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Fort Custer and the Cold War: Negative Effects of Hazing

Fort Custer Training Center (From

It is no secret that Hazing is a problem for any organization. This is epically true for any branch of the military. Organization leaders tend to look at it as a development tool for a sense of belonging, teamwork and discipline. However it, is a dangerous principle to teach with and incidents that occurred at Fort Custer Training Center, during the Cold War can be used as a paradigm for the influence of hazing-turn a-muck.

While hazing had its effects on the troops residing at Fort Custer Training center during the cold war, it is important to understand the general role Fort Custer played during the Cold War. The official dates of the Cold War have not been fully agreed on, but the time period between 1947 and 1991 is held in common by historians. In this time period, because of the rise of tensions, there was a huge push for a large peace time military force. The government constantly looked to increasing the defense budget to improve military training and air defense systems. The duty of Installations, was to ensure that there was enough man power and homeland defense to help protect against a nuclear strike. During this time period, Fort Custer was a main installation used to help secure the country.

In the cold war, there was a movement in legislation to combat communism with an increased in defensive spending. Most of this money to be set aside was meant for conventional arms [5]. With an increased cost in conventional weapons, the training of men is required to get enough men to use all of the weapons that have been manufactured and to train men to know how to use the different weapons you will be manufacturing. Fort Custer, during the Cold War, was responsible for training several different branches of the armed forces for this purpose: the Navy Reserve (1949), the Tactical Bridge Company for the Marine Corps Reserve (1952), 17,000 troops for the Korean War in 1952 [6].

Conventional arms were not the only defensive strategy Fort Custer received money for to strengthen the United Sates Defense. For Custer was part of the North American Air Defense System between 1959 and 1969. The installation was in charge of setting up and maintaining anti-aircraft artillery units [7].

While there was a push for proactive defense spending, there were periods of less tension. In these periods government officials looked at how the budget was being spent and decided to make a few cutbacks [8]. For Custer was affected by a few of these cuts. In 1953, Fort Custer lost its active training status [6]. This funding cut also appeared when Fort Custer was part of the North American Air Defense System; all artillery set up was later moved to various parts around the great lakes region for protection [7]. Fort Custer was not located in a high priority place for defense so the artillery was moved to areas that were deemed in need for better defense.

Finally, during the cold war, the official owner of Fort Custer changed. The Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs had control of Fort Custer in 1968. Now, Fort Custer is owned federally [7].

Incidents of Hazing at Fort Custer

Fort Custer Arrests [1] (from The Chicago Tribune)
On October 4th 1995, the FBI launched an investigation on several of the job corps members staying at Fort Custer on charges of “collecting money from others as protection payments.” [1]. Four men were traced down and incarcerated in the Kalamazoo county jail for extortion. These “protection payments” were forms of extortion where the men paid off the arrested suspects who were promising physical harm to the victims how did not comply. The victims were forced to hand over money they had received on pay-day and give the suspects money before they could leave the line [1].

There are a few problem here, the first being the threats of physical harm and the second is the extortion of money. The biggest problem is the pressure that was put on the victims. Had the victims paid the suspects, they would be accepted by the suspects and were even offered personal protection against anyone else who offered bodily harm. This combination of self-preservation and group acceptance are a formula for hazing. Should they not want to be a part of the constantly beaten rejects all they have to do is pay a fee, which is, from a moral standpoint, wrong.

There are a few reasons that make this kind of mindset wrong. First, for obvious reasons, it is illegal. Second, it gives the victims a wrong, morally backwards sense of mind. It makes them think that this kind of behavior is acceptable for superiors to put on their underlings and it promotes future instances of this type of behavior occurring once the victims become higher up members themselves. Lastly, there is a promotion of violence, which is the most dangerous behavior to be teaching new recruits. It is necessary that solders in training be subject to violence to an extent. This to ensure while they face an enemy, the soldier is mentally and physically equipped to engage in combat; however, this kind of physical violence is different. It is directed towards an ally, the people these people should want to protect. It gives them the idea it is okay to hurt friends and citizens which is seen in an incident later in the year after these arrests took place.

The effects hazing had on members of Fort Custer

Fort Custer Riots [2] (from The Chicago Tribune)
Just a little over a month after the arrests at Fort Custer, On November 12th, members for the job corps youth started a fight with high schoolers at a dance that turned into a riot and it took 100 police officers to defuse the situation. The extends of the damage was, starting from the school, flipped over desks, to downtown Kalamazoo, where windows shattered and other extensive damages were inflicted on the town. The damage entitled “… a very large sum or money” [2] multiple injuries, likely to officers and the rioters, and arrests being made hours after the riot had been cleared up [2].

This riot is where the effects of hazing previously discussed start to take hold. Most specifically, the part where the young soldiers started to feel it was acceptable to belittle, harass and physically abuse people who should be thought of as friends and people who should be protected. This riot is an extreme example of how bad actions and direction can take its hold on the mindset of a group. While there may be no direct correlation between the four suspects that were arrested in the October extortion to this event in November, it cannot be ignored that there is a repletion of violence. This violence was seen by arrested suspects, who must have held some credible authority, whether it be rank, intelligence or pure physical strength over the others in order to pull off the extortion for so long. Furthermore, this violence was witnessed in one-hundred-and-fifty of the men who were likely victims of the extortion.

This chain of violence does not stop with this riot. In almost a year’s time, on Aug 12th 1966, between one-hundred and one-hundred-and-fifty members stormed into Battle Creek with “knives, chains, and pipes” trying to settle he score with the same people they fought with at another dance. This riot was calmed by a much smaller force, only needing 35 officers. To make things worse this riot was an extension of brawling that same night after a fire cracker was light off during the dance [3].

These young men seemed to have a history and a passion for violence. First there was the first riot in the November of 1665 and now there was a second one in the August of 1966. The only thing that could possibly cause them to act out as much as they are is the atmosphere that they are subjected to. They would not need to cause so much trouble unless they had motive and thought the actions they took were acceptable behavior. The motivation is to be blamed on acts like the extortion that took place. Examples that lead them to believe that what they were doing is fine. There are mostly likely many more occurrences like that to happen, they just did not make the paper.

On November 25th in 1995, Sargent General Shiver belittled the November 12th riot making it clear that this kind of thing was normal to the officers in charge, normal to Fort Custer and worse normal to the military was the review of the.  Shiver claimed “it was no worse than some fights he had seen while on navy shore patrol duty in World War II” [4]. He went on saying how unsurprising outbreaks were and that he expects more to happen as it was a foreseen that these types of problem would be related to the job corps. While he did express his condolences and preference of the riots not happening, he justified that it was okay because it happens on college campuses all the time [4].

The concerning review that Sargent General Shiver left on the riots is evidence violent behavior is typical. His lack of alarm and justification of it being fine because it happens everywhere else is alarming. It also shows that officers at the time knew things like this were going and didn’t care. Obviously officials were okay with how things were going because the hostile hazing environment of Fort Custer was familiar, and easy to control. Furthermore, his claim of seeing worse fights in World War II also strengthens the evidence that this type of atmosphere is expected for places like Fort Custer.

Hazing and hostility at Fort Custer during the Time of the Cold War pushed trainee troops to give them expectations of violence against friends and citizens is okay.  This type of hostility was seen time and time again as the trainees who were subject to this out lashed against local kids, and caused trouble for the neighboring cities and all around Fort Custer. The lack of surprise from ranking officials helps confirm they live in this kind of atmosphere. All of these examples make Fort Custer, during the Cold War, a paradigm of the bad effects hazing has on the personalities of its victims.

Primary Sources:

  1. Chicago Tribune: Bares Extort Scheme In Job Corps Center: FBI Arrests 4 Men At Fort Cuser, Chicago Tribune, Oct. 5 1965
  2. Chicago Tribune: 100 Cops Fight Michigan Job Corps Rioters, Chicago Tribune, Nov 13, 1965
  3. Chicago Tribune: Halt Revenge-Bent Job Corps Marchers, Chicago Tribune, Aug 9, 1966.
  4. Russell Freeburg: Shriver Views Job Corpsman Riot Lightly, Chicago Tribune, Nov 25, 1965

Secondary Sources:

  1. Robert David Johnson: The government operations committee and foreign policy during the Cold War, Political Science Quarterly, 1998/1999, par 1-8
  2. Ken Sequin:Fort Custer Augusta Michigan, Order of Battle, December 14 1942, par 5
  3. Michigan National Guard: Fort Custer Training Center, Michigan National Guard, sec. Installations, par 5-6
  4. Roswell L. Gilpatric: Our defensive needs The Long View, Foregin Affairs (pre-1986), April 1964, 366-378

For Further Reading: