Fort McCoy- Wisconsin

Written By: Karen Balfe

Soldiers conduct field artillery training with 105mm howitzers at Camp McCoy in the winter of 1951. (U.S. Army photograph courtesy of Fort McCoy Public Affairs)

Fort McCoy is located in west-central Wisconsin between Tomah and Sparta and is the largest U.S. Army installation in Wisconsin. Encompassing 60,000 acres, the installation provides ample room to train both reserve and active components of all facets of the armed forces. Since 1984, over 100,000 military personnel each year have passed through Fort McCoy. Fort McCoy is named for MG Robert B. McCoy, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and visionary who first imagined the area for development as a military training facility. While serving in the Spanish-American War, McCoy began to see the changing face of war. He believed that new technologies would bring bigger guns and more complex equipment, creating the need for larger training facilities.

In 1905 McCoy purchased 4,000 acres of land near Sparta. That same year McCoy invited his friend, MAJ Samuel Allen from the 7th Field Artillery, to train on his land for sixteen days. Those sixteen days were all that Allen needed to ask the Army to purchase land in the area for artillery training. Four years later, in 1909, the War Department purchased what was known as the Sparta Maneuver Tract—14,200 acres which included McCoy’s original 4,000 acres. This piece of land contained a railroad that roughly cut the section in half, the north half being called Camp Emory Upton and the south half Camp Robinson.

In 1910, the War Department allotted $40,000 dollars for developing and upgrading the site. The site was then named Camp Bruce E. McCoy, after Robert McCoy’s father, who was a veteran of the Civil War. The name again changed in 1926 when it was renamed Camp McCoy, this time for Robert McCoy. By 1942, 46,937 acres had been added and the triangular shaped cantonment area was constructed after builders completed the arduous task of cutting through the dense foliage of jack pine, scrub oak, and brush that dominated the site. Camp McCoy opened on 30 August 1942 with a capacity of 35,000.

During World War II, units such as the 2d Infantry Division, 76th Infantry Division, and 100th Infantry Battalion trained at Camp McCoy. The camp was home to around 40,000 troops during the height of training activities. One notable soldier who trained at the camp was 1LT Louis L’Amour, who was assigned to the 808th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) also had an active role at Camp McCoy. WACs served as librarians, statisticians, typists, clerks, and office managers. The training center was also a POW and enemy-alien camp. Camp McCoy served as the largest permanent Japanese POW camp in the United States, with as many as 2,700 prisoners held there. 3,000 German POWs were also housed at Camp McCoy. In 1945, the camp was redesignated as a personnel and separation center. Within one year, 250,000 World War II veterans were processed prior to their return to civilian life.

Nevertheless, training and other activities at the camp continued during this period. 1,800 soldiers arrived at Camp McCoy in the winter of 1946 for Task Force Frost to conduct testing of Army equipment and clothing in frigid conditions. Two years later, in 1947, Camp McCoy was deactivated. With the start of the Korean War, it was reactivated again in 1950 as a full-time training post for both combat and support soldiers. One of the units that served at Camp McCoy in 1951 was the 847th Field Artillery Battalion, which took part in a training maneuver where they fired their 155mm “Long Tom” guns over the railroad which crosses through the post and over Highway 21. This interesting training exercise only paused when guards alerted them that trains were on the way. Drivers on the highway were also halted and notified of the exercise.

Towards the end of the Korean War, word spread of Camp McCoy’s impending deactivation, upsetting some members of the nearby communities. I. B. Bell, a prominent local citizen and part of a committee formed to promote the designation of Camp McCoy as a permanent, year-round post, spoke of the camp’s invaluable contribution in training Korean War soldiers. Bell stated, “Officers who have seen Korean duty, and have been stationed at other training camps in the United States, have said repeatedly that Camp McCoy offered ideal training conditions for the type of warfare encountered in Korea. The change of season and especially the rugged winters enable men and machines to be conditioned and adapted to the very type of war we are now in.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy questioned the Secretary of Defense, “Why are you closing the only cold weather camp you have in the United States?” Nevertheless, Camp McCoy was deactivated in 1953. However, Camp McCoy continued to be used throughout the 1950s and 1960s as a site where Reserve and National Guard units conducted their annual training during the summer months. As the 1970s began, Camp McCoy was reactivated. The permanent staff of military and civilian personnel grew, and many organizations from both the Department of Defense and the State of Wisconsin began conducting operations there. Camp McCoy was designated a U.S. Army Forces Command installation and officially renamed Fort McCoy on 30 September 1974.

The southern half of the tract of land that became Fort McCoy was once known as Camp Robinson. In this 1909 photograph, soldiers from Battery A, Illinois National Guard, conduct training exercises at Camp Robinson. (U.S. Army photograph courtesy of Fort McCoy Public Affairs)

From May to September 1980, Fort McCoy served as a resettlement center for more than 15,000 Cuban refuges who came to America as part of the Freedom Flotilla that year. Activity at Fort McCoy remained steady during 1990s. During Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991, Army Reserve and National Guard troops were mobilized at Fort McCoy prior to their deployment to the Persian Gulf. Approximately 18,000 soldiers in seventy-four units from nine different states processed through Fort McCoy in 1991. Fort McCoy was assigned to carry out Operation Desert Fix, which entailed equipment demobilization and repair. It was one of the largest missions of its kind. New construction, the first since 1942, began in 1990 and continued until 2006.

In this 1944 photograph, soldiers from the 76th Infantry Division march to board troop trains that will take them from Camp McCoy to points east and eventually to the war in Europe. (U.S. Army photograph courtesy of Fort McCoy Public Affairs)

The total number of military and civilian personnel trained at the post reached an all time high of 143,362 in 1992. In 1994, Fort McCoy sought to combat homelessness among veterans by providing housing to those in need. One year later, Fort McCoy received the Army Communities of Excellence Award in the small-installation category. It was also selected to be one of the fifteen Army Power Projection Platforms, responsible for strategically deploying high priority active and reserve units. Fort McCoy has contributed to the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq by training and mobilizing more than 70,000 troops since 11 September 2001. One of the ways that Fort McCoy trains troops for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is through a four-day course to familiarize soldiers with Humvees.

Soldiers from the 375th Chemical Company, an Army Reserve unit from New Jersey, prepare to load a CH-47 Chinook helicopter with components for a decontamination station during training exercises at Fort McCoy in June 2005. (Defense Visual Information Center)

After classroom education on the specifications of the vehicle, soldiers are put behind the wheel and given hands-on training on how to operate a Humvee in various situations. After learning how to drive on highways and urban streets, the drivers are then taken on the post’s 10-mile track of rough terrain, complete with bone-jarring potholes, sand pits, and sharp turns. Another phase of behind the wheel training is a night session where soldiers must familiarize themselves with driving with night-vision goggles. Present-day Fort McCoy offers a variety of training options for a wide range of activities. Its Multi-Purpose Training Range, one of twenty-seven ranges at Fort McCoy, allows for live-fire exercises to be conducted by combat aviation, mechanized infantry, armor, dismounted, and motorized units. Fort McCoy recently added an Urban Training Complex, Multi-Purpose Machine Gun Range, Modified Record Fire Range, and Combat Pistol Qualification Range to its training facilities.

Three instructors from 1st Battalion, 338th Regiment, 2d Brigade, 85th Division (Training Support), cross a rope bridge during cold weather training at Fort McCoy while wearing Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suite Technology, December 2003. (Defense Visual Information Center)

In 2006, a simulation facility opened and, in 2007, the Noncommissioned Officer Academy, Public Safety Center, and Shoot House facility opened as well. Fort McCoy also allows for ground, rail, water, and air transportation services. The Sparta-McCoy Airport, which is also available for civilian use, and the Young Air Assault Strip, can both handle aircraft as large as the U.S. Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III. Fort McCoy also features an 8,000-acre air-to-ground impact area and four airborne drop zones suitable for both personnel and equipment drops. Some of the specialized organizations that are located at Fort McCoy are the 84th Training Command, which includes the U.S. Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy; the Regional Training Site-Medical; the Regional Training Site-Maintenance; the Army Reserve Civilian Personnel Advisory Center; U.S. Army Reserve Pay Center; 88th Regional Support Command; and the Maneuver Area Training Equipment Site.

The installation has one of the biggest equipment stores for reserve units which travel great distances to train at Fort McCoy. This saves the trouble and costs of having to transport all the equipment they may need for training. Fort McCoy, however, serves as more than a training place for military forces. Various law enforcement agencies, such as the Wisconsin State Patrol Academy and local and regional police departments use Fort McCoy. The post offers different ranges, sniper training, offense/defense building, and urban training sites which law enforcement agencies would be hard pressed to find in a single convenient location. The ability to conduct live fire exercises is another important opportunity found at Fort McCoy. Fort McCoy also shares a close relationship with the surrounding communities and employs many local civilian personnel at the installation. In 2006, nearly 2,900 civilians were employed at Fort McCoy, making it the largest employer in Monroe County. Its estimated economic impact was $897.3 million that same year.

The post contains the Fort McCoy Commemorative Area, a place of significance for anyone interested in military history. There are five buildings dedicated to the life of a soldier during World War II. A mess hall, barracks, and an office area depict scenes of World War II life at what was then Camp McCoy. The site also contains an equipment park with over fifty vehicles on display. The Commemorative Area includes two other places of interest, a History Center and Veterans Memorial. Fort McCoy will celebrate its 100th year of service in 2009. In commemoration of this achievement, a book entitled Images of America: Fort McCoy, featuring photographs and artwork on the history of Fort McCoy, will be published by Arcadia Publishing and made available for purchase by the general public.