By Sara E. Martin, Army Flier Staff WriterJanuary 31, 2014
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (January 31, 2014) -- Many types of people have called Fort Rucker home through the years, giving the area a rich heritage blended from all walks of life, from Native Americans to early settlers to prisoners of war. If the walls in the buildings that still stand here could communicate what they have seen, they might tell those listening many remarkable tales.
Two of the oldest remaining buildings on the installation are the Camellia and Magnolia houses -- settled under Magnolia trees at the intersection of Novosel Street and Ruf Avenue. People once strolled down Novosel Street, which was once lined with Magnolia trees, but a little Camp Rucker history is still rooted in the ground.
Both houses were constructed in 1942 and are now used as temporary lodging for VIP visitors. The Magnolia House is mentioned in three published books when characters tucked themselves in under its roof.
During World War II and the Korean conflict, Camellia House, the one nearer the street, was the quarters of the post commander, and both are significant historically to Fort Rucker for a number of reasons, said Michael Maxwell, Directorate of Public Works master planning division chief.
"According to George Steuber, (a previous) deputy garrison commander, when the installation privatized lodging in 2007 the houses had to be saved," said Ed Janasky, Directorate of Public Works director. "Steuber believed they needed to be retained in the (InterContinental Hotels Group) Historic Collection as distinguished visitor's quarters."
According to Janasky, both houses were modified and enriched by German and Italian POW craftsmen who were interned at Fort Rucker during WWII.
"The walls, floors and cabinets are made of heart pine from Fort Rucker, and are unique on post," said Steuber in an old email that Janasky saved. "Since becoming DVQs, these two buildings have been the preferred quarters for U.S., foreign military and political leaders whenever they have visited Fort Rucker."
Both Camellia and Magnolia House are still filled with mementoes of those visits, Janasky said.
The houses are not the only thing that was enriched by POWs who once lived here.
The chapel behind Bldg. 101 on Shamrock Street is one of the few remaining wood buildings from the WWII period, and contains an altar, lectern, podium, rail and four chairs made by the German prisoners during World War II.
The chapel is now called Headquarters Chapel, and was the original chapel on the installation, but it has held many names over the years: Chapel of the Wings, Post Chapel, Headquarters Road Chapel, Chapel No. 1 and Headquarters Place Chapel.
"At some point by Vietnam, it was called Chapel of the Wings because all the graduating pilots had their graduation in the chapel and got pinned there," said Chaplain (Col.) Dennis Newton, garrison and U.S. Army Aviation Cent of Excellence chaplain. "But when Wings Chapel was put in, they decided to revert the name back to Headquarters Chapel. And now all sorts of wing badge memorabilia hang in the chapel as well."
Fort Rucker was once home to 13 of these chapels, said Newton. Every battalion had its own because the Army was ramping up for war. But this chapel, he said, represents the best of the original 13.
The chapel was built in 1942, and the flags that previously flew in the Chapel of the Flags in Vietnam, Fort Hood, and the original Chapel of the Flags here at Fort Rucker, now demolished, now hang in the Headquarters Chapel.
"When all Aviation training moved to Fort Rucker in 1973, the flags, along with the stained glass windows, were brought to Fort Rucker," said Maxwell. "The wings represent the various insignia of Army Aviators and are located on the back wall of the sanctuary.
"The wood workings that the prisoners constructed are so beautiful, and to think they built them just for their own worship purposes and to pass the time is fascinating," added Maxwell.
Although it is the only remaining chapel at Fort Rucker from World War II, services are still held there so people can admire the exposed wood beams, flags and beautiful craftsmanship of the POW pieces that adorn the chapel.
The POWs themselves were Axis prisoners, said Maxwell. The camp held approximately 1,700-2,000 prisoners and was constructed at Camp Rucker in 1943. It closed and was demolished after the German surrender in 1945.
"The location is along Dilly Branch Road and is accessible to people, but there is not much to look at. Only some pavement and the foundations are left, and the site is not maintained," said Maxwell.
Camp Rucker was chosen as a main site, according to J. Patrick Hughes, Aviation Branch historian, because it was centrally located in an area of Alabama that was not otherwise covered. It was also an area away from the coast or border.
The camp held Germans that were captured in the north African war against German general Erwin Rommel, but it also had Italian POWs, according to Hughes.
"They were given to local farmers to harvest peanuts for three weeks each year, and were sent to the camp at Andalusia to do logging," said Hughes. "They were paid in specially printed script at a rate of 75 cents a day."
Well thought of in the Wiregrass area, the camp was not a particularly rough place to be held, said Hughes.
"They had their own commissary where they could spend the specially printed currency they received. They had extensive opportunities to take classes and practice crafts. And they also had opportunities to produce theatricals and music performances," he said.
"When the Italians were released because Italy was out of the war, they remained here as Italian Allies. The POWs became friends with the Families of the farmers who used their labor," he continued. "Later some of the former German POWs returned for visits."
The POWs left their mark on many Fort Rucker buildings that remain behind. Between hundreds of visitors between the chapel and the Magnolia and Camellia houses, there is a lot to wonder what the walls have seen and what they could tell us.