Street and place names and a state historical marker near 19th Street and Park Lake Drive make up much of what survives from Camp MacArthur, the World War I Army training base that sprawled across north Waco. But “Camp MacArthur: Field of Valor,” a Waco City Cable Channel documentary debuting at 8 p.m. Friday, aims to fill in that story.
The 27-minute documentary, featuring period photographs drawn largely from the Waco-McLennan County Library and Baylor University’s Texas Collection, follows the history of the training camp, which at its peak had as many soldiers as Waco had permanent residents. The camp proper covered 1,400 acres with another roughly 9,000 acres set aside for related functions, such as Rich Field, where some 400 aircraft pilots were trained, and pasture land, now under Lake Waco, used for artillery practice and troop maneuvers.
More than 35,000 soldiers of the 32nd Division, most from Michigan and Wisconsin, prepared for fighting in France, going on to become the first Allied division to crack the German Army’s heavily fortified Hindenburg Line — an accomplishment that led to the division’s nickname, the Red Arrow Division, according to the documentary.
Historical information throughout this story is taken from the documentary.
Soldiers swelled Waco shops and taverns, boosting the local economy, and the camp provided an object for Waco’s patriotic passion as America went to war. Yet 20 months after its construction, Camp MacArthur was gone, its buildings and property sold off or turned over to private hands.
Still, those two years made their mark on Waco history, and the city’s WCCC cable channel set its sights on recounting that story as part of the channel’s mission to tell Waco history.
“With the 100th anniversary of World War I coming up, we always had this on the back burner,” Waco spokesman Larry Holze said.
Led by scriptwriter and researcher Christine Martin and image researcher Mark Randall, the project took about two years, Holze said. Other WCCC history programs rely on filmed interviews of participants, but no Waco residents who remember the camp are still living.
“We’d rather have people tell the story, but there aren’t any still alive,” said Holze, who appears as an on-screen narrator. “A lot was guided by the pictures we found.”
Camp MacArthur, one of 16 camps approved in July 1917, took its name from Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, a Civil War veteran from Wisconsin and father of American general Douglas MacArthur. Nearby Rich Field, connected to the camp by a rail line where Hillcrest Drive and New Road now run, was named for Army Lt. Col. Perry Rich, a pilot killed in action in the Philippines.
Within a month of its authorization, construction began on the camp, but not without some controversy. As a condition of winning one of the Army training camps, Waco had to shut down the Reservation, a district of legal prostitution on the skirts of downtown. The sale of alcohol also was banned around the camp.
Soldiers from the 24th Infantry Division, an African-American unit that had seen action in Cuba in the Spanish-American War and along the Mexican border under Gen. John Pershing earlier that year, were assigned to provide security while the camp was being built. On several occasions, fights and even gunfire broke out when black soldiers were denied service in Waco’s segregated clubs and bars.
The Waco incidents, however, were small compared to the violence of similar racial incidents at Houston’s Camp Logan that summer where 19 people were killed in a riot involving soldiers from the 24th Infantry and Houston residents.
When Camp MacArthur began receiving trainees, it was close to a small city with more than 300 structures, including a swimming pool, library, a post exchange and even social halls built by YMCA and the Knights of Columbus. Still, several thousand soldiers lived in canvas tents on the camp grounds.
Waco churches and social groups provided entertainment and support for soldiers during their time at the camp, and the Cotton Palace hosted several patriotic war rallies. By early 1918, the division was ready to leave for Europe. Tragedy struck on the way to England, however, when a German U-boat torpedoed a transport ship, killing 230 soldiers who had trained in Waco.
Death struck in Camp MacArthur later that year as well with an outbreak of the lethal Spanish flu. Nearly 400 soldiers died from the flu, some 200 in October 1918 alone, and Waco streets between the camp and the city’s railroad depots were frequently traveled by funeral processions carrying caskets for burials in home cemeteries.
In France, the 32nd Division fought with distinction in the Battle of the Marne and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that eventually led to the war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918. Three months later, the camp closed.
“Camp MacArthur: Field of Valor” will air Friday as part of the WCCC’s Veterans Day programming, which includes live streaming of the Waco Veterans Day parade that morning. In addition to rebroadcasts on the city channel, which is Channel 10 and 810 on Grande Communications and Channel 10 on Time Warner Cable, the documentary will be available on the WCCC website, www.wccc.tv, and on DVD at the Waco-McLennan County Library.
“Camp MacArthur: Field of Valor” airs at 8 p.m. Friday on WCCC-TV, Channel 10 on Grande Communications and Time Warner Cable.