to "moida da bum") toured Kearns and fired a machine gun on its firing range. He would later have roles in films, including "On the Waterfront," and "Guys and Dolls."

Jazz legend and movie star Louis Armstrong and his 23-man Jumpin' Jive Band played a concert in a base theater, then "gave out his autograph to all comers" as he toured the post by Jeep.

Nat King Cole crooned to thousands at an outdoor concert. National big-band stars of the time, not well-known now, played at the base, including Jack Teagarden, Stan Kenton and Kay Kyser.

It wasn't just all that jazz. John Charles Thomas, the "leading baritone for the Metropolitan Opera," gave an outdoor concert to thousands just after V-E Day. The Roth String Quartet, with members from Budapest, played at Kearns. So did the Royal Air Force Band after touring in Great Britain.

Many USO shows came. Among the most popular was the Crosby Brother's Troupe, produced by Bing, Larry, Bob, Ted and Everett Crosby. It included "a chorus line of scantily attired lovelies from the MGM studios," who pulled soldiers out of the audience to dance with them. It played to 5,000 people outdoors.

Also, it wasn't exactly entertainment, but Harry S Truman inspected Camp Kearns not long before becoming commander in chief. He came in August 1944, a month after becoming the vice presidential running mate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman would become president after Roosevelt's death the next April.

Closed. But haunted?

When the war ended, so did the need for the base. It closed in 1946.

The Army initially talked about returning it to use as farmland. Veterans groups protested, complaining that returning GIs often could not find affordable housing — and suggested using the base for new homes.

Base buildings and materials were declared surplus and auctioned off in 1948. Todd said most of the old barracks had been derisively called "chicken coops" by soldiers who lived in them, "and ironically many of them became real chicken coops for farmers who bought them at auction and moved them."

Most base buildings were auctioned and removed or demolished for scrap. One base chapel was moved to Copperton and became St. Paul's Methodist Church. Just a few buildings remained in Kearns. The rest of the land, streets and utilities were purchased by a housing developer for $287,270.

While the old base has virtually disappeared under housing tracts, some report that maybe a few soldiers remained as ghosts.

A 2006 history of Kearns Junior High, which had started as an Army theater and was remodeled and expanded many times, records that students through the years reported hearing crying in the auditorium when no one was there.

Adults and others reported seeing or hearing ghosts. One cheerleader said she saw a man who had been shot in the head. Others, more pleasantly, have reported hearing coins drop in the hallway around them, but turn and see the area deserted, while some report hearing whispering in various rooms, but no one was seen.

Like those reported ghosts, Camp Kearns was there and gone seemingly almost in an instant, too. But stories about the specter can still fascinate, even if little but a ghostly imprint of it is all that remains.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com