Camp Van Dorn was a 41,844-acre US military camp located in Amite and Wilkinson Counties, just south of Centreville in southern Mississippi. Named for Confederate general Earl Van Dorn of Mississippi, this US Army post served as a training camp for ground force division soldiers destined for the European Theater from 1942 to 1945. The camp played a critical role in preparing American troops for combat in World War II.
With war looming in the fall of 1940, officials began discussing the possibility of locating an emergency training camp in isolated Southwest Mississippi. In February 1941 Centreville mayor Lee Robinson and other local leaders appeared before a board of army officers at Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg, stressing the advantages of the Centreville area for such a camp. The War Department expressed serious interest in the proposal, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor it bought the land and began designing the camp. By February 1942 construction had started. The Centreville area boomed economically with the influx of thousands of workers to construct the buildings, roads, and railroad spurs as well as install the telephones, electricity, and water and sewage systems. The camp was officially activated on 20 September 1942, and the first recruits arrived in November.
Camp Van Dorn operated as a small city. It could accommodate 39,114 enlisted men and 2,173 officers plus 750 personnel at the station hospital. A small detachment of German prisoners of war was also located at the camp. The cantonment area covered the western side of the base and was located in the Wilkinson County section. This area featured barracks, warehouses, a bakery, a laundry, latrines, gatehouses, guardhouses, sentry boxes, a hospital, medical and dental clinics, a bank, a bus station, a theater, a fire station, mess halls, gas chambers, grenade courts, and at least ten chapels, where many soldiers married before leaving the camp. The rest of the camp was to the east in Amite County and included various ranges and areas for training with weapons ranging from small arms to 155mm artillery. Maj. Gen. Walter Lauer remembered, “Camp Van Dorn, hastily built as the army mushroomed in every direction, was a tar paper shanty town sprawled across the red mud of Southern Mississippi.”
Two major US Army infantry divisions trained at the camp. The soldiers of the 99th Infantry Division, known as the Checkerboard Division, began arriving in December 1942 and finished their advanced training by September 1943. Arriving in Belgium for combat in November 1944, the division participated in the Battle of the Bulge and other fighting in the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe, eventually crossing the Danube. The 63rd Infantry, known as the Blood and Fire Division, arrived at the camp soon after the 99th departed. Its soldiers trained at the camp until November 1944 and then were sent to France for combat in the Rhineland, the Ardennes, and Central Europe. The first detachments went into battle toward the end of December 1944. The division played a significant role on the European front, participating in the capture of Landsberg on 30 April 1945, just over a week before Germany’s final surrender.
In addition to these large infantry divisions, many nondivisional units, regiments, and battalions trained at Camp Van Dorn. Among these units was the 364th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit that reported to the camp in May 1943 for retraining after having been involved in violent incidents at its previous station in Arizona. Sixteen members of the regiment had been court-martialed, with several receiving fifty-year jail sentences. Many soldiers arrived resentful of the transfer and of the racial segregation in place at the camp and in nearby Centreville. On 30 May 1943 Private William Walker of the 364th was shot to death in Centreville by the Wilkinson County sheriff. In response one of the regiment’s companies stormed a supply room to obtain guns, and the military police fired into the crowd during the disturbance. Centreville’s mayor subsequently requested that the army remove the 364th from camp, but another near riot by the unit erupted at a service club dance in July. By year’s end the 364th was shipped out to Alaska, where it defended key installations in the Aleutian Islands for the rest of the war. Approximately eight thousand African American troops were stationed at the camp during this period, serving in various detachments and regiments. The units were segregated from white troops, in keeping with the official army protocol of the period.
The camp was declared surplus on 1 October 1945 and officially deactivated on 31 December. By June 1947 former owners were given the opportunity to repurchase their lands from the government, which removed most of the buildings from the site. The Department of Defense lists the site as contaminated by bombs, unexploded shells, and other hazardous materials. Early in 2015 the army announced plans to clean up the site, with fieldwork expected to be completed in 2016.
During the war rumors circulated that a mass killing of more than one thousand members of the 364th had occurred at Camp Van Dorn. Pike County writer and artist Carroll Case spent more than thirteen years researching the claims, and in August 1998 he published The Slaughter: An American Atrocity, which alleged that a massacre had indeed taken place. The book garnered national attention and precipitated a swirl of activity and research. Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked the Department of the Defense and the Department of the Army to determine the veracity of Case’s allegations. The US Army Center of Military History undertook an investigation and released a 1999 report that concluded that there was “no documentary evidence whatsoever that any unusual or inexplicable loss of personnel occurred.”
At the turn of the twenty-first century Centreville resident Mildred Field and other local historians realized the camp’s significance and began an effort to establish the Camp Van Dorn World War II Museum in Centreville, which was officially dedicated on 19 March 2005. Honoring the men and women who trained at the camp, the museum displays historical artifacts and photographs that document the camp’s contribution to the war effort.
- Glen Francis Brown and William Franklin Guyton, Geology and Ground-Water Supply at Camp Van Dorn (1943)
- Carroll Case, The Slaughter: An American Atrocity (1998)
- Greg DeHart, Mystery of the 364th (video, 2001)
- Magnolia Gazette (25 March, 30 December 1999)
- US Army, Historical and Pictorial Review of Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi (1944)
- US Department of the Army, A Historical Analysis of the 364th Infantry in World War II (1999)
- Debra Valine, “Meeting Informs Public of Actions to Clean Up Formerly Used Defense Site” (10 February 2015), http://www.army.mil, The Official Homepage of the United States Army