“It rained on Monday morning Sept. 15 over all Louisiana. From low, darkening clouds the drops spattered on the State's good highways, on its hundreds of marshy mud roads, on its pine forests, and on its deep swamps full of quicksand.
The rain fell, too, on 350,000 U.S. soldiers and 50,000 U.S. Army vehicles as they fought the greatest sham battle in U.S. history. The attack had come before dawn. With two fast-moving, hard-hitting armored divisions leading the way, Lieutenant General Ben Lear, commander of the Second (Red) Army, had pushed his troops across the muddy Red River, and was already sending long tentacles down the highways to the south, where Lieutenant General Walter Krueger's Third (Blue) Army lay in wait.” This is an excerpt from the Oct. 6, 1941 issue of Life Magazine which carried a multi-page feature article highlighting the largest mass training maneuvers undertaken by the U.S. Army.
The mock battles of what became known as the Louisiana Maneuvers had one purpose: To prepare America's Soldiers for the war that had already begun in Europe and was threatening to spread around the world.
The Louisiana Maneuvers were a prelude to World War II. Likewise, the rudimentary barracks and facilities that sprang up as a result of the massive exercises were a prelude to the importance of Central Louisiana to the U.S. armed forces. And so Camp Polk was born…..
As World War II intensified so did visits to Camp Polk by Army leaders who would become American legends: Eisenhower, Clark, Bradley and Patton. And in 1941, the great General George C. Marshall, spoke some words that would become Fort Polk’s greatest mission then – and now.
"I want the mistakes made down in Louisiana and not over in Europe, and the only way to do this thing is to try it out, and if it doesn't work, find out what we need to make it work", he said.
At the end of World War II, the American public, grown weary of tragic carnage, began focusing on peace and prosperity and the speedy return of the service men and women from overseas. The victorious U.S. Army, the most powerful on earth, rapidly began disarming. Some 12 million Americans wore military uniforms at the height of World War II. Within a few years, the Army cut back in size to pre-World War II levels.
By 1946, Camp Polk was designated a medical training center and only a skeleton force remained. Finally, in December, military officials declared Fort Polk inactive, and the now-empty barracks stood quiet.
When the nation called again, Camp Polk answered. In the early morning hours of June 25, 1950, more than 100,000 North Korean soldiers surged across the 38th Parallel to invade South Korea. In August of 1950, the 45th Infantry Division, Oklahoma National Guard, reported for duty at Camp Polk.
Camp Polk shook off the dust accumulated from disuse and once again teemed with Soldiers training for war. Seventy percent of the troops who first reported to Camp Polk that year had served in World War II, but thousands of other draftees or volunteers soon arrived. With no previous combat experience, these new Soldiers had to quickly learn enough at Camp Polk to wage war and survive.
And learn they did. Once again, the words spoken by Gen. George C. Marshall in 1941 became Camp Polk’s most vital mission. Only the combat theater had changed.
But after the Korean War ended in 1954, Camp Polk’s future was once again uncertain, and that year the installation closed.
A scant year later, tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union grew to alarming proportions, an era called “The Red Scare.” With the world seemingly once again on the brink of world war – this time a nuclear war -- the Army began searching anew for a place to conduct maneuvers.
Once again, as they had done before World War II, civic and local government leaders fanned out in Vernon Parish, asking landowners to sign documents allowing the Army to use their land. In 1955, Camp Polk – now called Fort Polk – reopened in preparation for Exercise Sagebrush.
America’s biggest peacetime exercise since the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers, some 85,000 troops participated, significantly fewer than the 400,000 involved 14 years earlier. The Sagebrush exercises, which lasted 15 days, covered a substantial portion of Louisiana, stretching east-west from Alexandria to the Sabine River, and north-south from near Shreveport to between DeRidder and Lake Charles.
When the Sagebrush exercises ended after 15 days, the 1st Armored Division began establishing new headquarters at Fort Polk – and the installation again reverberated with the sounds of cannons, machine guns, and soldiers marching in cadence. Lines of M48 Patton tanks, much heavier than their World War II counterparts, raced across training areas. The military’s highest echelons chose Fort Polk and the 1st Armored Division to test mobility and combat strategies for the nuclear age.
But in June of 1959, Fort Polk shut down completely. Many local businesses closed, and citizens left, seeking better opportunities…
With the growing Berlin crisis in 1961, the 49th Armored Division began rolling into Fort Polk, and in June of 1962, the installation became the Army's largest Infantry Training Center. Its new mission: To provide basic training for individual Soldiers, many of them draftees. Fort Polk offered them their introduction to the military, and most would never forget the experience.
The number of Soldiers who trained at Fort Polk grew in correlation with the increased Army presence in Southeast Asia, where the U.S. was propping up the non-Communist government of South Vietnam. Training American Soldiers how to fight in difficult jungle conditions became a top priority, and again Fort Polk’s environment fit the bill. And so Tiger Land was born….
More than one million soldiers trained at Fort Polk during the Vietnam War. They trained in two simulated Vietnamese hamlets at Tiger Land which featured earthen berms, sharpened bamboo stake defenses, and booby-trap simulations. A sign at the entrance to the mock, thatched village welcomed trainees to “Tiger Land – Home of the Vietnam Combat Soldiers.
The realism of Tiger Land, was a foreshadowing to the mock Iraqi and Afghan villages that would pepper our training area more than 40 years later.
By 1969, Fort Polk had dispatched more soldiers to Vietnam than any other military post in the nation.
Fort Polk underwent major changes as the Vietnam War ended. Then-President Richard Nixon orchestrated elimination of the military draft, transforming the Army into an all-volunteer force. By 1974, boot camp for individual Soldiers at Fort Polk tapered off when the post took on a new role housing the storied 5th Infantry (Mechanized) Division.
In 1989, after months of deteriorating relations between the governments of the United States and that of Dictator Manuel Noriega of Panama, the situation became critical with the killing of a Marine officer and the harassment of American personnel by the Noriega forces. When it came time for U.S. President George H.W. Bush to stop Noriega's repressive regime, he called on the 5th Infantry (Mechanized) Division . Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama, opened in the first hours of December 20, 1989. The Division returned to their home station, Fort Polk, Louisiana, in late January.
In 1992, Fort Polk once again saw the end of an era when the Army ordered the 5th Infantry to deactivate and retired its colors.
In 1993, the Joint Readiness Training Center moved from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas to Fort Polk, thus beginning the installation’s reputation as the Army’s premier Combat Training Center.
During the 1990s, America’s Soldiers trained at JRTC and Fort Polk-based Soldiers deployed to Haiti, Southwest Asia, Suriname, Panama, Bosnia and more. As Fort Polk grew, so did the surrounding communities – as well as the support received by those communities.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001: a defining moment in American history. In October of that year, the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks. One and a half years later, on March 20, 2003, the Iraq War began.
Patriotism proliferated throughout the country and nowhere was that more evident than on Fort Polk as our Soldiers prepared for war.
JRTC rotations, always important, became a critical training tool for Soldiers. The overarching theme of the JRTC: “We want our Soldiers’ worst day to be here, rather than in a combat theater,” – a reminder that Fort Polk’s mission endures now -- and has since 1941.
Since 9/11, more than 1.6 million American Soldiers have deployed overseas, many of them two, three and four times. Fifty percent of those Soldiers trained here, at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk. Their Families have served and sacrificed, too.
On June 13, 2023, Fort Polk was redesignated as Fort Johnson in honor of the WWI Medal of Honor recipient, SGT Henry Johnson.
As Fort Johnson modernizes to meet the needs of the nation, so too does the Joint Readiness Training Center. The rotational model is no longer the mission rehearsal exercises that prepared our Soldiers for the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather the operational concept known as Decisive Action – a focus on Soldiers’ core competencies after a long, 14-year war. But as it has been since 1941, the mission remains the same: Preparing our Soldiers – and increasingly joint forces -- to train for whatever lies ahead.
Today, Fort Johnson is home to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division; 519th Military Police Battalion; the 32nd Hospital Center; the 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment; 3rd Battalion, 353rd Regiment; Medical Department Activity; Dental Activity; 46th Engineer Battalion; 705th Explosive Ordnance Detachment; and the 41st Transportation Company. These units, along with the U.S. Army Garrison all carry a tangible legacy of the men and women in uniform who have served Fort Johnson and our country throughout the years. That legacy is carried in the hearts and minds of our veterans, our Soldiers, our Families and the community in which we live.