By Eric Pilgrim | Fort Knox NewsDecember 20, 2018
Fort Knox has served as a vital testing location for military equipment and personnel for more than 100 years, dating back as far as October 1903, when the U.S. Army conducted military maneuvers in and around nearby West Point, Kentucky.
At that time, the Army was looking to produce new military uniforms that would stand up to hot and cold temperatures and the rigors of combat. Leaders capitalized on the maneuvers being conducted to regular Army and several states' National Guard units to field test them on the Soldiers.
"They were testing khaki uniforms," said Matthew Rector, historic preservation specialist at the Fort Knox Environmental Division. "They determined that that khaki was a pretty good uniform."
The golden years of testing came about as a result of the Second World War, according to Rector.
"In World War II, it was necessary to develop quickly," said Rector. "Everyone was in a race, so scientists and engineers were working faster. So much came out of that war."
The Armored Medical Research Laboratory, or AMRL, was a premier sites for testing during the war, specifically for everything related to armor, but other concepts were tested as well. The lab was set up to run Soldiers, equipment and weaponry through the rigors of extreme weather conditions to determine what would hold up in combat.
One of the pieces of equipment tested at the AMRL again involved uniforms.
"They were testing out uniforms basically in the hot and cold rooms at the AMRL to keep our Soldiers safe," said Rector. "It was another instance in our history where they were testing out uniforms and their effectiveness in various climates and environments.
"'Let's put all this in a room, drop the temperature to 30-below, and see what happens.'"
Not only were leaders testing the durability of the uniforms, they also were experimenting with camouflage patterns -- something that wouldn't fully become a part of the Army until many years later.
"We weren't quite the masters of camouflage that the Germans were during the war, and they were using early camouflage here at Fort Knox during World War II, but it really didn't see widespread use in Europe," Rector said.
Rector said that uniforms and extreme weather conditions were just the tip of the iceberg on what the AMRL would test over the coming years.
Squawky walkie talkies.
One of Signal's most important communication devices during the war was perfected at Fort Knox -- the portable radio.
"Testing on the walkie talkie was conducted right here at Fort Knox," said Rector.
Formally known as the SCR-300 radio, walkie talkies were designed in 1940 by Galvin Manufacturing, which eventually became known as Motorola. According to warfarehistorynetwork.com, the radios were then shipped to the U.S. Army's Armored Force School at Fort Knox.
"There, in the woods and fields the unit was put through its paces, with trials and tests designed to verify the performance characteristics, ruggedness, and overall quality and usability of the radio," according to a July 10, 2018 article on the website.
Testing proved so successful, leaders enthusiastically approved of them. Nearly 50,000 models were produced during the war.
"Motorola also produced a two-way handheld SR-536 radio, or handy talkie, which was also praised for its effectiveness, but you never hear of the handy talkie today," said Rector. What we think of as the walkie talkie today was more like a handy talkie."
Another critical test that took place at Fort Knox, in 1933 prior to the war, involved anti-aircraft defense systems. The tests also occurred at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and each pitted a red "enemy" force against a blue force. A young Capt. Claire Lee Chennault led the charge during the exercise at Fort Knox.
"Chenault was testing his air defense warning system," said Rector. "They were using modern bombers against older, much slower fighter biplanes."
What leaders discovered during the tests was that the old biplanes were able to easily intercept the bombers before they had a chance to dump their payloads.
"When bombers were spotted, telephone operators were notified of their location and the planes were sent to intercept them," said Rector. "Army leaders figured out that daylight raids were probably going to result in a lot of casualties of pilots and air crews."
Rector noted that another critical wartime tactic formed from the test findings.
"Leaders concluded that the cumbersome bombers would require friendly escorts to successfully complete their missions," said Rector.
Chennault would later become commander of the Flying Tigers during its heyday.
In the Navy.
The Army Air Corps conducted testing at Fort Knox as did the Army. The Navy also joined in at the start of the war, selecting Fort Knox as its site for tests on its Landing Ship Tank, more commonly known as the LST.
During the war, the Navy planned to use the LST to beach tanks, but leaders faced some problems.
"You had armor and the air corps at Fort Knox, and those two really accelerated our success during World War II. You have to give those two branches a lot of credit," Rector said. "In addition to armor and the Army Air Corps, you had the Navy."
Rector explained that there's usually a misconception about why the Navy established the LST building at Fort Knox, which still stands today.
"People assume the LST building was built for the purpose of loading and unloading tanks on the LST well deck. That's not entirely true," said Rector. "It was really constructed to figure out ventilation for the well deck."
The intent of the LST during the invasion of Sicily and later, during the Normandy invasion, was to rush onto a beach head and hastily drop the front plate so tanks could get onto the beach and into battle immediately. The tanks' engines had to be running leading up to the beach invasion, which meant dangerous fumes would fill up the well deck.
"They tried hoses; sticking hoses to the exhaust, but that was inconvenient. Once you hit the beach, you would have to be running through all these hoses," said Rector. "From April to August of '42, they tested all these systems, and finally came up with pretty much 12 ventilations to remove all the exhaust."
Many people attribute the Navy LSTs with contributing to the overall success of America during the war. Some point to the LST building at Fort Knox as critically important to that success.
"Tom Fugate, who used to be with the Kentucky Heritage Council, said that the LST building is one of the five most significant military buildings in Kentucky; and he said that over 10 years ago," said Rector. "The LSTs really helped end the war sooner. If they had built the LST building somewhere else, they would have that significance, but it was here.
"Fort Knox has been a busy place for the development of the Army."