People tend to think of archaeologists as
detectives of the deep past, but two sites here barely a century old have
captured the attention of historians digging into the camp’s origins.
in 1917, the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center was one of 16 sites
selected to host a national Army camp to train Soldiers at the outbreak of U.S.
involvement in World War I. Historians have been delving into the camp’s
original bakery and training trenches since August.
general location of the sites has never been a mystery, but precisely what they
may reveal about the early years of Camp Shelby still isn’t
known. Rita McCarthy, the state cultural resources program manager, is
“I’ve actually known
about both of these sites for a long, long time and I’ve
always wanted to do ground penetrating radar (GPR) at these particular
projects, especially the bakery,” she said.
“The bakery is a wide-open area.
There is nothing there. There was very little activity there during World War
II, so I knew the archaeological record would probably be intact. So the ground
penetrating radar would be the best way to identify if there were intact ovens
or remnants of the sewer lines or water lines and things like that.
“As far as the trenches go, I was hoping we
would be able to identify some tunnels. I knew the cave shelters were connected
via a tunnel system, but I didn’t exactly know how
big the cave shelters were under the ground and how they were interconnected.”
Camp Shelby was chosen as a national
training site for several reasons. Its location was once a “vast, open, cut
over pine plantation” with hills. It closely resembled the devastated European
countryside after years of war in which battles were fought for inches of muddy
ground in a “No Man’s Land”
between trenches dug by the opposing sides, McCarthy said.
In addition, two railroad lines came through
it – the Mississippi Central to the north and the Gulf and Ship Island to the
south. The railways were vital for the movement of troops and supplies.
The railroad was especially vital to the
bakery, which relied on it for the timber, coal, and coke used in the ovens.
The ovens were located directly beside the tracks of the Mississippi Central
line and the trains would dump coal and coke directly into holding bins there,
The railways at the camp today are different
from those in the early 1900s. There are no tracks at the bakery’s
location in the cantonment area today.
Mississippians built Camp Shelby, McCarthy
said. The Mississippi National Guard arrived in July 1917 and began
constructing the first buildings.
“The (Army) troops that came to Camp Shelby
began arriving in August 1917 and were part of the 38th (Infantry) Division,” McCarthy
said. “They were troops from Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky. They trained
here for a little over a year and then the units began shipping out. The 38th
ranks were then filled with Soldiers from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama - and
neighboring states would come in and work, including an African-American
battalion that came in to work with the 113th (Engineer Company) who built the
At any given time, she said, approximately
36,000 troops were training at Camp Shelby on a diet mostly consisting of
bread. The bakery was constructed in early 1918 to meet this crucial need and
staffed with Soldiers from the 38th Infantry Division’s
Bakery Battalion. On average, 60 Soldiers baked about 14,000 loaves of bread a
day in the 14 ovens, which consisted of brick and steel for cooking and a small
tent for preparation. Their product was distributed through the bakery
“They were very proud of their work,” McCarthy
said. “They were so important they were one of the few battalions that actually
had barracks. They had real buildings instead of tents to sleep in.”
McCarthy said she hoped the GPR would
identify exactly where the ovens were located so she could target the actual
digging at verified oven sites. The GPR, which was conducted in late September,
should provide evidence of “features” that are out of place in the existing
landscape, such as bricks.
“I get excited because it’s
like what is that going to be? But, I guess the really exciting part is being
able to dig down because you don’t know what you’re
going to encounter,” she said. “As you go down, it may be a trash pit. It may
not be an oven.”
While McCarthy hopes to obtain some
artifacts at the bakery site, it is information she seeks at the training
Nestled in the woods off a dirt road near
Motor Pool 3, Soldiers passing by have probably never considered that they were
training mere yards from where troops defended and made assaults from trenches
dug into the earth.
Those particular trenches were built by the
113th Engineer Co. Of the 38th ID in 1918. Although Camp Shelby still hosts
several sites with collapsed World War I training trenches, this particular
site has a unique feature that sets it apart from even other sites throughout
“This is the only location on Camp Shelby,
and perhaps the United States, that I am aware of that cave shelters and depots
are still in existence,” McCarthy said. “These were used for the storage of
ammunition, supplies, and officers’ quarters. They are
connected to linear trenches, which were located above ground.”
The collapsed trenches now resemble dry
creek beds and the cave shelters appear to be animal dens. However, McCarthy
hopes a combination of GPR and camera probes will determine the entire layout
of the site.
GPR was used to determine how the cave
shelters and depots were connected to the linear trenches and connected to one
another, as well as determine the size of the shelters. Cameras were then used
to see inside the portions of the shelters and trenches that have not
A concrete bunker slightly off to the side
of the trench site is believed to be part of it, but its purpose is unknown,
she said. No one had officially been in the bunker in nearly a century so she
was excited when cameras revealed it was safe to enter Sept. 28.
What was thought to be a large bunker was
instead a small area approximately 6 ft. long by 2 ft. wide slowly giving way
to the nature of time and revealing its age with cracks and rotting concrete.
Its purpose is still a mystery, but McCarthy said she believes it was most likely
an ammunition cache.
The clues continue to
mount as the investigation continues, but the historian said she expects to
publish her findings within the next year.