WWI turned US into world power, Waco into a city

Tent city at Camp MacArthur in Waco. (Texas Collection photo)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) World War I, called by many the Great War, or the War to End All Wars, left 16 million dead and reshaped history and Waco played her part in securing victory for the Allies.

The war transformed the U.S. into a world power and Waco into a modern city.

Waco was home to two military bases, Camp MacArthur and Rich Field; one trained soldiers, the other pilots.

The United States declared war on Germany and the rest of the Central Powers on April 6, 1917 and just 10 days after Congress made the declaration, on April 16, 1917, Waco was chosen as an key site for military training.

Rich Field, which once occupied all the land on the northwest corner of Bosque Boulevard and 41st Street, was a major pilot training destination beginning Sept. 17, 1917 when the first officer reported for duty.

The same month 18,000 troops arrived for training at Camp MacArthur, which covered 10,700 acres of black-land farm land in Northwest Waco.

Several Waco businessmen joined with the federal government to hatch the idea, for which construction began on July 20, 1917 at a total cost of $5 million.

The namesake was Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, a Medal of Honor recipient with prior service in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

MacArthur’s son, Douglas also served in World War I and rose to prominence as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II.

The airfield property included all that now is occupied by both Waco High School and the Extraco Events Center complex.

It was named for 2nd Lt. C. Perry Rich, a member of the U.S. Army’s Philippine Scouts.

A native of Indiana and later trained as a military pilot, he crashed his Wright Model C into Manila Bay on Nov. 10, 1914 and became only the tenth U.S. pilot to die in a flying accident.

He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

A small cadre of men juggled various pieces of equipment and materials onto the airfield site and went about the War Department’s order to “set up the base as a primary flight training field.”

The men, at one point 3,400 of them, turned what used to be cotton fields, farm houses and barns into concrete-topped runways and built buildings and electrical and water systems.

Congress appropriated funds to build 32 Air Service training camps in 1917.

A man who later served in Congress himself was involved in the construction of Rich Field.

“Well, I drove the first stake that was ever driven out there on Rich Field, which is now the area where Richfield High School (was) and that part of town,” the late, long-serving Congressman William Robert “Bob” Poage, D-Waco, said in an oral history interview.

“But the airfield was there, and I was driving stakes, carrying a chain, a surveyor's chain, or stadia rods.

“I was working with the engineers there, as I say, at two dollars a day and surveying all around,” Poage said.

On Nov. 14, 1917 members of the 150th Aero Squadron, brought to Waco from Kelly Field, in San Antonio, uncrated and began assembling 25 J-1 aircraft for flight.

Twenty-five flight cadets reported for training on Thanksgiving Day, 2017.

Eventually Rich Field would house 243 J-1 trainers that later were replaced by Curtis JN-4s, the standard Army pilot trainer.

Oral histories maintained at Baylor University say Waco patriarch Lee Lockwood and Poage, both Waco High School students at the time, showed a particular interest in the “flyings-on” at Rich Field.

Over at Camp MacArthur through the years the site housed as many as 28,000 recruits and trainers but it never reached its designed capacity of 45,000.

There were administration offices, a tent city, a camp hos

The first contingent of soldiers there were from the Wisconsin and Michigan National Guards and eventually they formed the 32nd Infantry Division that subsequently saw action in France as part of the American Expeditionary Force.

The influx, more than the population of Waco at the time, was extremely good for business and Waco’s economy flourished right up to the Great Depression.

“It created a good deal of growth,” the late Lockwood remembered in a 1974 interview for the Baylor Oral History project.

“The war brought the camp, Camp MacArthur, and that was the thing that really changed the face of and the spirit of Waco, I think,” the late Congressman Poage said in a separate oral history interview.

“Well, business, of course, boomed here,” Poage said

“A lot of construction went on, and lots of new people moved in, and you didn't—well, Waco ceased to be the kind of country county seat that it was before, and I guess you could say it became more of a city.”

But with the good came the bad, Lockwood said.

“The tragic part, I guess, of that time was that severe winter they had when these boys were in those tents and many took the flu, or influenza, and lost their lives.

“The undertakers here had more than they could take care of and it was a tragic thing -- shipping the bodies off and local funerals,” Lockwood recalled.

“It was a rainy, cold, bad winter and they just didn't have the facilities to protect the soldiers.

“Those things, you just can't forget them. They make a lasting impression on you,” Lockwood said.

Local funeral homes recorded 193 soldier deaths from pneumonia or influenza between October 1918 and January 1919, according to Historic McLennan County, a book edited by Sharon Bracken.

Poage said his family, and others, weren’t happy with having to put up with the military presence, but they understood the importance of the mission.

“Well, (my family) didn't want it. They didn't—of course, they didn't like it and felt they were better off not to have it and would have much preferred not to have had the fort here,” Poage said.

“But they realized that (the Army) had to have them somewhere, and there wasn't any real complaint about it in either my family or very many others,” Poage remembered.

Lockwood didn’t serve, but in his oral history he said he really wanted to: “Well, anyhow, much to the delight of my mother, armistice was declared on my eighteenth birthday,” Lockwood said.

His mother already had told him she would not give him her consent to join at the age of 17.

“It was quite an interesting set up, but I always regretted I didn't really get to serve.”

After the 32nd ID shipped out, Camp MacArthur became a training destination for infantry replacements and was an officer’s training school.

Then after the war ended Camp MacArthur became a de-mobilization center for returning troops.

It officially closed on March 7, 1919 and the land was re-occupied by the City of Waco.

Native Wacoan and history buff Leo Bradshaw, Jr., 82, grew up in a house on the Old Speegleville Road, which now is called Hillcrest Drive, which was adjacent to the land occupied by Camp MacArthur and even though the camp was long gone by the 1940s, he remembered this week finding evidence of the base near his boyhood home.

“I used to roam those creek bottoms from our house all the way to Lake Waco, fishing and fooling around, and I found lots of evidence of Camp MacArthur, broken dishes and other things they left behind,” Bradshaw said.

The government abandoned the Rich Field complex in 1919, too, but the airplane engines didn’t go silent.

Rich Field re-opened as a civil airport after the Army moved out and guests could go there in the 1920s and 1930s to take flying lessons or see barnstormers and traveling air shows.

Waco businessman Henry Deitz, who’ll turn 100 himself this fall, said he used to hang out at Rich Field, exploring the abandoned barracks and other buildings there.

“When I was a kid we played in the old barracks and hangers out there,” Deitz said.

Deitz said he and his friends discovered an old pile of dirt and began digging there, only to find thousands of fragments of old lead bullets.

“It was the backstop for their firing range,” Deitz said.

The boys filled their pants pockets with lead and headed home, but the lead was “so heavy it pulled my pants off, sure did” he said.

Then a bit later in life he had a direct experience at Rich Field.

“I took flying lesson there from an instructor whose name was Newman, I think,” Deitz said.

The famous Ford Tri-Motor would fly in and take passengers on a 10-minute flying tour of the city and surrounding area for $1.

The former Braniff Airlines flew passenger service into Rich Field for several years.

But with the onset of World War II, the Army Air Force took the strips and buildings back and in 1942 re-opened Rich Field as an auxiliary training site to Waco Army Airfield.

But at the end of World War II airplane engines droned no more at Rich Field and in 1950 a portion of the property became the Heart of Texas Coliseum complex, now called Extraco Events Center.

Later Richfield High School, named in honor of the airfield, was built on another part of the property.

It’s now called Waco High School.

Some who live in neighborhoods where Camp MacArthur and Rich Field used to be say if visitors look closely, footprints of the brave can still be seen, or at least felt.

Anyone who wishes can experience “Uniting the Home Front: Waco in World War I,” presented through June 30 at the Fort House Museum at 503 South Fourth St.

The exhibit is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

Both Camp MacArthur and Rich Field are featured in the display.

More than 70 million Marines, soldiers, and sailors took part in the war, which started July 28, 1914 and ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

In spite of its name, however, the conflict did not end all wars, but simply set the stage for another world conflict two decades later.

Note: Information gathered in the writing of this account was provided by the Texas Collection, at Baylor University, the Baylor University Oral History project, Historic McLennan County and websites supported by the City of Waco, the Museum of the United States Air Force and historical documents provided by the Department of Defense. The historic photographs were provided by the Texas Collection.

Tent city at Camp MacArthur in Waco. (Texas Collection photo)