By Brian Autry, Chris Barr, & Christopher Young
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order transferring Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park from the War Department to the National Park Service. This new designation ensured the site’s management focused on promoting preservation and public education, as opposed to military operations. In less than a decade, the nation faced a new challenge that once again led American soldiers onto Chickamauga Battlefield.
From Camp Thomas’ creation during the Spanish American war to the establishment of Fort Oglethorpe in the early 1900s, military training seemed to gravitate to Chickamauga Battlefield during the post-Civil War period. In July 1942, the US War Department constructed a group of buildings at Barnhardt Circle, in an area soon to be known as South Park, which eventually housed a Provost Marshal General’s School. The military also erected additional classroom buildings along the Snodgrass-Savannah Road and into McDonald Field, within Chickamauga Battlefield’s boundaries, for use by the Provost Marshal General’s School. However, the short-lived school closed in December, and its personnel sent to a new post in Michigan. The army quickly converted the now-defunct school’s facilities into a sprawling training complex for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), established in May 1942. The next year, the WAAC received a new name, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and the training facility at Fort Oglethorpe became the Third WAC Training Center, one of the largest training sites for women soldiers during World War II, capable of housing more than 9,000 personnel.
At Chickamauga, WACs underwent basic training before moving on to more advanced training in their individual specialties. The War Department filmed a WAC recruitment video at Fort Oglethorpe, and by the end of the war, around 50,000 women had trained at the post, including some members of the segregated 6888th Postal Battalion – the only all black WAC unit to deploy overseas. Women who served here at Chickamauga at World War II served our country with distinction – among the women who passed through the gates of the Third WAC Training Center were Purple Heart recipients and thousands who served at or near the front lines. Some of Chickamauga’s WACs gave the last full measure of devotion and are today buried in American cemeteries in France.
At the close of World War II, the Third WAC Training Center was disbanded, and the property returned to the National Park Service. Fort Oglethorpe closed as a military post and became an incorporated city in the state of Georgia. Today, the legacy of Chickamauga’s women solders can be seen – not only in the lives and legacies of those who are still alive into the 21st Century, but in the very ground at Chickamauga Battlefield. Scattered throughout the woods between Snodgrass Hill and the park visitor center are the ruins, foundations, and road traces of a once sprawling army camp where America’s young women answered the call of the duty.