World War II Amphibious Training on the Hatcher’s Run Battlefields

Lake Jordan Obstacle Course in the 1940s (Fort Lee Traveller)

The Petersburg area Civil War battlefields are famously known as a training ground for the United States Army during World War I. Due to the prevalence of trench warfare, the area was a logical choice for the establishment of a military base in 1917—Camp Lee. Two and a half decades later, the Army held amphibious training on the Dinwiddie County battlefields connected to the Petersburg Campaign as part of the mobilization for World War II.

In 1940, Army officials anticipated the need to expand what had begun as the Quartermaster Corps School in Philadelphia in 1910. Camp Lee offered ample space to build new facilities to increase the program’s scope. On October 6, 1941, the Quartermaster School reopened near Petersburg. The surrounding area, much of which had been fought over during the Civil War, offered additional training opportunities.

During the Civil War, the New York native Burgess family had operated a tavern and mill on Hatcher’s Run near the junction of Boydton Plank Road and White Oak Road. The battle of Burgess Mill (October 27, 1864) centered on their property and additional engagements were fought nearby, including Hatcher’s Run (February 5-7, 1865), White Oak Road (March 31, 1865), and the initial Union Second Corps attacks that led to the fighting at Sutherland Station (April 2, 1865).

In the 1920s the area was developed into a summer resort known as Beck’s Beach. The Quartermaster Association purchased this 200-acre property in 1943. They renamed the 84-acre pond Lake Jordan in honor of Brigadier General Richard Henry Jordan, a former Assistant Quartermaster General who was instrumental in acquiring the property, and intended for the space to be used for recreation.

1943 USGS Map – Sutherland, Va. Quadrant

With the country fully engaged in World War II, pressing mobilization needs demanded the area’s use for military training. The Quartermaster School had likewise realized the importance of preparing its students for the inevitably of combat. In October 1943, three hundred officer candidates used Lake Jordan for a 36-hour training maneuver, at the time “the largest land and amphibious operation ever attempted by the school.”[1] The Richmond-Times Dispatch offered a detailed chronicle of the training exercise:

“A simulated attack problem, involving the amphibious landing of quartermaster troops in enemy-held territory, was posed for 300 cadets of the Officers’ Candidate School at Camp Lee yesterday when they were turned loose at historic Hatcher’s Run in Dinwiddie County and told they were ‘on their own.’

“Infantry assault boats, designed for use in ferrying land troops across inland lakes and rivers, were used in the operation—the first time such craft have been employed in the training of quartermaster units.

“The maneuver was staged, in the words of Brigadier-General George A. Horkan, commandant of the school and senior officer commanding the operation, ‘to teach the prospective officers the value of leadership in combat and how to handle men and materials in actual fighting.’

“Shortly after dawn the cadets, arriving at Lake Jordan, the new name given the big lake at Hatcher’s Run, in a shuttle transportation which utilized spare motor equipment to the best advantage, scurried down the north shore of the lake and into the trim little assault boats.

“Other small craft, which had sneaked in near the ‘enemy’ held southern shore laid down an effective smoke screen as a squadron of Thunderbolts from the Richmond Air Base—simulating the ‘enemy’s’ air force—soared low over the operation to bomb and strafe the attacking troops. The air show lent realism to the scene with the graceful Thunderbolts skimming the treetops to protect the enemy position on the south shore of the lake.

“The assault forces never wavered, however, and after a few minutes of vigorous rowing—the infantry boats are not powered—they broke through the protecting smoke screen and clambered up the banks into the fire of the enemy. Soon the beachhead position was consolidated as the enemy retreated, theoretically before the superior attacking force, into the woods south of the lake.

Hatcher’s Run Amphibious Crossing (Richmond Times Dispatch, October 16, 1943)

“Immediately the attackers sent out reconnaissance squads to probe the enemy positions, the main force following cautiously through the maze of brush and booby traps. Pseudo land mines were exploded on every hand as the cadets ferreted out the ingenuous booby traps and touched them off to clear the way for the advance.

“Fanning out through the dense woods, the men planted camouflaged snipers in trees to pick off unwary enemy patrols, while the main forces pushed forward to established a command post half a mile inland, set up emergency dressing station, a salvage post and a graves registration section.

“While this was going on, other troops were constructing dummy installations off the left flank to mislead the enemy’s air force and lure the Thunderbolts away from the actual installations deep in the woods. Another touch of realism was added by a sound truck which wailed an air raid alarm which resounded throughout the area.

“The squadron of planes didn’t stay long in the vicinity due to the unfavorable weather for observation and photographic reconnaissance.

“By noon the attacking force not only had gained its foothold on the south side of the lake, but had established necessary units and had brought up supplies. Even the work of salvaging equipment theoretically abandoned by the enemy forced back from the lake was well under way, but it probably will be some time today before all the trucks, staff cars and miscellaneous equipment is gathered up by the salvage units.

“The attacking cadets slept on the ground they won last night, pitching their pup tents in the woods, resplendent with the magic touch of Fall, and digging slit trenches among the trees. The bivouac was scattered over a wide area and effectively concealed by camouflage.

“General Horkan and his staff covered the attack area continuously during the early stages of the operation, noting errors in command and in the disposition of troops in preparation for the critique which will follow conclusion of the maneuver today.

“Live ammunition was not used in the operation. Blank rifle and pistol cartridges were employed for sound effects and fireworks bombs took the place of the destructive grenades and land mines.

“One major blow struck by the enemy early in the action was pointed out by the umpiring officers to explain the necessity for the amphibious assault. This was the destruction of a highway bridge by aerial bombing near the east end of the lake, blocking the approach to the objective point on the south shore by land.

“This bridge spans the small stream at the site of the fierce battle in the War Between the States, when General Grant sought to turn the flank of Lee’s army before Petersburg.

“General Horkan took time out from his observation of the maneuver yesterday to explain to ‘war correspondents’ accompanying the attackers the intricate purposes of the action.

“‘These cadets,’ he said, ‘are prospective officers, and as such they may lead men in actual combat. Their job as quartermaster officers will be to get supplies and equipment to the fighting forces, an in doing that they must know enough about actual combat to be able to protect themselves and the supplies in their charge.

“‘The purpose of this operation is to teach these cadets primarily how to protect themselves and how to command troops under adverse conditions. They know how to handle a company of men back in camp, but this is the first time they have had the opportunity to command men scattered through difficult terrain and under fire.

“‘They are out there on their own and the lessons they learn, we hope, will save many lives if they ever go into actual combat.’

“The general also pointed out that the maneuver is designed to give the men instruction in the important task of salvaging equipment, taking care of their wounded and properly registering the graves of those killed in action. The whole maneuver area was strewn with equipment from discarded bayonets to supply trucks. The salvage troops were assigned the task of finding this equipment and collecting it and it proved to be one of the more tedious phases of the task.

“During the two days the men are on maneuver they will live on the regulation field ration. No field kitchens accompanied the unit and the men were required to prepare their own meals from the concentrated foods issued to them. They were told they could warm the tinned meats, make soup or eat the food in any form they desired. Most of them ate it cold out of the compact little waterproof packages.”[2]

Horkan considered the training exercise a success and continued running it through the end of the war. “Historic Hatchers Run provides terrain of a still different type for training quartermaster troops,” observed a Camp Lee soldier in 1944. “Problems involving transportation of supplies over small bodies of water are worked out by the students themselves who thereby learn the priceless attributes of leadership as they conquer the hazards of plane-strafing of their shallow draft boats, or maintaining their courses of direction under unfriendly smoke screens to reach the far shore and wiggle their way up the bluff through exploding mine fields and simulated enemy fire to set up supply points and their own individual and unit security.”[3]

I cannot speak to the performance during the Second World War of any of the newly minted second lieutenants who trained at Hatcher’s Run. My research to date has never involved tracking service records in the 1940s. Undoubtedly some went on to use their experience in Europe or the Pacific. Regardless, a page layout for the June 8, 1944 Danville Bee demonstrated the relevance of the mock amphibious expeditions across Lake Jordan. An article about the Hatcher’s Run training appeared next to those about the D-Day landings at Normandy.

Danville Bee, June 8, 1944

The training complex retooled for the Pacific Theater in 1945. The Richmond Times-Dispatch observed: “Amphibious landing operations at Lake Jordan have been expanded to include a Pacific supply point.”[4] When not in use as a training ground, Army buses brought Camp Lee soldiers out to Lake Jordan for fishing, boating, swimming, and barbecues.

Richmond Times Dispatch, June 23, 1946

Lake Jordan received its most famous visitor the following year. After Dwight Eisenhower toured Camp Lee on June 22, 1946, he proceeded to Lake Jordan. “‘Ike’ grimly sweated it out on the officers’ club pier during the noon hour, putting in 45 minutes of lunchtime fishing without success,” noted the Times-Dispatch, which also commented “the former supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force lost his bait a number of times.”[5]

The site was turned over to local developers in the 1970s. Today a residential neighborhood spans both sides of the lake.

 

Sources:

[1] “Hatcher’s Run Will Be Scene of Maneuvers.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 15, 1943.

[2] James B. Gibson, “300 Camp Lee Cadets ‘Attack’ Hatcher’s Run.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 16, 1943.

[3] Ralph A. Habas, “QM School Marks Birthday,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 15, 1944.

[4] Al Abrams, “Emphasis on Pacific War,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 29, 1945.

[5] “Camp Lee Fish Wouldn’t Bite for Gen. ‘Ike,’” Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 23, 1946.

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1 Response to World War II Amphibious Training on the Hatcher’s Run Battlefields

  1. Chris Mackowski says:

    Great piece!

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