41st Engineer Regiment on the parade field at Fort Bragg in March 1942. [Library of Congress]

Camp Bragg is born

The man known as the “father of Fort Bragg” said he didn’t set out with a particular destination in mind when he started looking for a place to locate a new field artillery training camp.

Col. Edward P. King told a Fort Bragg historian years after he recommended the site for what is now the nation's largest military installation that he had never so much as heard of Fayetteville when he stopped in the town in June 1918.

But King — who traveled south with an official from the U.S. Forestry Service — liked what he saw in the rolling hills and tall longleaf pines of the Sandhills.

“We liked it so well that we went no further,” he wrote to the historian.

There are conflicting accounts as to why Camp Bragg, as it was initially known, was established in this part of eastern North Carolina. But one thing is clear. The camp, which wouldn’t be completed until after World War I drew to a close, would not have been established were it not for the Great War.

The U.S. Army pre-World War I was small, even by today’s standards. And officials, upon America’s entry into the war in 1917, were quick to begin a massive buildup of the nation’s military might.

By the summer of 1918, tens of thousands of U.S. troops were being sent to Europe each day. To support that training, the Army established dozens of new camps across the country.

Some remain to this day, early versions of what are now known as Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington and Fort Meade in Maryland.

In North Carolina, three camps would eventually be created, including Camp Bragg, Camp Greene near Charlotte and Camp Polk near Raleigh.

The location of what is now Bragg was chosen as the Army sought out a new artillery training post. King was involved in the search from the start.

The Army wanted a site with adequate water, suitable soil, nearby rail transportation and a climate suitable for year-round training. An initial search in Maryland and Virginia ended empty-handed.

King began a new search with the help of geologist T. Wayland Vaughn.

Highways were nonexistent, King would write years later. The pair did not have road maps. And they found few signposts throughout the country.

“We traveled by the compass and dead reckoning,” he said. “It would be impossible for me to tell you where we went.”

On the fourth day of their journey, King wrote that the pair stopped in the community of Manchester, near what is now present-day Spring Lake.

“We stopped for a bottle of Coca-Cola and asked the shopkeeper where we might stay for the night,” he said. “He directed us to Fayetteville. That was the first time I had ever heard of that town.”

The next day, King and Vaughn examined the site of what is now Fort Bragg. It was the first tract of land that met their requirements.

Officials formally requested the creation of Camp Bragg — named for Mexican War hero Capt. Braxton Bragg, who also served as a Confederate general during the Civil War — in July.

Weeks later, on Sept. 4, 1918, Camp Bragg was officially established by executive order. Construction began 12 days later.





Fayetteville's responsibility

Editor's note: This editorial ran in The Fayetteville Observer on Aug. 7, 1918, shortly after the Army announced it would establish a training camp near Fayetteville.

“Fayetteville is going to have a camp.”

Do the people of this city realize that they have had placed upon them a grave responsibility? Within a few weeks the population will be increased by thousands — men drawn here to work on the construction of a great government undertaking that will necessitate the expenditure of millions of dollars, men with all the virtues and sins, all the strong points and weak points of human beings, men cast in the same mold with ourselves. How are the people of Fayetteville going to measure up to the responsibility that has been placed upon them? What is the thought that is uppermost in the minds of the majority? Is it, “How much money am I going to get out of this great and sudden change in conditions?” Or is it, “What can I do to assist in adjusting matters so that a stupendous task can be accomplished to the best interests of all?”

It has been conceded by the Army officers who have gone over the camp site selected in the vicinity that it is well adapted to the purpose for which it will be used — in fact, that it is ideal. Are we glad that a camp is to be placed on it because it will be good for the young men of the country who are to be trained as soldiers? Are we thinking of the best interests of the government and the country in connection with the camp proposition or do prospects of gain and the raking in of money crowd out all other consideration?

There rests on every man and woman in Fayetteville today a share of responsibility in solving the great problem of the camp. The fact that an individual did not favor getting the camp does not relieve him from the responsibility, either. We cannot pick and choose our burdens; we should take them up as they are thrust upon us. If Fayetteville as a community looks on the camp simply as a money-making opportunity and shapes its course accordingly, the camp is going to be an unmixed evil. If, on the other hand, Fayetteville as a community takes up the camp burden in a spirit of patriotism and a realization of its duty and responsibility, the camp will be beneficial not only to this city and section, but to the whole country.

The first thing that Fayetteville should be busy about is providing means to house and care for the great influx of people, and to care for them at live and let live prices. The next thing should be to make conditions such that Fayetteville shall be talked of as a good town to visit or work in or dwell in, and not a town in which the skin game is played to perfection.

In the meantime, Fayetteville should remember the fable of the old woman who killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The opportunities to make money are going to be numerous, but it is easy to overdo the thing, and Uncle Sam may perhaps be taking notes and bringing matters to a sudden halt when all seems to be going well.





The savior of Fort Bragg

Camp Bragg was still a fledgling Army post when Brig. Gen. Albert Bowley arrived to command it in July of 1921.

But Bowley liked what he saw. And he fought for its survival.

Bowley, who commanded Bragg from 1921 until March 1928, oversaw what is perhaps the most tumultuous era in the post’s 100-year history.

Shortly after taking command, the War Department ordered Camp Bragg abandoned and its troops sent to Camp Knox, Kentucky. But Bowley disagreed.

By the time he left command, Camp Bragg would be rechristened Fort Bragg. And the groundwork would be laid for the post to play a key role in the next world war.

Elizabeth Coble, the 18th Airborne Corps command historian, said the general was impressed with Bragg from his arrival.

“He was amazed when he got here at how large the land mass was and how much had been built quickly,” she said. “Bowley recognized what an asset it was. And he saved it.”

In a letter to his sister, Bowley described his efforts as "a grand opportunity to play politics both Army and civil and win out."

He schemed with North Carolina Republicans, made deals with local press and convinced local leaders to stay largely on the sidelines of the efforts to save the post. More importantly, he secured a visit from Secretary of War John W. Weeks.

Bowley enlisted volunteers from Fayetteville who planted trees and created gardens. He scouted routes on post for a tour and ordered road repairs, trees trimmed and water crossings fixed.

Once Weeks arrived, Bowley wined and dined him, all the while extolling the virtues of the post. That night, with maps spread across the dining table, Bowley made his final plea.

“It was a hard fight,” Bowley later recalled. “Bragg kept slipping father and father away.”

On Sept. 14, 1921, weeks after reporting on Bragg’s demise, The Fayetteville Observer recreated a telegram from Bowley on its front page.

“Camp Bragg wins. Everything satisfactory. Your suburb permanent. Gruber and School return. I remain your neighbor. Congratulations.”


Fort Bragg trained airborne troops during WWII

Fort Bragg's history as "Home of the Airborne" started 10 months after the United States entered World War II in the fall of 1942, local historian Roy Parker Jr. wrote in his Military History column for The Fayetteville Observer.

That was when the paratroopers of the newly minted 82nd Airborne Division and their counterparts in the 101st Airborne Division began arriving here from Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, the late Parker wrote in June 2004. The Army trained all five of its airborne divisions — the 82nd, 101st, 11th, 13th and 17th — at Bragg or nearby Camp Mackall during the war.

"The primary mission of Fort Bragg during the war was training airborne troops," said Kenneth J. "Rock" Merritt, who jumped into Normandy with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment and went on to twice become command sergeant major of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.

Merritt, who lives in Fayetteville, trained for advanced infantry and airborne operations at Camp Mackall.

"Out of five airborne divisions," the 95-year-old D-Day veteran said, "four of them seen combat. The only one that didn't was the 13th Airborne, which was at Fort Bragg when the war ended."

Merritt was quick to respond when asked if Fort Bragg's contributions proved vital to the Allies' cause and, ultimately, their winning the global war.

"Oh, hell yeah. Without a shadow of the doubt. Look at the leaders they had. All those lieutenants and captains under Gen. Lee," he replied, citing eventual Lt. Gen. Robert F. Sink and Lt. Gen. James Gavin among them. "Yeah, Fort Bragg was very instrumental. If you had asked Gen. Lee, he would probably have said without those three airborne divisions, they would have pushed the (seaborne) 4th Infantry Division back into the English Channel (from the Normandy beaches). That's what Lee told the president of the United States."

Fort Bragg plays big role in controversial war

The war in Vietnam remains one of the most controversial conflicts in the nation's history.

And Fort Bragg had a starring role, hosting new trainees and being home for the seasoned Special Forces soldiers who played an integral part in the war effort.

The most decorated forces hailed from the Special Forces community, which helped train, equip, organize and lead indigenous guerilla forces and South Vietnamese troops against the Viet Cong.

At the height of the war, more than 200 Special Forces teams, most from the 5th Special Forces Group, operated alongside a force of 50,000 guerilla fighters.

Among the conventional forces in Vietnam, the 82nd Airborne Division was left on the sidelines for most of the war.

The exception came in 1968, when the division's 3rd Brigade, nicknamed the "Golden Brigade," was called to action and deployed on short notice.

After North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces had launched the Tet Offensive in a surprise attack on Jan. 30, 1968, officials requested that additional combat forces be immediately deployed.

The 3rd Brigade arrived in Vietnam within weeks and operated in the area around Hue, Phu Bai and Da Nang.

Paratroopers formed teams to patrol at night, cleared roads of landmines each morning and aggressively set ambushes for enemy troops. Nearly 230 soldiers from the unit lost their lives during the 22 months the unit spent in Vietnam.

As the war raged overseas, Fort Bragg and Fayetteville also gained attention on the homefront as the site of numerous protests, some including celebrities.

In September 1969, GIs United Against the Vietnam War protested Fort Bragg’s ban of its newspaper “Bragg Briefs.”

Weeks later, about 400 people joined a peace parade in downtown Fayetteville. And in May 1970, 2,000 protesters gathered in Rowan Park for an anti-war rally featuring actress Jane Fonda. Fonda also was kicked off Fort Bragg while trying to hand out leaflets related to the protests.

Fonda would return to Fayetteville again and again before the war's end, starring in anti-war theater shows.

The home of special operations

From the earliest days of the nation’s history, troops have formed elite units that have spearheaded conflicts dating to the Revolutionary War.

Fort Bragg’s role as home to many of those forces, however, did not begin until after World War II.

Today, the nation’s largest military installation is also home to U.S. Army Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command.

The nation’s active-duty civil affairs and psychological operations troops all call Fort Bragg home, as does the headquarters for Special Forces and a large portion of the Air Force’s Special Tactics airmen.

Civil Affairs and psychological operations soldiers can trace their history back 100 years. And this year, as Fort Bragg celebrates its centennial, those soldiers also are celebrating a century of service.

Other modern day special operations forces trace their history to the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, which was formed to gather intelligence and conduct operations behind enemy lines in support of resistance groups in Europe and Burma, or to the First Special Service Force, an elite Canadian-American unit that fought in North Africa, Italy and Southern France.

Many OSS veterans would lead the Army’s fledgling special operations community years later as the unconventional warfare mission took on a greater role within the military.

U.S. Army Special Forces Command, now the 1st Special Forces Command, was created in 1952, the same year as the nation’s first Special Forces group.

That same year, the Psychological Warfare School was established at Fort Bragg. Today, it is the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

Special Forces soldiers first saw combat in Korea in 1953. They would play a central role in the nation’s efforts in Vietnam more than a decade later. And, in more recent history, they would be the first soldiers to deploy to Afghanistan and play an instrumental role in that fight.

President Kennedy remains one of history’s chief advocates for Special Forces, also known as Green Berets.

Kennedy endorsed the unique headgear during a visit to Fort Bragg in 1961. And Special Forces soldiers took part in his funeral procession a few short years later.

Today, special operations soldiers remain a key part of the nation’s defense strategy.

U.S. Army Special Operations Command has 33,000 troops and, on any given day, thousands of them are deployed across the globe, often in secretive or austere conditions battling extremist organizations or working with partner nations.

Smoke billows from the towers of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. [AP Photo/Jim Collins, File]

9/11 set a new course for Fort Bragg troops

Not everything changed overnight.

But at Fort Bragg, as for much of the nation, the course of history was forever altered by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The attacks killed thousands of people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

In the immediate aftermath, Fort Bragg tightened security to its highest level. Training, typically a year-round affair, stopped as soldiers and airmen were readied to respond to the attacks, or it continued with new purpose and urgency.

Fort Bragg soldiers were among the earliest to deploy in support of the war in Afghanistan. In 2003, they would do the same for Iraq.

To this day, local troops remain engaged in those countries, as well as in Syria and parts of Africa, as the fight against global terrorist threats remains.

Retired Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, who most recently served as vice chief of staff of the Army, highlighted Fort Bragg’s role in a post-9/11 world during a remembrance ceremony last year.

“We know the cost and sacrifices of serving a nation at war,” he said. “For 16 years, we’ve been constantly engaged, committed and on point for our nation.”

At the wars’ peak, tens of thousands of Fort Bragg soldiers were deployed. The rotations of troops were a near constant effort, with countless soldiers and airmen deploying to and from Green Ramp at Pope Field.

Today, the deployments have slowed. But they haven’t stopped as Fort Bragg troops continue to support the Global War on Terror.

In the past year, soldiers have returned from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Others are constantly rotating to parts of Africa and the Middle East.

The 18th Airborne Corps, which has repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, will soon once again lead the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The world changed nearly 17 years ago, when the first plane flew into the World Trade Center. And Fort Bragg troops have been in the center of that change.