History on display: Post museum showcases Meade’s 100 years

Soldiers training at Fort Meade in the 1930s take aim on the firing line during dismounted pistol practice. (All photos courtesy Fort Meade Museum)

By Barbara S. Taylor and Jim Speraw, Fort Meade Museum

This is Part I of a two-part series. Look for Part II next week.

If the Smithsonian is affectionately known as America’s attic, the post museum would be the garrison’s walk-in closet.

The Fort George G. Meade Museum stores over 100 years of the Army’s history and tells our garrison’s story through its objects.

The museum that exists today got its start as the First Army Museum from a collection that was assembled at Governors Island, N.Y., and moved here with First Army Headquarters in 1966.

As the museum became known to the local population, people began to bring in items related to the history of Fort Meade. The museum was closed for a couple of years after its curator took another position.

In 1976, a new curator was brought on board and the mission expanded to cover the history of both First Army and Fort Meade. This was a natural blend as most of the history of First Army involved units that trained or were formed at Meade.

World War I Soldiers with the 304th Trench Mortar Battery, 79th Division, train at Camp Meade.

During World War I, Camp Meade was established and trained both men and horses that would go on to serve under First Army in France. The 79th Infantry Division, the 92nd Infantry Division and a large collection of smaller units, including the 23rd Engineer Regiment and tankers, would leave Camp Meade and see service under First Army.

Over 100,000 men and 22,000 horses were stationed and trained at Camp Meade for service in World War I.

In addition, more than 400 women trained at Camp Meade as telephone operators for the Allied Expeditionary Forces. These women would come to be known as “the Hello Girls,” and some of these women served as telephone operators at First Army Headquarters in France.

A First Army Hello Girl uniform is on display in the WWI Centennial Gallery. Also on display is a unique tank: The Mark VIII tank, or the Liberty Tank, is one of only three of these early tanks in existence.

This tank tells the interwar story of Camp Meade as the home of the fledgling Tank School, which opened here in 1919. Both Gen. George S. Patton and President Dwight D. Eisenhower were young officers in the Tank School. A photograph of them with their beloved Mark VIII tanks is displayed in the museum.

During the interwar years, the post was a training camp for the Citizen’s Military Training Camp and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as well as the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Camp Meade’s name changed when the Army decided to make the encampment permanent. Unfortunately, since another Fort Meade already existed in South Dakota, the Army changed the name to Fort Leonard Wood in 1928. The name was permanently changed to Fort Meade in 1929.

Anne Baxter, a 1940s movie star, was one of many celebrities who came through Fort Meade as part of the Special Services School established to entertain the troops in World War II.

Prior to the onset of World War II, Fort Meade started serving as a training post in preparation for possible war. The 29th Infantry Division, consisting of National Guardsmen from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, was activated for one year to begin training at Fort Meade.

After several months of training, which included trucks decorated with signs indicating they were “tanks” and artillery made from discarded truck axles and stove pipes, the men were eventually issued proper equipment and participated in the Carolina Maneuvers under the direction of First U.S. Army.

They would return from maneuvers as a well-trained unit to await discharge at the end of December 1941. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would change all that.

The 29th Infantry Division deployed to England, spearheaded the Normandy invasion on Omaha Beach along with the First Infantry Division on D-Day — June 6, 1944.

The 29th Infantry was not the only D-Day unit trained at Fort Meade. The 741st Tank Battalion also landed on Omaha Beach, and the 70th Tank Battalion landed on Utah Beach.

Smaller units, such as the 603rd Engineers Battalion —famous for the big name artists who used their skills to fabricate the blow-up Sherman tanks and other feats of camouflage — started here.

The Special Service School also was established at Fort Meade to train Soldiers as well as famous and not-so-famous entertainers on how to entertain the troops serving overseas. Movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, comedians such as Jack Benny and Rochester, ventriloquist Don Knotts, and big band leader Glenn Miller all trained here at the Special Services School.

The 304th Engineers, the engineer battalion for the 79th Division, train in 1917 at Camp Meade, building roads and trenches, for the fight in France.

The post museum has many artifacts from World War II on display in the permanent gallery ranging from a 29th Division canvas tank sign to an actual Stuart Tank.

During World War II, an enemy prisoner-of-war camp was established here as well. The prisoners were primarily Italian and German soldiers captured in North Africa and Italy. The post served a unique function as the Enemy Prisoner of War Information Bureau, and processed mail and Red Cross inquiries for all POWs held in the United States.

Besides individual units that were trained here, Fort Meade also became the Army Ground Forces Replacement Depot #1. Over 3.5 million Soldiers — both men and women — received additional training at Meade and were shipped overseas to units that needed replacements.

At the end of World War II, Fort Meade served as a demobilization post and out-processed several hundred thousand troops.

We invite you to visit the post museum and celebrate 100 years of history with us.

Editor’s note: The Fort Meade Museum is open Wednesdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1-4 p.m. Non-DoD cardholders must be sponsored and obtain a day pass to enter the installation.

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