Mississippi’s state motto, “Virtute et Armis” (By Valor and Arms), reflects two centuries of the state’s military history. From the War of 1812 to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mississippi’s soldiers have fought for their state and nation, and Mississippi has been home to important American military posts, camps, and stations.
Mississippi’s premier military installation, now known as Camp Shelby, opened in 1917, ten miles south of Hattiesburg. It was first called Camp Crawford, but Kentucky and Indiana National Guardsmen of the 38th Infantry Division soon had it renamed Camp Shelby for Revolutionary War hero Col. Isaac Shelby, the first governor of Kentucky. After the 11 November 1918 armistice, Camp Shelby was closed. In 1934 the State of Mississippi acquired the facility for National Guard summer training. In 1940 Camp Shelby reopened as a federal installation, and within three years it had sprawled over three hundred thousand acres of Piney Woods and trained seventy-five thousand soldiers at a time. Seven infantry divisions trained there before fighting overseas in World War II: the 31st, 37th, 38th, and 43rd, which fought in the Pacific, and the 65th, 69th, and 85th, which fought in Europe. In addition, the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated US Army unit in history, trained at Camp Shelby. After V-J Day, the camp returned to state control, but in 1956 it became a permanent US Army training site, preparing troops for the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. In the first decade of the twenty-first century it trained one hundred thousand troops annually from all services for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mississippi’s second major military base, Keesler Field (now Keesler Air Force Base), began in 1941 as America rearmed for World War II. Its core was the Biloxi Country Club, whose clubhouse became the Officer’s Open Mess (O Club). Named for World War I aviator Lt. Samuel Reeves Keesler Jr. of Greenwood, who was shot down near Verdun in October 1918, it became an important basic and technical training base, peaking at 69,000 troops, when it was the world’s largest air base. In all, 336,000 basic trainees and 142,000 mechanics served at Keesler Field during World War II, and that era is depicted in No Time for Sergeants, a novel by Georgia author Mac Hyman that subsequently became a play and a movie starring Andy Griffith, Roddy McDowell, and Don Knotts.
After World War II, Keesler became the US Air Force’s electronic training center, and today it serves as the headquarters of the 2nd Air Force, responsible for basic and technical training for most nonflying Air Force personnel. Keesler currently hosts about fifty-one hundred active-duty members of the military, more than sixteen hundred civil service employees, thirteen thousand retirees, nearly forty-eight hundred family members, and twenty-seven hundred contractors.
During World War II two military posts were built in Mississippi to train US Army infantry divisions. Camp Van Dorn near Centerville, named for Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, trained the 63rd and 99th Infantry Divisions, which fought in Europe. Camp McCain, south of Grenada, was named for World War I Maj. Gen. H. P. McCain, a Mississippian. At its peak the camp housed fifty thousand troops, including the 87th Infantry Division, which fought in Europe. Both camps were sites of serious racial disturbances, hushed up at the time, and both closed at war’s end. Ten of the army’s eighty-nine World War II combat divisions trained in Mississippi.
Other World War II army installations included Jackson’s Foster General Hospital and ordnance plants near Flora and Prairie. Smaller service installations included a small naval station at Gulfport (still active), a Merchant Marine academy at Bay St. Louis, and a Coast Guard auxiliary air station at Biloxi.
Also during World War II, the Army Air Forces established flying training fields at Greenville and Columbus as well as smaller fields at Meridian, Greenwood, Laurel, and Hawkins Field at Jackson, which trained Dutch pilots. Auxiliary airfields were located at Clarksdale, Grenada, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Madison, and Starkville. All closed at war’s end, but the field at Gulfport became a training field for the Air National Guard. After the Korean War began in 1950, both Greenville and Columbus reopened for pilot training. Greenville subsequently closed, but Columbus continues to train pilots. In 1961 Naval Air Station Meridian opened among east-central Mississippi’s hills and piney woods. This base turns out US Navy and Marine fighter pilots and has a technical training center for enlisted personnel. The Naval Construction Battalion Center, established at Gulfport in 1952, is home to the Atlantic Fleet Seabees and accommodates about forty-five hundred active-duty personnel and their families.
In 2010 there were about 10,000 Mississippi Army and 4,000 Air Guardsmen, most of whom have served in Afghanistan or Iraq.
- R. A. McLemore, ed., History of Mississippi (1961)
- Public Affairs Offices: Camp Shelby, Columbus Air Force Base, Keesler Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Meridian, Naval Construction Battalion Center Gulfport, Stennis Space Center, and Mississippi National Guard, in The Army Almanac (1959)
- US Department of Defense Military Installations website, www.militaryinstallations.dod.mil;