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Evolution of Volk Field Air National Guard Base


Beginning as a small rifle range in 1888, Volk Field Air National Guard Base has dramatically evolved into a major National Guard training base. During the course of its evolution, Volk Field played a vital role in several major events including World War 1 and the Cold War. Today Volk Field, seen in this photo, continues to play a significant role for the National Guard by hosting the Patriot Exercise, which trains National Guard reserves how to respond and handle disaster situations.

Early History

In 1888, General Chandler Chapman purchased the Volk Field site to be utilized as a rifle range and offered the site to the state of Wisconsin to be employed as a military camp [3, 9]. In 1889, Wisconsin’s Legislature authorized the purchase of the site to be used as a permanent training site for the Wisconsin National Guard that housed pistol, rifle, and artillery ranges. Initially, the site was named Camp Douglas and trained selected representatives from independent companies from across Wisconsin; however, by 1894, the camp hosted annual training for the infantry, artillery, and cavalry [3]. This shift from selected representatives to more broad training showcased the changing ideals of military forces in the United States. Prior to the very late 1800s, the United States saw no need for a standing army during peacetime. From the Civil War until about 1890, the United States viewed itself as isolated from other world powers and wanted to maintain that isolation because of its previous anti-imperialist ideals stemming from the American Revolution and Civil War states’ rights conflicts [7]. However, as navies expanded and technologies advanced, the United States began to see the possible consequences of not having a military force ready at all times. The anti-imperial sentiment also began to change during President McKinley’s term, which was fueled by Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny ideals [7]. The Spanish-American War added more credibility to the idea of needing a peacetime force, as the United States scrambled to prepare for conflict and almost lost the war because of it. Because of this, the United States began making changes to its military, which included expanding forces and training. This directly affected training camps like Camp Douglas. In order to accommodate more troops and training exercises, in 1903, Camp Douglas was expanded to over 800 acres. From 1903 to the beginning of World War 1, the camp executed annual trainings and grew steadily [3].


In 1917, the United States entered World War 1, which meant that a vast military force needed to be assembled and trained in a very short period of time. In order for this to happen, the United States had to utilize all its possible resources, which included Camp Douglas. Although the 1903 expansion and continued improvements allowed the camp to function smoothly during peacetime, it did not provide sufficient resources to be useful during time of mobilization [3]. In order for Camp Douglas to be useful, several improvements were made to the site. To begin, many new cottages, mess halls, and latrine buildings were built to house trainees. In order to better organize and train the soldiers, an administrative center was built to direct operations. Additional training courses were also built during this time [3]. These improvements allowed Camp Douglas to become a prominent, successful training facility during World War 1.

Volk Field played a vital role in World War 1 because the famous 32nd Division was assembled and trained here. The 32nd Division, known as the “Red Arrow”, was comprised of both Wisconsin and Michigan National Guard units [5]. The division was named the “Red Arrow” to signify it shot through any enemy line put in front of it; the division’s incredible reputation also earned them the nickname “Les Terribles” from the French [4, 5]. This Division served on the front line during World War 1 from May 18, 1918 until the end of the war with only 10 days of rest during that time [4, 5]. The Division fought in three key offensives that included the Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, and the Meuse Argonne [5]. The 32nd Division was the first American Division to break through the Hindenburg Line, meaning that they were the first American soldiers to enter Germany [4, 5]. Throughout the war, the 32nd Division defeated 23 German divisions, gained 38 kilometers in four main attacks, stopped all enemy counterattacks, and suffered 14,000 casualties. For their efforts in World War 1, over 800 officers were decorated by American, French, or Belgian governments [4]. Overall, the Red Arrow Division was one of the most successful and effective American divisions in World War 1. The Red Arrows performance earned Camp Douglas an excellent reputation as one of the best National Guard training facilities in the nation by the end of World War 1.

After World War 1, the camp continued to grow and evolve. In April of 1926, Camp Douglas announced it would be renamed to Camp Williams to commemorate Lieutenant Colonel Charles Williams [1, 2]. Williams had been a mainstay to the camp since enlisting into the National Guard in 1888. Williams helped develop the camp from swamp and forest to one of the prominent training facilities in the nation [1].  The camp expanded greatly in the 1930s [2]. During the mid to late 1930s the nation was attempting to pull itself out of the Great Depression; in order to do this, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented many public service programs. These programs directly influenced Camp Williams before World War 2. From 1934 to 1941, the Works Progress Administration improved the Headquarters building and built additional mess halls and latrine buildings [2]. The biggest improvement that Camp Williams added between the wars was the first hard surface airport runway, which was built in 1936 [2, 3]. The runway was very important to maintain Camp Williams usefulness for years to come.

In World War 2, the camp again served as the mobilizing and training location for the prestigious 32nd Division, which again performed as one of the best American Divisions during World War 2 and made significant contributions in the war in the Pacific. Although the division fought on many islands throughout the Pacific and even parts of Europe, they were mainly located in New Guinea and the Philippines. Serving 654 days of combat during the war, the Red Arrow led all United States army divisions in that category. For their efforts in World War 2, numerous officers were recognized including 11 soldiers who received Congressional Medals of Honor [5]. After World War 2, the entire 32nd Division was relocated to Wisconsin, but Volk Field did not have sufficient resources to support the vast numbers of people for an extended period of time, so annual trainings for the division were shifted to nearby Fort McCoy in 1948 [9].

Cold War False Alarm

After World War 2, the camp began to take the shape that it currently is today. With the 32nd Division regular training moved to Fort McCoy, Camp Williams no longer had a major purpose to the state of Wisconsin; therefore, in 1954, the federal government leased Camp Williams from Wisconsin to be used as a permanent training facility [2, 3]. At this time, the camp was split into two separate components; these included an Air Force component and an Army Component. The Air Force was named Volk Field in 1957 to commemorate 1st Lieutenant Jerome Volk, who was the first Wisconsin Air National Guard pilot killed in the Korean War [3]. This photo depicts the commemorated name stone and plane. The army component remained named Camp Williams. Along with the division into two parts also came the dramatic renovation of the site. In order to create a successful Air Force training facility, more air strips, mess halls, and barracks were needed. So, between 1954 and 1960, 43 new Airmen barracks, aviation support facilities (such as fuel storage tanks, aircraft maintenance facilities, and electronic navigation structures), administrative buildings, and runways were built [3]. These improvements allowed the Air Force portion to be utilized much more for years to come, especially during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, Volk Field was utilized regularly to house planes and pilots for training exercises [2]. On one occasion during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Volk Field housed a fleet of B-47 bombers armed with nuclear weapons. This was part of a nationwide disbursement that spread the United States Air Force and nuclear weapons across the country, which ensured that no single enemy strike could cripple our defenses [2]. While the B-47 planes were stationed at Volk Field, there was a false alarm at the Duluth air base about three hours north [8]. On the night of October 25th, 1962, a guard at the Duluth air base saw a figure climbing the fence. The guard shot the figure and activated the sabotage alarm, which also sets off sabotage alarms at surrounding bases. The alarm at Volk Field, however, was wired incorrectly, which led to the Klaxon alarm going off [8]. The Klaxon alarm is used to order nuclear armed F-106A interceptors to deploy. At the time, patrols of nuclear-armed bombers were airborne near Volk Field, which may have resulted in friendly fire. As the planes began down the runway, communication with Duluth revealed the error, however, Volk Field did not have a control tower. Thankfully, a truck raced down the runway and was successfully able to signal the aircraft to abort the mission. The figure climbing the fence was later discovered to be a black bear [8]. If this plane was not stopped, it may have led to friendly fire in the Wisconsin sky that may have triggered a third World War with the Soviet Union.

Evolving to Today

After the 1960s scare, the Volk Field and Camp Williams site did not have any major involvements in larger affairs than basic training exercises until the 1990s. In 1989, the site was designated as an Air National Guard Combat Readiness Training Center, which it is still used as today [2]. During the 1990 Persian Gulf War, Volk Field was used to disperse troops that had been mobilizing at the nearby Fort McCoy. This allowed for troops to reach their destination easier and quicker than in the past because they previously had to fly out of the Duluth airports, which were over three hours away [2]. In 1991, several more complex training missions were added to the Volk Field process; these included the Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation and Air Base Operability and Ability to Survive and Operate training missions [3]. These mission demonstrated that Volk Field was becoming a more advanced Air Force training facility. The most well-known and important use today is the Patriot Exercise held at Volk Field and Fort McCoy annually. The Patriot Exercise began in 2006. It brings together over 900 civilian and military personnel from over 40 National Guard units and organizations for a 10 day training exercise [6]. The main purpose of the National Guard, today, is to deal with internal disasters such as fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The training exercise prepares the participants to deal with these different types of natural disasters. Generally, the exercise has many specific, simulated scenarios that teach the participants how they should respond. One such exercise can be seen in this photo. The Patriot Exercise is the largest National Guard training exercise in the United States today [6].

In conclusion, Volk Field has played a major role in the military history of Wisconsin and the United States of America. Volk Field has evolved from a several hundred acre swamp, woods, and grassland into a prominent 2,336 acre National Guard training facility. The site has evolved over the years to meet the needs of the ever changing role of the National Guard in the United States. From small, unprepared reserve forces to prestigious World War fighting forces to natural disaster rescue force, Volk Field has and continues to prepare the National Guard for success.

Primary Sources:

1. “Change Name of Camp Douglas to Camp Williams.” Wisconsin Historical Society, 25            April 1926.

2. “Volk Field Air National Guard Base Fact Sheet.” Air National Guard, Wisconsin Air                  National Guard, 15 May 2007.

3. Wisconsin Army National Guard. “Historic American Buildings Survey Camp Williams.”       31 July 2009.

4. Wisconsin War History Commission. “The 32nd Division in the World War.” Wisconsin         Printing Company, 1920.

Secondary Sources:

5. Bruss, T. “Brief History of the ‘Red Arrow’” The 32D ‘Red Arrow’ Veteran Association, 15        July 2011.

6. Kroening, Kellen. “PATRIOT North exercise gathers civilian and military providers for          varied training” National Guard, 18 July 2017.

7. “The United States Becomes a World Power.” Digital History, d.

8. Hubbuch, Chris. “False alarm: How a bear nearly started a nuclear war.” La Crosse               Tribune, 30 Jan. 2009.

9. “Volk Field Air National Guard Base.” Camp Williams, 1 June 2005.

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