by Jim Foreman


Weeds stood nearly head high right to the edge of the pavement and blades of grass poked through cracks in the asphalt.
       "This can't be the right road," said Red. "It looks like it hasn't been used in years."
       "The man at the service station said to go straight east on this road for about twelve miles," said Arthur Arthur. "It must be the right one because nothing has turned off of it anywhere."
       "I see something ahead in the middle of the road, looks like it might be a guard gate," said Billy Bob.
       "CAMP BEALE Main Gate," the faded sign informed us. We dutifully obeyed the stop sign posted on the front of the building. One door on the empty guard house swung back and forth on a single hinge while the other lay in the ditch across the road. Glass, which had once been in the windows, lay in shards on the ground. A telephone hung on the wall--I picked it up--it was dead. Just past the empty guard house, a sign had been erected in the middle of the road, "U.S. GOVERNMENT PROPERTY No Trespassing".
       "You sure we are at the right place?" asked Arthur Arthur Arthur. "There is nothing around here."
       "The orders said Camp Beale, near Marysville, California and the sign says Camp Beale," I replied. "It must be the right place, but where are all the buildings and people?"
       "Let's drive on in. There must be another gate," suggested Billy Bob.
       Side streets branched off the road which we were following. Thousands of concrete foundations poked up through the weeds like grave markers in a forgotten cemetery. We drove to a large building which stood alone at the end of the street. It was a field house, much like a large gymnasium. Like the guard house, it was in a sad state of repair. Doors were missing, windows broken and holes knocked in the walls. There was evidence that a fire had been built in one corner, apparently in an effort to burn the place down.
       "There must be a mistake of some sort," said Billy Bob. "There is nothing here. How can we reopen a base which has no buildings?"
       "I see something over there," said Red, pointing across the forest of empty foundations.
       These buildings turned out to have been the base hospital and were in much better condition than the field house and guard gate. It consisted of several dozen identical wards, all connected by covered wooden walks. Through the windows of one of the larger buildings, we could see that it had served as the mess hall. It was still equipped with huge stoves, sinks and other mess hall equipment, but the tables and chairs were nowhere to be found. Other buildings had obviously served as offices, supply rooms and administration buildings. Most of the windows still had their glass and the original fixtures were still in place in the bath rooms, except that there was not a single toilet seat in the whole place. Why anyone would steal nothing but the toilet seats was beyond me.
       We found two of the buildings which had locked doors with boards nailed across them. There were no windows, so we were unable to see what was inside. Beside these two locked buildings was a fire station, which was also locked and boarded.
       "It is well past eight," I said. "We had better get back to the gate where we are supposed to meet Major Parker."
       A Major was standing in the road, looking at the guard house when we drove up. Several enlisted men, most of whom I recognized as being members of the 1903rd, stood nearby.
       "Sergeant Foreman reporting, Sir," I said with a salute. "Are you Major Parker?"
       "That's right," replied the Major. "I take it that you have already looked the place over. What did you find?"
       "To tell the truth, not much. There is a field house about two miles down this road and a hospital over that hill. The field house isn't much, but the hospital buildings are in pretty good shape."
       "I can't understand it. When they briefed me, they said that the base was complete, just as it was when they closed it in l945, and that there would be firemen and guards here," said Major Parker. "Let's have a look at what is here and I'll get a report back to Fort Leonard Wood."
       A closer look proved that there was little to report, but the unit orders were already in effect and the rest of the 1903rd was on its way to a base which had nothing more than an old hospital, a dilapidated field house and hundreds of empty foundations.
       We were to learn later that through an error, the War Assets Administration had sold off all the buildings at Camp Beale in California instead of Camp Hale, which was now slowly falling apart in the mountains of Colorado.
       "It looks as if this will be our home for a while," said Major Parker as we walked through the deserted hospital. "We are just going to have to make the best of what we have."
       After a considerable amount of beating and hacking with an old fire axe which we found hanging on a wall, we finally broke into the locked storage buildings. Inside, under layers of dust, spider webs and mouse nests, was tons of hospital equipment. There were army cots, mattresses, blankets, hospital beds, operating tables, X-Ray machines and all sorts small items; including at least two thousand bedpans. We also found piles of sheets, pillows and other linens which were still usable, even after six years of storage. There was even some additional equipment for the mess hall, but no tables or chairs.
       "The first thing that we have to do is get the utilities turned on and working," Major Parker said to me. "I'll drive back into Marysville and contact the local electric company about power, while you see if you can find out where water comes from and what has to be done in order to get it working."
       Fire Department equals water in great quantities, so I concluded that would be the logical place to start looking for information about the water system. I broke into the locked fire department and on a wall was a detailed map of every water line, fireplug, faucet and water tap on the whole base. It also indicated the location of the water supply point for the base. In digging through the desks, I also found a gold mine of information in the form of a handbook with instructions for both normal and emergency operation the water supply and storage system. Attached to the handbook were several keys on a string, obviously for locks at the water station.
       The water supply point was located in the rolling foothills, some six miles from the base. One of the keys which were with the instruction book unlocked the gate in the high, chain link fence around the place, another opened the door to the building and others fit the locks on huge electrical switches. A massive diesel engine sat in one corner of the building. Everything appeared to be in the same condition as it had been the day that the place was shut down.
       After inspecting the concrete reservoir which was bone dry but appeared to be in perfect condition, we decided that we should see if anything worked. Following the instructions in the book, we opened and closed various valves to put the system into what was called "Low Water Emergency Supply" condition. Finally it was time to close the switch which was marked, "MAIN PUMP".
       I shoved the huge lever to the "ON" position, main connectors inside the box slammed closed. The largest of the electric motors issued a cloud of dust, dead spiders and ozone as it hummed in protest and wound up to speed. At first it spun freely until with the surge of power, it began to operate under a load. Pressure gauges jiggled and moved to indicate that something was happening inside the vast manifold of pipes and valves.
       "We got water flowing," shouted Red, who was standing at the top of the ladder on the tank. "It sure is rusty and dirty, but it's flowing."
       "Let's wait until we have a few feet of depth in the tank before we open any valves to start sending water to the base," I suggested. "Some of you go to the hospital and close every water valve that you can find."

       When Major Parker returned, he also had good news. People from the electric company would be out the following morning to reconnect power to the hospital buildings.
       "We have a lot of work to do in order to get this place in shape before the main body of the unit arrives two weeks from now," said Major Parker. "I'll get in touch with Quartermaster and set up delivery of supplies that we will need."
       The following morning, we found that the water had risen about there feet in the storage tank and concluded that it was time for us to see if we could get water flowing to the hospital. Major Parker had left earlier to go to the Army Depot near San Francisco to make arrangements for drawing food, equipment and basic supplies.
       Studying the drawings of the water system, I learned that it was divided into two separate and independent systems; normal and emergency. The normal system supplied water through one main line to the entire base, which included the hundreds of buildings which had been sold and moved. The emergency system used a separate line which directed water only to the fireplugs, fire department, the hospital and a few other buildings shown on the map. With the main valve to the normal system closed, I opened the red valve to the emergency system. I knew that it would take some time for the pipes to fill, but after an hour, the water was still flowing freely with no indication that it was ever going to build pressure in the system.
       Shutting off the valve, we set out to locate where the water was going. This didn't prove to be too difficult as there were large wet puddles around every fireplug. Every fire hydrant on the base had evidently been opened to drain the system when the base was shut down. It took five of us the rest of the day to locate and close the hundreds of open fireplugs on the sprawling base.
       Darkness came but Major Parker still hadn't returned, so we decided to call it a day and head back to town where we were staying in a motel.
       "Let's find a watering hole and have ourselves a beer before we eat," suggested Billy Bob.
       "Any suggestions?" I asked.
       "Well, I saw this bar about two blocks from the motel and it looked like some place that I could enjoy drinking in," he answered.
       The bar was in a rather dilapidated two-story brick building whose upper windows had long since been boarded up. A sign over the door advertised that this was the oldest continually operating bar in California, having been established in 1850. Inside, the walls were festooned with various photos, junk and artifacts dating back to the time when gold was discovered only a few miles from the town at a place called Sutter's Mill. There were several oddities displayed across the top of the back bar, like a sheep with two heads and something which was claimed to be a genuine jackalope, a cross between an antelope and a jack rabbit.
       There were actually two bars in the place, the front one which catered mostly to the tourist trade and the rear bar where all the regulars congregated. Billy Bob, who knew his way around bars such as this, headed straight for the back bar. We hoisted ourselves onto the tall stools where Billy Bob shucked off one of his boots and set it on the bar.
       "Do you know what kind of boot this, little darlin?" he said to the bartender, a rather attractive lady who had a forty year old face on the body of a twenty year old. Nature had been very kind or else she had taken great care of her body. She wore a nametag telling everyone that she was Marge.
       "Other than an ugly green cowboy boot setting on my bar, what do you mean?" she asked.
       "I'm surprised that you don't recognize this boot, Darlin'. This here is a famous Texas Drinking Boot. I won it in the Texas National Drinking Boot Championships down in Fort Worth two years ago. I was the Grand Champion Boot Drinker, downed seven bootfuls in one hour."
       "I've never heard of any such thing as a drinking boot," replied Marge, who in her years behind a bar thought that she had heard every wild story known to man.
       "There is an old tradition that the owner of a genuine Texas Drinking Boot gets his bootful free," said Billy Bob.
       "And I think that you are full of shit, but it will be worth the price of a bootful of beer just to see you drink it." said Marge.
       The boot was so tall that Marge had to tilt it in order to get it under the beer tap. "This damn thing must hold two gallons," she remarked as the beer flowed in. When the boot was filled to the rim of the stovepipe top, she slid it back to Billy Bob.
       He blew the foam aside, tilted the boot and took a long swig. "Nothing like a boot to make beer taste good. There is another Texas Drinking Boot tradition, a Grand Champion Boot Drinker always shares his boot beer with his friends," he said as he slid the boot over in front of me.
       I had heard of men drinking champaign from a lady's shoe, but drinking beer from a boot bordered on the ridiculous. But who am I to fly in the face of the great Texas Drinking Boot tradition. I took a long draw on the boot and shoved it down the bar to Red.
       The boot progressed from Red to Arthur Arthur Arthur and on down the bar to where several of the locals had been cheering us on. Each of the locals took his turn at the boot and by the time that it reached the other end of the bar, it was all but empty.
       The boot was passed back to Billy Bob, who finding only about one good drink left, handed it across the bar to Marge. "There is also one more tradition of the drinking boot, that is that the bartender gets the last drink."
       "What the hell," said Marge as she turned the boot up, drained the remaining suds and handed it back.
       "Oh, I almost forgot the final and most important tradition of the Texas Drinking Boot, that is that the person who takes the last drink has to refill it."
       "If you think that I'm going to pop for another two gallons of beer so you drink it out of a smelly boot, you are a few bricks short of a load," replied Marge.
       "What the hell," said one of the locals. "Fill it up and put it on my tab."

       The boot has been filled, drained and refilled three or four times when Major Parker walked in. "Howdy, Major," said Billy Bob as he pushed the boot toward him, "Welcome to a Texas Drinking Boot party. Have a swig."
       Major Parker declined the offer of the boot and said, "I figured that I'd find you guys in a place like this. I have some good news and some bad. Let's go eat and I'll tell you all about it."
       He had gone to the Army for supplies, but had been told that since we were now assigned to the Air Force, they no longer had any obligation to supply us with anything. Failing to get help from the Army, he had gone to the Air Force base at Fairfield/Suisun. When he told them of our needs, they decided that, even though we were now assigned to the Air Force, we were still Army troops, and they wouldn't give us the time of day.
       Little did we realize at the time, but this was going to be the situation which we would face the rest of the time that we were assigned to the Air Force.
       "It looks as if the 1903rd is like a little old doggie calf," said Billy Bob.
       What on earth is a doggie calf?" asked Major Parker.
       "A doggie calf is one whose mother won't have anything to do with it and neither will any other cow," replied Billy Bob. "How are we going to obtain basic supplies that will be needed to get ready for the arrival of the main unit?"
       "I suppose that I can use this letter which authorizes me to make emergency purchases on the civilian market and simply buy everything that we need," replied Major Parker. "Each of you start making lists of supplies that you need for your particular area and I will contact local suppliers."

       The following day, with all of the fireplugs closed, I opened the valve to the emergency water system again. Water flowed through the system, but at least we now had some pressure to indicate that the flow had been reduced considerably. Finding the remaining open pipes was rather simple as all that we had to do was look for streams of water shooting into the air from pipes which had been disconnected when buildings were moved.
       It took a considerable amount of digging to find the individual valves for each of those buildings, but we finally had all the leaks plugged. It was now time to see if we had water at the hospital. When valves were opened, water flowed into toilets, water heaters filled and lavatory faucets produced water. We were in business!
       "One of the first things that we have to do is arrange for tables and chairs for the mess hall," said Major Parker. "We can't have eight hundred people standing around holding trays every meal."
       "I noticed a picnic table in the day room. It was built from two-by-sixes and looks fairly simple. How about duplicating it by about fifty times," I suggested. "That number of tables will fit in the mess hall and seat half of the battalion at a time. I can work up a material list for building them."
       "Good idea, and while you are at it, better include enough lumber and nails to make some of the other repairs that are needed," replied Major Parker. 

       Major Parker and I sat down with a plan of the hospital and began to designate a use for each of the various buildings. Due to the layout, it was impossible for each company to have its supply and orderly rooms adjacent to their barracks. All orderly rooms were grouped into a large building at one end of the complex. Battalion headquarters was to occupy the hospital's main administrative buildings at the other end. Supply rooms would be grouped into one of the large buildings where the equipment had been stored. While it was not the normal layout recommended in the Army manuals, it proved to be very efficient.
       Trucks loaded with lumber rolled in and were unloaded at the various places where the material would be needed. Tools were rented and supplies bought. Menus for a week were planned and the food necessary to feed 800 men was ordered and stacked in the mess hall.
       On the 26th, two weeks after the advance party first set foot in the deserted place called Camp Beale, the remainder of the 1903rd arrived on a number of busses or in the few trucks and jeeps which had been brought along with the unit. They unloaded at 2:00PM and were immediately issued bunks and shown where they would be living for the next several months.
       At 6:00PM, the men of the 1903rd were called to the mess hall, and while they had to stand while eating, they were fed a hot meal which had been prepared by Major Parker and a dozen enlisted men, only one of which was assigned as a cook.
       "We owe a great debt of gratitude to the advance party who, in only two weeks, changed this place from a ghost base into livable quarters," announced Colonel Hull at the battalion formation the following morning. "All training will be suspended until we have built mess hall tables, made necessary repairs to buildings and secured the area. Work assignments have been given to Company Commanders and will be posted on the bulletin boards. Welcome to Beale Air Force Base."

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