Camp Ellis was massive. Not only did it encompass 17,760 acres, but it boasted about 2,200 buildings and was home to as many as 25,000 soldiers and officers at its peak.
Like any community, Camp Ellis had administration buildings, libraries, bakeries, laundries, schools, gymnasiums, stores, water and sewage systems, two landing strips and even a railroad spur.
One of the most impressive facilities was the 420-bed camp hospital, one of the largest and best equipped World War II Army hospitals in America. The longest corridor was an amazing 2,939 feet in length – that’s nearly 10 football fields laid end-to-end.
In 1944, the hospital made national headlines when famed brain surgeon Capt. Irving Steigel was flown to the camp to perform a delicate operation on Pfc. Joseph E. Dober. The 27-year-old private suffered a head injury when he accidentally fell from a truck. Dober’s life was saved.
In addition to training GIs, Camp Ellis housed German prisoners of war, beginning about month after the camp’s July 4, 1943 opening when about 1,000 POWS arrived. The camp would eventually house 5,000 POWs. Prisoners were assigned manual labor within the camp. Outside the camp, they worked in canneries, on construction projects and in farm fields. POWs received a daily allowance of a dime and 80 cents a day for maintenance work. Non-commissioned officers could voluntarily work in supervisory capacities while commissioned officers did not work.
Only four POWs died at Camp Ellis. Initially, the Germans were buried in the Dobbins Cemetery, a small family cemetery that lay within the camp. Following the war, the Germans’ remains were removed and re-interred at Fort Sheridan Cemetery near Chicago.
Following the war, the Army decided to keep the camp opened as an Army Ground Forces Training Center. However, this would be short-lived. Atomic Energy Commission plans to build a $26-million plant on the camp site fizzled and that was that.
A building and infrastructure liquidation sale was held on Nov. 9, 1950. According to newspaper accounts, the sale garnered $541,377.92. The larger buildings were acquired by commercial enterprises while area residents purchased the smaller units. A number of buildings went to Illinois and other Midwestern colleges and universities. Later, the land was sold and mostly returned to farming.
More than 125,000 were trained at Camp Ellis. Newsman and commentator Tom Brokaw gave these men and the others of that generation the name, “The Greatest Generation.” Authors Brett and Kate McCay made this fitting observation about them:
“Every generation has its share of men who fully live the art of manliness. But there may never have been a generation when the ratio of honorable men to slackers was higher than the one born between 1914 and 1929. These were the men that grew up during the Great Depression. They’re the men who went off to fight in the Big One. And they’re the men who came home from that war and built the nations of the Western world into economic powerhouses. They knew the meaning of sacrifice, both in terms of material possessions and of real blood, sweat, and tears. They were humble men who never bragged about what they had done or been through. They were loyal, patriotic, and level-headed. They were our Greatest Generation.”
Next: Visiting Camp Ellis today.