This month in Fort McCoy history: May 2020

By Theresa R FitzgeraldMay 11, 2020

Cuban refugees step off a bus and into a holding area at Fort McCoy in 1980 after a ride from the La Crosse Municipal Airport. Fort McCoy served as a processing center for Cuban refugees from the Mariel Boatlift. (U.S. Army file photo by Mary Bower)
Cuban refugees step off a bus and into a holding area at Fort McCoy in 1980 after a ride from the La Crosse Municipal Airport. Fort McCoy served as a processing center for Cuban refugees from the Mariel Boatlift. (U.S. Army file photo by Mary Bower) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Fort McCoy, Wis., was established in 1909. Here is a look back at some installation history from May 2020 and back.

75 Years Ago — May 1945

Liberated from a Nazi prison camp by a Russian “Women’s Army Corps” captain riding in an "American-made Sherman tank," T-4 Rudolph Vergolina returned in May 1945 to Camp McCoy, from which he shipped overseas about a year and a half ago with the 2nd Infantry division.

Assigned to 1610 H, S & MP Co, Vergolina's home was Milwaukee. Vergolina was a prisoner of the Nazis for nearly seven months. He was captured June 13, 1944, less than a week after the Normandy invasion, when a German counterattack near Saint-Lo, France, caught him. A medic with the 38th Infantry regiment, he was in the front helping wounded at the time.

He was liberated Jan. 31, 1945, by the Russians from a grim prison camp at Kustrin, Germany, only about 35 miles from Berlin. They had been three days under fire by the Russians before an armored column led by the Russian captain broke into the camp. Vergolina and the other prisoners struck off toward Poland and Russia, walking and hitchhiking from 15 to 20 miles daily. He said he later saw the wreckage of the Polish cities of Poznan, Lublin, and Warsaw.

“There was nothing left of Warsaw,” Vergolina said. “It was flattened; you could stand on a chair and see most of the city.” He recalled the horrors of Lublin, where bodies of murdered Poles were still being dug up.

Vergolina lost 45 pounds during his internment, he said. His meals consisted of ersatz coffee for breakfast, thin soup with an average of two pieces of potato per serving at noon, and a loaf of bread for six men at night. When Swiss Red Cross representatives inspected the camp occasionally, the prisoners were given an extra helping of soup for appearances’ sake.

60 Years Ago — May 29, 1960

It was a big “lift” for some of the oldest soldiers among the units in the Camp McCoy support force of active Army units to watch men of the 101st Airborne Division make their combat training jump May 29, 1960.

Well-known to residents of western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota, the post caught the attention of much of the Midwest as the result of the “drop-in” of 237 men of the "Screaming Eagle" Division’s Company B, 501st Airborne Battle Group. There were 25 newspaper, radio, and television representatives on hand, as well as an estimated 5,000 spectators from among the surrounding communities.

The show was marred only by the delays caused by bad weather and a miscalculation that caused one "stick" of paratroopers to be dropped into trees on a ridge beyond the drop zone. The four injured "Screaming Eagles" were well enough to be discharged from the hospital within a few hours after the drop.

40 Years Ago — May 1980

When the decision to activate Fort McCoy as a refugee processing center was made, several active Army units were tasked for support.

They were the 12th Transportation Company from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; 86th Combat Support Hospital, Fort Campbell, Ky.; 48th Medical Detachment, Fort Riley, Kan.; 52nd Engineer Battalion and 28th Public Affairs Detachment, Fort Carson, Colo.; 759th MP Battalion headquarters element and 511th MP Company, Fort Dix, N.J.; III Intelligence Company, Fort Hood, Texas; and the 401st Personnel Services Company, Fort Knox, Ky.

Several reserve units also augmented the task force as needed. The 416th Engineer command, headquartered in Chicago, was responsible for the erection of the more than 30,000 feet of fence around the refugee compound. The 308th Civil Affairs group, Homewood, Ill., was responsible for operations in the compound, including logistics and administration, until relieved by the 432nd Civil Affairs Company from Green Bay, Wis.

Other reserve units operated for two weeks with the refugee effort. They were the 13th Psychological Operations Battalion from Fort Snelling, Minn., providing news and music in the compound, and the 812th Signal Company from Kings Mills, Ohio, which laid telephone cable and handled local radio communications.

Many civilian agencies also were involved with refugee support. They included the FBI, the CIA, Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services Department, State Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Marshall and U.S. Attorney representatives, and the General Services Administration. The American Red Cross also was heavily involved in support.

More than 1,100 temporary-hire civilians worked in some capacity involving the refugees, including cooks, nurses, and many others.

(Artifacts and pictures of the Cuban Resettlement Center are on display in the Fort McCoy History Center.)

30 Years Ago — May 1990

Officials with Fort McCoy and Monroe County approved a lease agreement to allow the use of 1,400 acres of Monroe County land in the New Lyme Township for military operations.

Garrison Commander Col. Raymond G. Boland said that use of the land, which is located near the northwest boundary of the installation, allowed the post to make more efficient use of one of the most important pieces of terrain on Fort McCoy.

"The problem we've had in the past is that essentially half of the ridge line land mass lies west of the Fort McCoy boundary," he said. "Therefore, we couldn't conduct proper infantry training in that area."

Any training involving vehicular movement, pyrotechnics, or weapon firing, however, will continue to be conducted on Fort McCoy property, Boland said.

20 Years Ago — May 20, 2000

From filling sandbags to create a bunker to going on Humvee rides, guests at the Fort McCoy Armed Forces Day Open House on May 20 experienced the persona of much of military life during the past 50 years.

The event celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Armed Forces Day in 1950. The single-day celebration, which was held May 20, 1950, stemmed from the unification of the armed forces under one department — the Department of Defense.

Sgt. 1st Class Brian Stevenson of the Wisconsin Military Academy said the event gave guests a chance to see modern weapons, such as the Paladin 155 mm self-propelled howitzer, which is used by Army National Guard personnel for training at Fort McCoy. Stevenson said guests could walk a few feet to nearby displays to see older equipment or to see exhibits about training throughout the installation's history.

Perfect weather in the 70s and sunshine greeted the guests as they visited Fort McCoy Open House sites in the installation's 800 and 900 blocks. Hundreds of youths also got dog tags or their faces painted in a camouflage color. Members of the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers painted up a storm of brown, green and black stripes on children's faces. Challenge Academy cadets were kept busy making personalized dog tags for the guests.

Members of the 6015th Garrison Support Unit, the installation's mobilization support unit, helped support the mobile kitchen trailer and operated the sandbag filling station for children.

(Due to COVID-19 precautions, the 2020 Armed Forces Day Open House has been canceled. The next open house will be May 15, 2021.)