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Fort Custer during World War II

Fort Custer, circa 1943. Photograph courtesy of Willard Public Library, Augusta, Michigan.

On August 17, 1940, Camp Custer in Augusta, Michigan was designated Fort Custer and became a permanent military training base by an Act of Congress. At this time, bids were opened for the re-building of the fort. The Owen-Ames-Kimball Contracting Company out of Grand Rapids, MI, won the bid. The fort’s area grew to 16,005 acres, with quarters for 1,279 officers and 27, 553 enlisted troops. The fort would also serve as a POW camp for 5,000 German soldiers until 1945 as well as an Army hospital receiving casualties from Europe.


Over the course of WWII, more than 300,000 troops would be trained at Fort Custer. The first troops to train at there were part of the 5th Infantry Division a.k.a the Red Diamond Division, who fought in Normandy on D-Day. Fort Custer was also home to the Provost Marshall General’s 350th Military Police escort guard.

Even before the United States declared war on Germany and Japan to join World War II, Fort Custer was alive with active, being reactivated after almost 20 years as part of the new National Defense Program. Construction of new buildings began in January 1941 that would see the fort turned into its own small community just 3 miles outside of Battle Creek. Fort Custer became the reception center for all Michigan inductees, with the exception of those from the Upper Peninsula. Every man started at the reception center, where he would spend an average of 3-4 days. During that time, candidates took the classification test, which was compiled by the nation’s leading psychologists for the Army. The candidate would give information relating to his education and jobs held. Then each candidate would be personally interviewed by an officer who was specially trained to classify people. The Army went to extreme pains to make sure that only the roundest pegs fit into round holes. The candidate also received his uniform during this time. After the examinations were all over, the candidate would have to wait a day or so while the filing system at the fort designated men of the same trade. Then each would be assigned to an Army command.

Occupying Divisions/Regiments

The first troops to arrive were Company G, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry, who arrived from Fort Wayne and Detroit on Monday, September 16, under the command of Colonel Fredrick Armstrong.

Occupying Fort Custer in August of 1941 was three infantry regiments, the 5th Division Military Police Company, the division headquarters detachment, Field Artillery Battalions, Headquarters Battery, 5th Division Artillery, 5th Reconnaissance Troop, 5th Signal Company, 7th Engineer Battalion, 94th Engineer Battalion, Company C, 48th Quartermaster Battalion, Company C, 56th Quartermaster, the Chemical Warfare service, 5th Division Ordnance and Finance Detachments, 5th Medical Battalion, medical detachments, artillery battalions, headquarters battery, and the 215th General Hospital. The 94th Infantry moved into Fort Custer some time in the early 40s, but only for issuance of equipment before being reassigned to Camp Phillips, Kansas. There were also anti-aircraft units and W.A.C. (Women’s Army Corps) detachments stationed at the fort.

Nearly 367,000 African-American soldiers served during World War II, including the 184th Field Artillery, part of the 5th Division, which was entirely comprised of African-American soldiers and officers. Since they were African-American, they had their own barracks and mess halls. This was until 1954, when the policy of all black units was abolished.

Among the troops stationed at Fort Custer included those in the post organization. This created two distinct commands operating at the fort. This was so that in the event that the 5th Division was called into duty, the post would continue the “housekeeping” and would be ready to receive other troops. It also relieved officers assigned to combat units to concentrate on training of troops instead of being buried in administrative detail connected with operating the post.

In 1942, nearly 2,000 additional acres were acquired for use as an artillery range. The fort was also preparing military police and housing German prisoners. Part of the United States’ postwar educational policy included the Army’s Civil Affairs Training Program. This training program was setup to prepare offices for military service in occupied territories. This was an extension of the training instituted at Charlottesville, Virginia. This program was placed under the control of the Provost Marshal General. The first four weeks of this training program was done at Fort Custer. The primary objective of the training, as stated by the Office of the Provost Marshal General, was to provide officers with the knowledge they’d need in order to understand the people they’d be dealing with and to effectively meet the problems they face in the course of their duties. From November 1942 to October 1944, Fort Custer was the home of the Military Police Officers Candidate School and the Military Police Replacement Training Center. From 1941 to 1943, a total of 530 military polices units across the United States were activated, 151 of which were moved overseas. Training of replacement personal for military police began in April 1942 at Fort Riley, Kansas. On April 5, 1943, this training was moved to Fort Custer, where it continued until October 1944. During this time period, 42,000 trainees would come through Fort Custer.

5th Division

The 5th Division was stationed at Fort Custer for one reason alone, training to fight. One of the most significant features of the training
was winter warfare. When winter came to Michigan, a program of maneuvers was designed to test material, men, and tactics under severe cold weather conditions. The results of these tests served as a guide for the entire United States Army in choosing equipment for cold weather expeditions.

The 5th Division drew heavily on draftees from the Fort Custer center to attain its full strength. In addition to the 1,000 draftees who would be quartered at the center in relays, there would be a permanent organization from 300 to 500 to operate it. The unit was a paper-only unit from 1921 to 1939 when it became reactivated. On July 24,1941, Major General Charles H. Bonesteel assumed command of the division. Then immediately before their departure for maneuvers in Louisiana, the division received a new commander, Brigadier General Cortland Parker

POWs at Fort Custer

Fort Custer served as the main German POW camp in Michigan during World War II. Unlike other camps, it also served as the only permanent housing location. The POW camp at Fort Custer was established because of the success of such camps in Benton Harbor and Caro that met the standards of both the War Department as well as local farmers. Many of the POWs reported being treated very well by those at Fort Custer and often wrote home to their families requesting that they stop sending food as they were being well food with good food from the staff at Fort Custer. The majority of the Midwest relied heavily on farming during World War II, and Michigan was no different. With the majority of able-bodied young men being drafted, those left behind were looking for anyone would was able to work the land. Putting the German POWs being held at Fort Custer seemed like an efficient solution. They worked on farms until they were sent back to Germany after the war in 1946, leaving 26 behind. 10 died of natural causes, the other 16 in a train accident on the way back from the farms.

Impact on the Military

Fort Custer’s impact on the military during World War II was a great one. It was one of the primary training facilities for new service members in the Midwest. It also served as headquarters for some of the most important divisions and battalions in the War. Important Nation Defense contracts have been assigned to those working at the fort, many of which have greatly enhanced National Security.

Primary Sources:

  1. Clark, Faye. As You Were: Fort Custer. Galesburg, MI: KAL-GALE Printing, 1985.
  2. Geesey, Chet. Fort Custer in Story and Picture. New York: Fort, 1941.
  3. Hyneman, Charles S. “The Army’s Civil Affairs Training Program.” The American Political Science Review 38.2 (1944): 342.
  4. Calkin, Homer L. “Military Police Replacements in World War II.” Social Science 27.1 (1952): 17-22.
  5. Mason, J. B. “Lessons of Wartime Military Government Training.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 267.1 (1950): 183-92.

Secondary Sources

  1. “The Befriended Enemy: German Prisoners of War in Michigan.” Michigan Historical Review 41.1 (2015): 57-79.
  2. Fort Custer (2).FortWiki Historic U.S. and Canadian Forts. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
  3. Fort Custer Traing Center.Michigan National Guard. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.

For Further Reading