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Digging into the past

   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 camps origins.

   Established 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 camps original bakery and training trenches since August.


The general location of the sites has never been a mystery, but precisely what they may reveal about the early years of Camp Shelby still isnt known. Rita McCarthy, the state cultural resources program manager, is intrigued.


“Ive actually known about both of these sites for a long, long time and Ive 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 didnt 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 Mans 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, McCarthy said.


The railways at the camp today are different from those in the early 1900s. There are no tracks at the bakerys 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 Divisions 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 training trenches.”


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 Divisions 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 building.


Diggin2.jpg“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 its like what is that going to be? But, I guess the really exciting part is being able to dig down because you dont know what youre 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 trenches.


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 the U.S.


“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 officersquarters. 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 collapsed.


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.

Revised: 1/9/2017 5:48