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LONGTIME MEMBER PROFILE: Camp Swift

1209
 2014


Soldiers from the National Guard perform a variety of drills at Camp Swift earlier this year (Sarah Beal photos) 

By Ed Crowell 
 
Most days, the only sounds heard at Camp Swift’s 11,722 acres of grassland and woods between Elgin and Bastrop come from the chirping birds and chattering squirrels. 
 
Several times a year, however, the guarded but otherwise empty military training center run by the Texas Army National Guard takes on a life as busy as a hive of uniformed bees. Vehicles roll out from Camp Swift’s armory and parking lots to the firing ranges. Guns get loaded and targets set. Troops sometimes numbering up to 1,600 settle in for one- to three-week training exercises. 

(Photo by Sarah Beal )Sgt. Brandon Chambers and other members of the Forward Support Company, 386th Engineer Battalion of the Texas Army National Guard, perform drills recently at Camp Swift. The camp was created as a training ground during World War II. 

(Photo by Sarah Beal )Soldiers from the National Guard perform a variety of drills at Camp Swift earlier this year.
 
Lt. Col. Marvin Johnson, until recently operations supervisor for the facility, sums up the use of today’s Camp Swift: 
 
“In addition to an armory, classrooms and sleeping quarters, the majority of the training site is made up of firing and navigation/maneuver ranges that allow us to support the needs and demands of the Texas National Guard. That is, much like an active-duty base, Camp Swift has both live and non-live fire ranges and simulators.” 
 
The camp was created in the middle of World War II in just a few months. At that time, the center covered nearly 56,000 acres and housed some 44,000 troops at its peak. An estimated 300,000 soldiers trained there before the war ended. 
 
A railroad depot and warehouse was built to receive new soldiers and equipment (that building is now used by the federal prison next door). 
 
To treat any sick troops or those injured in training, a 750-bed hospital was constructed. It also was used to train nearly 1,000 nurses for battlefield conditions. 
 
In their 1958 book “History of Camp Swift Texas,” authors Col. Parke Houston, an early commander of the camp, and Walter E. Long of the Austin Chamber of Commerce described the rigorous “infiltration course” nurses underwent:
 
“In this course the nurses, dressed in fatigues, crawled on their stomachs through barbed wire with overhead machine gun fi re for a distance of 50 yards. This was a trying ordeal for them and many of them had upset stomachs as the result. This was not unusual as men did also because of the fumes from the gun and from explosives being fi red at intervals along the course.” 
 
Another mission of the camp began in the summer of 1943 when the first group of German prisoners of war arrived. 
 
A stockade contained housing, a mess hall and a recreation building to accommodate 3,000 prisoners. 
 
The perimeter of the stockade was patrolled by soldiers with guard dogs. But the prisoners were allowed to work around the camp in various maintenance jobs, including heavy motor repair. They were paid for their work in canteen credits. 
 
“They had been well fed and well treated, and they liked it,” the book reported. 
 
Nonetheless, 16 escape attempts were made. None was successful. 
 
The contracts to construct the $25 million camp were signed by the Army in January 1942, with a stipulation to get the job done in not more than 108 working days. 

(Photo courtesy Camp Swift)

The 2nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army parades before Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright in 1945 at Camp Swift. The division participated in the European campaign of World War II, including the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.  (Photo courtesy Camp Swift)

 
Lower Colorado River Authority employees worked round the clock for a week to build lines to the camp for power transmitted from the Marshall Ford Dam (now the Mansfield Dam). An LCRA press release called it a “Herculean task.” After the war, the camp’s power distribution was turned over to the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, which is now Bluebonnet. 
 
The camp was named in honor of Maj. Gen. Eben Swift, an Army Indian fighter who also led campaigns in Mexico, the Philippines and Italy, as well as a relief operation after the Galveston hurricane of 1900. 
 
Today, none of the camp’s original 2,700 buildings remain in the acreage owned by the Texas Army National Guard. In 1947, after the camp was declared surplus by the Army, the buildings were sold, donated or relocated. 
 
The Sons of Hermann organization in La Grange bought one building for $400. Today it is The Bugle Boy, a well-known live music venue in that town. 
 
The original wooden structure to hold targets on the “Known Distance Range” remains in use for modern gunnery practice, Major Ed Limbo, the acting base officer in charge, said. 

(Photo by Sarah Beal )The Known Distance Range was one of the original wooden structures built for use in World War II.
 
Camp Swift buzzed with National Guard troops earlier this year on another firing range just behind that historic structure. Soldiers practiced switching from M4 carbine rifles to handguns, working on their reflexes. Targets with human silhouettes were positioned around the soldiers. Some 15,000 rounds were fired during that range’s weeklong training. 
 
A few weeks later, Guard members assembled at the camp for training and deployment to the Texas-Mexico border. Central American refugees were flooding the area and the governor called up the Guard to help with security and anti-crime measures. 
 
While 90 percent of the training exercises at Camp Swift are for Guard personnel, other organizations also use the site. Those include active armed forces, area law enforcement agencies and groups such as high-school ROTC units and the Civil Air Patrol. 
 
“Camp Swift also is the primary emergency response staging area for Central Texas,” said Johnson, the former supervisor. “During both Hurricane Katrina and the Bastrop County Complex Fire in 2011, Camp Swift facilitated the support for first responders. During the fires, the camp housed about 1,200 first responders from all parts of the U.S. supporting the effort.” 
 
Is it all work and no play when Guard members live and train at the camp during routine exercises? 
 
Just as during World War II, when troops from Camp Swift sometimes could be found on the downtown streets of Austin, today’s temporary residents get some time off. 
 
“Soldiers training at Camp Swift are allowed to travel into Bastrop and nearby towns to pick up necessity items from the local stores or have a meal at local establishments,” Johnson said.  
 
This is the last profile of early Bluebonnet commercial accounts featured in our 75th anniversary history series.
 

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