Harmony Church, Fort Benning, March 1991
I went through Infantry One Station Unit Training (OSUT) from August to November of 1980 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Although initially I was assigned to E/6/1 at Sand Hill (the then-new "starship" barracks: Modern, unitary design with air conditioning) after about 4 days those of us who were "RA" (that is, Regular Army, not National Guard or Reserves) were taken from E/6/1 and bused to Harmony Church.
Harmony Church was, in 1980, one of the oldest training areas at Fort Benning, and was completely comprised of WWII-era wooden barracks. These barracks had, in fact, been designed for temporary use only during WWII, but here we were more than 35 years later, using the same ones. Needless to say, no AC, very primitive plumbing systems that often broke down, and decrepit tile floors that were virtually impossible to keep clean. If you've seen the movie "Full Metal Jacket" the barracks are basically of the same type used in that movie.
Oh, how I hated those barracks! They seemed rigid and hostile and dull, everything I was coming to hate about the military! Every morning I'd stand in exactly the same spot for morning formation, looking at the same seamless white clapboard siding on the building in front of me, trying to stare it down. I burned that spot into my memory. The latrines reeked of urine and the open bays always smelled of floor wax and boot polish and sweat. There were huge fans in the center of the bay floor (where nobody - except for the drill sergeant and drill corporal, of course! - was allowed to walk.) These fans ran 24 hours a day in the sweltering August heat, sounding like low-flying aircraft engines.
When I left Fort Benning in May of 1981, I swore it was the most godawful place on earth and that if I ever returned it would be too soon.
But then...a funny thing happened. Life went on. By 1987 I was back in the Army, back on active duty, and stationed in Germany. My traumatic introduction to the rigors of military life now seemed to be a comforting memory, or a source of funny stories I'd tell my friends, who came in through the kinder, gentler basic training of the mid-80's. The barracks that had seemed so unforgiving and hostile now were an important part of my "personal" history, although I never got near them.
Then, in 1991, while assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Lewis, Washington, I was finally selected to attend the US Army Airborne Course, more commonly referred to as "Jump School," located at Fort Benning, GA.
When I was stationed there in 1980-81, I would sometimes take the bus to Main Post, where the Airborne School was located, and watch the paratroopers train. Even then I admired them and longed to join their ranks. Well, I was finally getting my wish.
Jump school is a hard course, but it has some odd perks, one of which is weekends off (the Airborne school, at that time, rarely trained on weekends.) So, on my first weekend off, I rented a car and decided I'd try to see some of the parts of Fort Benning that had been burned into my memories back in that hot Summer of 1980.
When I was going through OSUT in 1980, rumors were abounding that the ancient Harmony Church barracks had been condemned and that we would be the last class going through them. Of course, it wasn't true, the Army at that time certainly wasn't going to get rid of functional, if not exactly plush, barracks space. But by 1991, military budgets had increased and the old Harmony Church barracks had been abandoned. In some cases, they had been stripped of fixtures, and there also seemed to have been damage that may have been caused by using the barracks as MOUT (military operations in Urban Terrain) training sites (i.e., house-to-house fighting.)
I didn't have a camera in 1980 when I was stationed at Benning, but I did in 1991, and here are the pictures of the barracks:
Orderly room used by my company, D Co, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Training Brigade (ITB), more commonly referred to as D/2/1. The paintings on the wall, including the drill sergeant and the "Live Free or Die" were on the barracks when I took OSUT there in 1980.
Another view of the entrance to the orderly room
The barracks building I lived in: 2nd Plt, D Co, 2nd Bn, 1st ITB. Weeds and grass have grown up in what was once a well-manicured "smoking pit."
West entrance to the "Holdover Barracks." After I injured my knee in training and was awaiting surgery, this building became my new "home."
Interior of my barracks building.
Looking Eastward down the "Company street". Photo was taken from the position where I always had to "fall in" at morning formations. View is East toward the classrooms (large building visible a the end of the street) and the mess hall (last 1-story building on the right.)
Mess hall entrance. There was a "horizontal ladder" in front of the entrance and we had to cross the ladder in order to get into the chow line.
Above and below: Two views of the PT field where we would do PT (Physical Training) every morning. This was across Highway 29, and we marched over the bridge (8th Division Road) every morning on our way to PT.
This was the entrance to the PX, which we had surprisingly liberal access to after training. I would go here almost every night, homesick, to wait in line to make a phone call home.
What it looks like now
In 1997 I was serving in the Army Reserves (2125th Garrison Support Unit at Fort Bragg, NC.) In August our unit was mobilized along with the 805th Military Police Company out of Raleigh, NC, in support of Operation Joint Guard, the US mission in Bosnia and Croatia. Fort Benning was our mobilization station.
We took a long bus ride from Fort Bragg to Benning, arriving near midnight. The next day, I looked around and was amazed to find out that our mobilization station, called the CRC (Conus Replacement Center) was located in Harmony Church, in an area that had been the NCO academy when I was there in 1980-81.
We demobed at the same site in April of 1998. One afternoon, when we had nothing else to do, I took a walk over to the site of the old barracks. I had thought maybe I'd find some dilapidated barracks or maybe just the foundations of the buildings laying alongside the old Company Street - kind of a military ghost town. I crossed Highway 27 on the 8th Division Road bridge, past the water tower, still standing but now rusty, and looked down on the old 2nd Battalion area.
It was GONE. And not just gone as in knocked down, but gone as in: Buldings knocked down, foundations bulldozed under, all traces of habitation removed and sapling pine trees planted in the area that used to be the old 2nd Battalion/1st ITB in 1980-81.
If it hadn't been for the bridge and the water tower, I might have even thought I was in the wrong place. Except for a couple of cracked, broken asphalt streets, there was no sign that the area had ever been anything other than a Georgia pine forest.
I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was astonished at how emotionally devastated I was. After all, I hated this place - hated it!
And yet...this was where I became a soldier. This is where my life divided between the 18 years I was a civilian and the remainder. If it had been knocked down and replaced with something else, I would have felt hurt, but, hey, that's the march of progress, right? But to have it knocked down, bulldozed, seeded and made as if it had never existed seemed deliberately cruel.
I spent a few hours walking around, trying to find some trace of what had once been there. I found a few. Some broken pavement of the company street where I stood for hours at attention. A few bricks that had probably been used to mark the edge of the designated smoking area. But not much else.
I didn't have a camera with me then, but in March of 2005, I drove from Laramie, WY to Daytona Beach, Florida, for Bike Week. I decided my trip back would pass through Benning, since I hadn't been there in nearly a decade. This time I had a digital camera and spent some time taking pictures.
The old water tower on Highway 27 and 8th Division road is about the only relic left of this area.
The old Battalion Headquarters was located here, along the street that led from Highway 27 up to 8th Division Road.
The D Company orderly room was located just to the left of the intersection of these two streets.
This was the bridge we marched across every morning for PT. PT field, now long overgrown, is in the distance.
All images are © by Martin Albright unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
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