Editor’s note: In honor of the 80th anniversary of Fort Polk, the Guardian will offer stories throughout the year from an historical standpoint. This article looks at archaeological finds with a focus on the Vietnam era and Heritage Families.
FORT POLK, La. – In 1941, with World War II in full swing, Army leadership chose the wooded, sandy hills area of central Louisiana to conduct maneuvers involving more than 400,000 troops to evaluate training, logistics, doctrine and commanders.
The exercise, which included participation by such stalwart leaders as Omar Bradley, Mark Clark, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Joseph Stilwell and George Patton, led to the creation of Fort Polk.
To secure the land needed for the maneuvers, the families who occupied the area were offered “fair market value” for their land as the U.S. government exercised its right to eminent domain.
Brad Laffitte, Fort Polk cultural resource manager, said it is important to remember those families, known today as Heritage Families, when looking at Fort Polk’s history.
“In the last decade we’ve done a lot of work to gather photos and oral histories from Heritage Family members,” Laffitte said. “We’ve identified the big trees that remain at old homesteads, and we’ve fixed up and documented the cemeteries that are scattered throughout the installation.”
Laffitte said most of the communities that were scattered throughout the area primarily consisted of people who were related to each other.
“They helped each other out at harvest time and watched out for each other,” he said. “When the Army moved in, a lot of the families took their houses apart and moved their houses with them to new locations.”
Laffitte said there are 23 historic cemeteries maintained on Fort Polk. Many of them had fallen into disrepair because they were unreachable due to training, but now they have been improved and repairs have been made so family members can visit.
Fort Polk hosts two Heritage celebrations each year — in the spring and fall — to invite Heritage Families to share their memories and photos so their sacrifices are not forgotten. While a majority have moved on, Laffitte said many Heritage Family members came back to Fort Polk as Soldiers or civilian workers.
“We work with the Heritage Family Association to develop long-term goals,” Laffitte said. “They sacrificed their homes and that’s no small thing, so we owe that to them.”
For those who would like to learn more about Heritage Families, go to Polkhistory.org and check out the three books that have been written about Heritage Families and other resources.
Following the Louisiana Maneuvers, Fort Polk served as a Prisoner of War Internment Camp during World War II, housing more than 3,000 prisoners, mostly Germans, at what is now the installation’s Honor Field.
“There’s nothing left there now but the location,” Scott Faris, field archaeologist, said. “We think that after the war they just bulldozed the buildings into a big pile and set them on fire.”
During the Vietnam era, Fort Polk served as the training ground for infantry Soldiers. Faris said one of the most interesting places on Fort Polk that offers a look at what that infantry training was like during that time frame is the Tiger village on Peason Ridge.
“It was supposed to look like one of the strategic hamlets they had set up in Vietnam from 1965 until the end of the war,” Faris said. “They were trying to encourage farmers to come together and live in these protected areas, and they usually had a special forces team that assisted them and taught them how to use weapons, set up ambushes and place mines. The farmers would have a safe place to go and not be preyed upon by the Viet Cong.”
The village at Peason Ridge had a berm around it and bamboo huts thatched with banana leaves, Faris said.
“They were made to look like actual Vietnam villages, and they had cadre that operated there and dressed in Vietnamese clothing, with the conical hats and black pajamas,” he said. “They would take AIT Soldiers to the village and run them down the ambush trail, which can still be seen. The trail has blown up trucks on both sides. There is a tunnel next to the trail that you can see. It’s still in pretty good shape.”
Laffitte said there is still an embankment and foxholes in the area.
“You can find blanks with a date stamp from the 1960s,” he said.
Laffitte said the same areas on the installation that were used to train for past wars are often modified to meet the needs of current conflicts.
“A lot of World War II training sites were converted to Vietnam era sites, and now Middle East training sites,” he said. “They just keep using them over and over. The more things change, the more they stay the same. They keep building these villages to reflect the current times.”
As for archaeological finds, Lafitte said mostly it’s just by chance.
“We’ve found dog tags, a canteen from the Vietnam War, but there is not much left intact,” he said. “The goal is to document everything available and maintain those histories.