“Austin Askew”–Chapter XI– Camp Mabry

For many Austinites, the highlight of July Fourth comes at the end of the annual  concert on Auditorium Shores when, after a program of Sousa marches, light classical pieces, and John Williams movie music, the Symphony concludes with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” accompanied by fireworks, peeling church bells, and howitzers on loan from Camp Mabry, firing across Town Lake. I say to you, there’s something about the smell of gunpowder wafting across the surface of the water that can make even the most dedicated wake-and-bake, Phish-listening, tie-dye, Birkenstocks, and patchouli oil-wearing commie hippie slacker into George S. Patton. The martial spirit has been bred very deeply into the American psyche.

Fortunately, Austin has just the place where you can satisfy the peskiest military fix: the aforementioned Camp Mabry. For those of you who’ve spent a few hours a week at that West Austin parking lot called Mopac, you’ve no doubt seen fleeting glimpses of the base while taking breathers between screaming obscenities at the idiotic drivers ahead of you. You’ll have noticed a grounded helicopter here, a tank there, maybe a row of abandoned stone warehouses, and you’ll have wondered what goes on out there.

Camp Mabry opened in 1892 and was designated as the home to the Texas Volunteer Guard, the precursor to the National Guard. The third-oldest active military installation in the state after Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and Fort Bliss in El Paso, it was named in honor of General Woodford Haywood Mabry, who served as Adjutant General of Texas from 1891 to 1898. The camp originally consisted of ninety acres, but more acreage was added between 1892 and 1935, purchased with money taken in from mock battles, horse races, polo matches, and other events held on the Parade Grounds.

The first building, an arsenal, was constructed in 1915, to provide a home for the weapons and ammo that had until that time been stored in the basement of the State Capitol. (Good thing nobody in Texas every heard of Guy Fawkes.) In 1918 the US Army School of Automobile Mechanics (SAM) was opened at Mabry and a number of the present buildings on the base were constructed.

Strangely enough, Mabry was also used from 1924 to 1935 as a maintenance headquarters for the State Highway Department, and from 1935 to 1952 as the headquarters of the DPS. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of state services mixing with the military in that way before, even with the National Guard.

Mabry currently is home to the Texas Military Forces Academy, the Officer Candidate School, a Non-Commissioned Officers Academy, the Texas National Guard Armory Board, the offices of the Adjutant General, the headquarters of the Texas Air National Guard and Texas State Guard, and a variety of other state and national military-related operations.

Camp Mabry offers many interesting activities and sights for the civilian. Every fall they have “Muster,” an open house where they have a parade, stage historical battle re-enactments, and show off current and vintage military vehicles and weaponry. (Unfortunately they won’t show you how to call in an air strike on your boss’s office.)

If you don’t want to wait that long to see what they have out there, the camp is open to the public most days. Few of the buildings will be of any interest, but there’s lots on display outdoors, including small, medium and heavy tanks, missiles, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, a military bulldozer of the sort that was used on the attack of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, trucks, jeeps, cannon, jets, helicopters, German vehicles, Iraqi vehicles–all manner of the sort of things that military gearheads drool over.

Austin is not as well-known for its museums as, say, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas/Ft. Worth are, and that’s a shame. We have the world-renowned collections of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the eye-popping siss-boom-bah of the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, the ever-dependable LBJ Library, and in February 2006 we’ll finally get to see the new and long-awaited Blanton Museum of Art. But we also have some smaller museums that are unjustly ignored, such as the Texas Memorial Museum, the Elisabet Ney Museum, and the Texas Military Forces Museum out at Mabry.

The TMFM was opened in 1992, and is the only museum anywhere dedicated to the study of the Texas military. It’s housed in “Building 6,” a 45,000 square foot structure that was built in 1918 to serve as a kitchen and mess hall, and that was later used by the DPS as a repair shop. It consists of two large museum rooms, a Great Hall, and many subsidiary rooms for displays, research, and administration.

There is a 10,000 volume research library on the premises, housing materials from the Army and Air Force, as well as reference works, artifacts, private collections, and primary historical documents. The library is available for use by appointment.

I should take this opportunity to two on three points. First, the TMFM is absolutely free. Second, bucking a trend popular in many museums these days, the TMFM not only allows photography, it encourages it. And third, the docents that staff the TMFM are really enthusiastic about what they do and are very well-informed about the collections and military history in general. They will tailor your tour to your tastes and level of interest, whether you are a novice or an expert.

And the TMFM is a pretty quiet place for the most part. I was there on a Sunday afternoon for two-and-a-half hours, and pretty much had the building to myself. (I’ve seen enough episodes of “The Twilight Zone” that I was thoroughly creeped out at being alone with all those uniformed mannequins.) You’re not likely to have to fight crowds to see anything. The first time I went to the Bob Bullock Museum, on the other hand, the place was so crowded it took me four-and-a-half hours to see all the exhibits on all three floors, and I didn’t even get to read many of the explanatory tags or go to any of the theaters.

Generally, you enter the long building, cross the Great Hall and try to ignore the exhibits there for the time being, then go into the back museum rooms, where you’ll find the docents’s desk and a small gift shop. The museum rooms will take you through Texas military history from the Texas Revolution up to the Iraq War. You’ll see swords, rifles, pistols, small artillery, machine guns, uniforms, helmets, medals, flags, guidons, radios, model planes, helicopters, and tanks, panoramic photos, a Mauser that belonged to Chiang Kai-shek, General Erwin Rommel’s cap and boots, maps, guides to social customs in occupied regions, a field kitchen with a display on military meals through the ages, from hardtack to MREs, a swanky, state-of-the-art, all-brass Japanese Army binoculars set with tripod and lens filters, captured German, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Iraqi items, and even a special shadow box viewer so kids can see what it’s like to try to see things from inside a tank. They even have a few of the infamous playing cards of Iraqi big shots, including Saddam Hussein and his sons.

But what I loved the most were the dioramas. A good diorama makes me feel like an eight-year-old again–I just want to break open the case and crawl up in there and play with the soldier figures. The dioramas here are made by a junior high school teacher and his class from Gilbert, Arizona, and their subjects include the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto in the Texas Revolution, the Wilderness Campaign in the War Between the States, the Battle of St. Etienne-a-Arnes in World War I, the landing at Salerno, the disastrous attempted crossing of the Rapido River, and the capture of Velletri in World War II, and probably a few others that have slipped my mind.

And these dioramas don’t merely feature random groupings of figures, with, say, Americans in khaki over here and Germans in grey over there. No, every grouping is based on historical fact, on accounts of what actually happened in the battle. The St. Etienne diorama, for instance, not only shows German trench placements, including underground bunkers, observation posts, and machine gun nests, it also depicts such incidents as French military police turning German prisoners over to the Americans, an American mowing down a group of Germans with a Lewis gun, and a squad of men standing alongside the village church, praying over the body of a fallen comrade. It’s little details like that that really breathe life into the scene.

Out in the Great Hall they have several American and German tanks, an amphibious truck, jeeps, light scout airplanes, helicopters, a mannequin of a paratrooper hanging from the ceiling, a Radio Relay Station, a scene depicting a Texas Artillery emplacement in the Pacific Theater in World War II, half-tracks, a huge collection of dime store toy soldiers from between the wars, and a trainer jet cockpit designed to show pilots how to properly eject.

There’s a separate Texas Air Guard room, with a small display devoted to its most famous veteran, George W. Bush, an example of the first military jet engine ever used, radios and other equipment, ejection seats, propellers, and uniforms, and flight suits.

There was a room I didn’t get to see when I visited, devoted to the “Lost Battalion,” that is, the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery. This Battalion was detached from the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas National Guard during World War II, and wound up in Java, where it was captured by the Japanese. The men of the Battalion were forced into slavery, and worked in Japan, Burma, and Thailand. The Battalion earned its nickname because nobody in the US heard a word about the Battalion for almost three years.

A maze of rooms are devoted to the 36th Infantry Division, a Division originally organized in 1917 from members of the Texas and Oklahoma National Guards and conscripts from each county in both states. Their insignia was the “T Patch,” an arrowhead signifying Oklahoma, with a “T” for Texas superimposed over it. During World War I the 36th distinguished itself at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne.

The 36th became a strictly Texas Division in World War II. It landed in North Africa in 1943 and began training for the invasion of Italy. It participated in the landing at Salerno, the liberation of Naples and Rome, the Anzio campaign, the invasion of southern France (which opened up another front to vex the Germans after D-Day) , then finally advanced into the Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Austria. Two of its 175,806 German prisoners were Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Hermann Goering.

The 36th were in operation in World War II for 366 days, including 132 days of consecutive combat, which is a record in modern military history. The 36th was also the first American Division to land on continentally-occupied European soil, in Salerno, almost a year before the Normandy landings. The strange thing about the Salerno landing is that the 36th managed on its first day to push up to the ancient city of Paestum, only to be pushed back to the sea by the German counter-attack. After a few days of savage fighting, the Allies secured the beach head and the Germans, instead of staying on an annihilating the Allies, pulled back and left to fight another day. But Salerno proved very instructive–it taught the Allies how the Germans handled coastal invasions, and helped the Allies plan their D-Day strategy.

A few months later, while slogging its way up Italy, the Division lost much of its 141st and 143rd Regiments in an unsuccessful and costly attempt to cross the Rapido River. The Germans had a view of river and its surrounding countryside from a heavily-fortified vantage point at the mountain-top monastery of Montecassino. Still, the action diverted German attention from the Allied landing at Anzio.

But not long after Rapido, the 36th scored a great victory with the capture of the town of Velletri, the last major stop before Rome. Major General Fred Walker, Commander of the 36th, had ordered his engineers to build a road up the 3,100-foot Mount Artemisio behind the town. The Germans in the town found themselves surrounded, and those that weren’t captured or killed fled, rather than digging in and fighting to the death like trapped rats.

War correspondent Eric Sevareid wrote, “If Generals Alexander and Clark received the key to the city of Rome, it was General Walker who turned the key and handed it to them.”

(The museum’s diorama of Velletri is especially superb.)

The exhibition rooms for the 36th also include tableaux of a soldier preparing his K-rations and an Aidman tending to a wounded soldier, a medical tent, a reconstruction of the 36th Infantry Chapel, captured weapons and other material from the Germans and Italians, a trophy Hitler gave to his former commanding officer from World War I, and the Regimental silver of the 142nd Regiment.

The silver has a gruesome history. The 142nd had captured some Germans with a wagon-load of silver ingots that had apparently come from the teeth of Jews killed in concentration camps. Since there was obviously no way to return this silver to its rightful owners, the 142nd melted it down into cups for their officers and a huge punch bowl, engraved with Regimental insignia and a listing of the Regiment’s engagements in World War II.

In my wanderings in the Museum I saw the following saying: “One can meet the terror from the left only with still sharper terror.” It appeared on a Nazi propaganda poster.

There are displays on the various units that were attached to the Division during World War II, including the 442nd Combat Team, which was composed entirely of “Nisei,” second-generation Japanese-Americans, who obviously had a great deal to prove in those post-Pearl Harbor days. While their families were incarcerated in internment camps, the Nisei fought with unquestioned valor. The 442nd had one of the highest casualties rates of any unit in the war, but it was also one of the most decorated.

At any rate, try to go out an see the Texas Military Forces Museum out at Camp Mabry. It’s a great free resource, entertaining as well as educational, and a fine way to spend several rewarding hours. It will also drive home to you what a vast, detailed undertaking modern warfare is, as well as the fact that history is not only made by distant, unapproachable people, but by your friends, neighbors, and family, who are from time to time called upon to do great things.

Have a safe and enjoyable Fourth of July!

–July 14, 2005


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