Seeing Fort Johnson’s history through eyes that experienced it first hand

By CourtesyApril 24, 2024

Seeing Fort Johnson’s history through eyes that experienced it first hand
John Gates as he sits in his office at home. (U.S. Army photo by Gabe Walker) (Photo Credit: Angie Thorne) VIEW ORIGINAL


Public Affairs

FORT JOHNSON, La. — John Gates spent 31 years in federal service.

He was an active-duty Marine for four years in World War II and spent 27 years working as a civil engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. Eighteen of his 27 years were at Fort Johnson. Gates retired from civil service in 1984.

Gates was born March 24, 1927, to Army Master Sgt. Thurmon Gates and his spouse, Martha, while assigned to the 14th Infantry Regiment in Panama.

The Army next stationed the Gates family with the 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Gates graduated high school as World War II was in full swing. The Battle of the Bulge had recently been fought, and there were significant casualties. It seemed certain the armed services were going to draft all eligible young men to fill their ranks, though you could choose to volunteer. The main difference between volunteering and being drafted was volunteers were allowed to choose a career field, while draftees were told what career field to enter.

Gates’s recruiter told him only active-duty positions were available. He volunteered for the Marine Corps on Feb. 5, 1945, and chose engineer demolitions as his career field. He went to basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, followed by advanced individual training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Gates already knew a lot about engineer demolition.

“I spent a lot of time with Soldiers and my dad doing engineer demolition while my dad was stationed at Camp Walters, Panama,” he said.

The United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and the war ended while Gates was still in training. Draftees, Reserve and National Guardsmen were sent home. Gates stayed on for another three years since he signed up for active duty.

“I felt homesick watching the others depart for home, but I continued to do my duty,” Gates said.

Gates was stationed in Camden, Arkansas, after a 32-month overseas tour. It was there he met his wife, Bridget McIntyre, while serving on a color guard. “Boy, was she beautiful,” Gates said.

The two went on the first of many dates, then married and were together until Bridgett passed away Feb. 20, 2021.

“We were married for 70 years, seven months and 17 days. I always thought I would go before her. I miss her everyday,” Gates said.

After Gates got out of the Marines he majored in civil engineering and attended college in El Paso, Texas. He then transferred and graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in civil engineering in 1953.

After graduation, he worked for the Texas Highway Department for two years.

In 1955, Gates went to work for Headquarters, 4th Army Engineers in San Antonio, Texas, where he was the pavement engineer for a five-state area (Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma).

 In 1962, Gates was sent to Fort Polk in two week increments to assess and fix the installation’s deteriorating roads, which were either dirt or gravel, and bridges. The infrastructure improvements were necessary for continuing training efforts.

The bridges at Fort Polk were built strictly with timber trestle prior to WW II and were crumbling. There was a shortage of steel to put in concrete built bridges due to the war efforts.  According to Gates, the worst bridges were the two on Entrance Road leading into Fort Polk.

He acquired funding to build concrete bridges on Entrance Road and to replace other bridges on the installation.

At the time, the Texas National Guard’s 49th Armored Division trained at Fort Polk. The Soldiers arrived in hundreds of cars. Most vehicles were stuck on the muddy roads or bogged down in pastures due to heavy rains.

Gates was flown in a helicopter over Fort Polk to assess the damages.

“There were literally hundreds of cars stuck in mud everywhere you looked. Boy, it was one big mess,” Gates said.

Fort Polk received its first regular Army commanding general, Maj. Gen. Jim Skelton, in 1962. Skelton worked with Gates to remedy the road and bridge problems. Skelton told Gates, “John, sign my name to anything that will get funds for Fort Polk when you go to Washington D.C. or 4th Army.”

Gates made several trips to Washington D.C. to visit the Corps of Engineers and congressmen to acquire funding and equipment for Fort Polk. Gates also had a meeting with Louisiana senator Huey P. Long, who promised and delivered funding for Fort Polk construction projects. Gates convinced the Corps of Engineers it was cheaper and longer lasting to stabilize and pave in lieu of putting gravel on roads and leveling roads with graders.

He acquired 12 brand new Caterpillar graders which greatly helped with road upgrades at Fort Polk. Nonappropriated funds were received to build the Officer’s Club, movie theater, swimming pool and temporary post exchange.

The sweat and labor Gates and his team performed at Fort Polk was an important part of building the physical foundation of a great installation. That work made Fort Johnson what it is today.

“We developed a long-term master plan to get our construction projects funded and approved by the Corps of Engineers and Headquarters, Department of the Army. The roads and bridges you see today are the results of that master plan,” Gates said. “But what I enjoyed the most about my job at Fort Polk was the people. The job had its challenges, but having good people made it all work.”