The Great Depression settled like a wet, heavy blanket over the United States and Cooke County. People took whatever jobs were available, anything to put food on the table and pay the rent. It was the 1930s and times were hard.
In Gainesville, Chamber of Commerce officials were determined to find some way to help the local economy. They invited representatives from the military to visit the county, telling them that this area offered an excellent location for a military camp. Military officials did visit. With the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into WWII, the need for military training camps became even more imperative.
U.S. Congressman Ed Gossett, as detailed in The First 100 Years in Cooke County, telegraphed the Gainesville Daily Register on March 20, 1942, that an army camp was to be established in the county, and Gainesville moved to adjust itself for the momentous project.
Construction of the camp commenced in April, and in July construction of an air base was started five miles west of Gainesville.
The camp would encompass almost 59,000 acres of some of the best farm land in Cooke County and would be named Camp Howze, in honor of General Robert Lee Howze of Overton, Texas who had a distinguished army career. Construction of the camp provided numerous individuals with desperately needed employment. But, the camp also brought sorrow for 300 farm families who were forced to give up their land in order for the camp to be built.
Throughout the summer of 1942, civilian workers labored to prepare the camp for the coming influx of soldiers. By August 17, historian Michael Collins wrote,"most of the barracks, mess halls, and office buildings had been completed when Col. John P. Wheeler formally activated the hastily constructed post." Soldiers reported that the barracks consisted of tar paper nailed over boards. Each barrack was heated with one coal burning stove. Soldiers remembered the barracks as being cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Over 30,000 soldiers trained at the camp.*
Many of the first cadre of soldiers reported that the camp was not really completed when they arrived. They wrote of working on sidewalks, roads and buildings. In many ways, Camp Howze was like a city, larger than any other community in the county. The camp contained theaters, a hospital with more modern, up-to-date equipment than the hospital in Gainesville, and its own newspaper, the Camp Howze Howitzer, printed by the Gainesville Daily Register.
Three main divisions - the 84th, 86th and 103rd - and scores of smaller units trained at Camp Howze. Collins related that "engineers practiced building pontoon bridges at North Lake, while infantrymen performed tactical maneuvers on the open prairie." Artillerymen learned "gunnery skills on their firing range at Black Hollow, and armor units refined the techniques of tank deployment on the rolling grasslands of the reservation. Army infield reconnaissance aircraft flew mock missions in preparation for combat duty." They used live ammunition in their training, and for decades after the end of the war farmers in the area still plowed up both live and dud rounds of ammunition.
Almost 3,000 German prisoners-of-war were also incarcerated at Camp Howze. After a serious ice storm in the county in February 1945, the prisoners helped clean up debris and several worked for farmers in two Cooke County communities, Muenster and Lindsay. Many residents in those two towns could still speak German, the communities having been originally settled by German immigrants.
Cooke County realized enormous benefits from the presence of Camp Howze. In addition to the civilians who found jobs constructing the camp, hundreds more found employment on post during the war. The arrival of the soldiers and their families doubled the population of the county. Every structure that could possibly house the families was rented out and that included everything, even cleaned up chicken coops.
According to The First 100 Years in Cooke County, "bank deposits, postal receipts and public utility connections soared, and all municipal services were taxed to capacity to meet requirements." Six movie theaters operated in Gainesville and every restaurant was always full. Reportedly, the sidewalks were so crowded it was difficult to walk down them. Many marriages also occurred with several of the men who trained at Camp Howze coming back to live in the county after the end of the war.
A. Morton Smith, author of The First 100 Years in Cooke County, wrote "Gainesville ranked eighth among all cities and towns on the Santa Fe Lines in passenger ticket sales in 1944, standing ahead of such cities as Denver, Colorado, Ft. Worth and Houston due to the traffic involving officers and men stationed at Camp Howze and their families."
During the war years, the federal government pumped "an estimated $20 million into maintaining the facility, money which stimulated local economic activity. Business establishments, especially those in Gainesville, obviously then enjoyed substantial profit gains during these war year."
By 1946 with the war over, the transition back to a peacetime economy was underway. A government study determined that it would be too expensive to maintain Camp Howze as a permanent training facility.
As a result of the study, the Army ended its connection with Camp Howze, and in the fall of 1946 tore down the buildings at the camp, though not all of them. Some of the buildings from the camp, including one of the chapels which became the new home of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, were purchased by individuals and moved to different locations. The 1947 Howzeville, the area of the camp designated for civilian housing, the last area to be torn down. The air field was transferred to the city of Gainesville and currently serves as the city airport.
The site has a Texas Historical Marker. The city of Gainesville placed a memorial at the entrance of the airport for the three divisions who trained at the camp. In 2006, the 103rd Division installed a large monument at the Texas State Tourist Bureau in honor of their role in the war and the men from the division who died during that conflict.
Today, all that is left of the camp are the foundation blocks from the buildings and water tower. The area has become farmland once again.