By Tor Hanson for The Bulletin Special Projects. Photos courtesy of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and Deschutes Historical Society.
When World War II came to the High Desert
Walk through the Village at Sunriver and you will be swept into the modern-day hustle and bustle, people strolling among the many shops and restaurants that make up the vibrant downtown. Rewind 75 years to 1943, though, and you’d find the same area home to warehouses filled with the materials needed to support 10,000 soldiers living at Camp Abbot, a U.S. Army training center.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American people may have wished to stay out of the war in Europe and Asia, but on December 7, 1941, the United States was drawn into the largest conflict of the 20th century—World War II. Overnight, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the nation’s attitude. Men and women all over the country went to war, into the growing Armed Forces or as Rosie the Riveters.
In 1942, a year after the United States’ entry into the war, the Army was growing rapidly. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already had two engineer replacement training centers (ERTCs) east of the Mississippi River. Brigadier General Clarence Sturdevant, known for his leadership role in constructing the Alaska-Canadian Highway, suggested that the Army build a third training center on the West Coast.
The selection of Central Oregon for the new training camp was an “official secret” everybody in Bend knew about. Starting in June 1942, representatives from the North Pacific Unit of the Army Corps of Engineers crisscrossed the area in search of the perfect spot.
The landscape surrounding the Shonquest Ranch, where Sunriver stands today, was deemed ideal for its similarity to the European landscape. The large meadows, huge stands of forest, and swift-moving river reminded military planners of France and Germany.
It was no major surprise when The Bend Bulletin topped their November 3, 1942 newspaper with the headline: “Army Camp Is Announced for Bend.” The writer acknowledged that the rumors were true: “While this information does not come as news to most of the residents of Bend, many local residents have known of the proposed establishment of a military installation in this area.”
The Bend Bulletin publisher Robert W. Sawyer, a local history buff, suggested a fitting name for the new military installation. He was reminded of a young Army Corps of Engineers lieutenant, Henry Larcom Abbot, who visited the area in September 1855 with the Pacific Railroad Survey. The name, Camp Abbot, was approved by the Army in December 1942.
Building the camp was an ambitious undertaking. Construction got underway in December 1942 and it stood ready on May 1, 1943, a feat considering the 35 years it took the city of Bend to build a town for its 10,000 citizens. The military accomplished it in five months.
Personnel from the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as contractors from Portland and Bend, worked through the nasty winter of 1942–43 to finish the camp in time for the official handover. Everything had to be constructed from scratch, including roads, water and sewer lines, and electricity.
By the end of April 1943, construction crews had built 50 barracks, administration buildings, office space for civilian employees, mess halls, recreation facilities, laundry facilities, chapels, warehouses, and a hospital with 400 beds. A contingent of 250 soldiers arrived at the camp the day it was handed over to the Army, and Camp Abbot opened for business.
The citizen soldiers came to Central Oregon from all walks of life. Office workers, auto mechanics, lumberjacks, bank tellers, farm boys, and stockbrokers signed on to serve in the Army.
Physical conditioning began almost immediately after the new recruits arrived at Camp Abbot.
The responsibility to train the men fell on the drill sergeant. The tough-as-nails noncommissioned officer became the soldier’s best friend or his worst enemy. The first three weeks of the program were filled with seemingly never-ending marches, weapons training, and numerous visits to the 435-yard obstacle course—or what the staff at Camp Abbot called “the toughest course in the United States.”
A hands-on commander, Colonel Frank Besson tried out the course on many occasions. With his ever-present pipe in his mouth, the 57-year-old ran, crawled, and jumped through the obstacles. Besson was given the same treatment as any soldier who completed the course, crawling through the barbed wire entanglements while live ammunition streamed 40 inches above his head.
As area residents today are well aware, the High Desert landscape is dry and dusty during the hot summer months and wet and muddy during the late fall and early spring—and that’s not counting the snowy winter months. Private Bill Taylor, who was stationed at Camp Abbot between October 1943 and March 1944, summed it up in a letter to his parents.
“Every day a little hail, sleet, and snow falls—only enough, however, to stir up the six inches of volcanic dust that covers the ground. I think they built this camp here with the express purpose of making everybody miserable and homesick.”
After completing the initial introduction to military life, the men went on to specialist training, which included building pontoon bridges over the fast-flowing Deschutes River. Nicknamed the “fighting engineers,” the men in the corps were usually in the center of the hostilities when they tried to build bridges across enemy-held rivers. Even with the much smaller Central Oregon river, the combat engineers still got plenty of practice.
On the home front, the citizens of Bend tried to make their stay in Central Oregon as pleasant as possible for the men serving at Camp Abbot. When the camp needed athletic equipment to keep the young soldiers entertained, Bend folks pitched in by donating baseballs and bats, softballs, tennis balls and rackets, and fishing equipment to the American Legion posts. The Bend Bulletin successfully encouraged townspeople to invite a soldier to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
The newspaper also published a letter from a father whose son was stationed at Camp Abbot.
“We are much pleased to hear that the people of your town are so friendly and hospitable and are trying to do so much to make the boys feel at home. It is pleasing to know that the Christian spirit is brought to the front for the boys and it is a satisfaction to the folks at home.”
The local United Service Organization (USO) club was located in the old Safeway building on 916 Wall Street. Thanks to local residents, the club became a home away from home. Friendship blossomed between the soldiers stationed at Camp Abbot and the USO hostesses. Joyce Armstrong, one of many Bend girls who welcomed visiting soldiers, recalled, “The USO was formed to give the young soldiers something to do outside their training regimen. We were all old enough to enjoy dancing with young men in uniform. We also played cards and board games, and put puzzles together.”
The Army was well aware of the issues of letting 10,000 young men loose in Bend. The staff at Camp Abbot made themselves available for interviews with the newspaper or on-air appearances on radio station KBND to preserve a good relationship with the local citizens.
Shortly before the official opening of Camp Abbot, Brig. Gen. Warren T. Hannum, Pacific Division engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers, had prepared the citizens of Bend for what lay in store with a nearby military city.
“The officers will not only be officers, but true to Army tradition, will be gentlemen. There may be some infractions of rules by enlisted men in isolated cases, but officers at camp will take care of these cases.”
The military police did whatever they could to keep the soldiers on their best behavior, but not even the MPs could prepare for every scenario. The Bend Bulletin ran a brief on Thursday, March 11, 1943, under the headline “Flaming Pants Calls Firemen.”
“Three men are in the city jail today on charges of being drunk, following the discovery of a fire in the trousers of one of the men at the Downing Hotel early this morning.” Upon their arrival at the hotel, the firemen “found the room filled with smoke and a pair of unoccupied trousers, belonging to one of the men, on fire.” After putting out the fire, the three soldiers were lodged in jail to await transfer to the stockade.
Although most of Camp Abbot’s sprawling facilities are long gone, notable landmarks survive. Colonel Besson’s pet project, the officers’ mess, is still there, now known as the Great Hall. Besson envisioned the project only three weeks after the camp’s opening. He disliked the officer’s mess the Army had built.
The log building was constructed from locally sourced materials—ponderosa pine, western larch, and white fir, readily available in the surrounding forests. The fireplaces on either side of the hall were constructed from rocks quarried near Bend. Designed by Captain John Banks, construction of the new officers’ mess began in October 1943. Most soldiers stationed at Camp Abbot were involved in the project to some degree.
Bend resident and author Dwight Newton served at Camp Abbot as a corporal in the clerical pool. Writing about his experiences in the Sunriver Sun upon the 50th anniversary of Camp Abbot, he confided, “The Great Hall is a landmark today, but in the context of a World War, I’m afraid we saw the Officer’s Club as a very extravagant use of manpower and scarce material.”
Never meant to be anything more than a temporary fix for the Army’s immediate training needs, Camp Abbot closed on June 5, 1944, just a day short of D-Day. The personnel and whatever equipment could be transported were relocated to the Army Service Forces Training Center at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Sunriver Resort commemorates Camp Abbot by naming roads and places after prominent figures from the past. The resort’s former swimming pool is now a small park called Besson Commons. A memorial that fronts the park pays tribute to the camp and its commanding officer. Inscribed on the plaque is a quote from Colonel Besson.
“In every theater of war, the Engineers are using their tools and their weapons with equal skill. Let us continue with our efforts of training soldiers who are the ‘first ones in and the last ones out’ when the going is toughest.”