History of the 300th Combat Engineers, 1943 to 1945
Fort Belvoir, Virginia
By the end of June, 1940, engineers in the Army numbered 10,000 men. A year later, largely as a result of the war time draft, the number of engineers had grown to nearly 70,000. The rapid growth demonstrated the need for additional engineer training.
In 1940, plans were made to establish an Engineer Replacement Training Center (ERTC) and the natural site was an existing training site for Army engineers that predated World War I not far from Washington, DC. The training site was originally known as Camp Humphreys, later as Fort Humphreys, and finally as Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
By wartime in 1941, the Belvoir ERTC included headquarters, a headquarters company and two training groups, segregated by race. The "white" group consisted of 28 companies and the "colored" group had 12 companies. Each company had 229 trainees. The first group of 250 men arrived in March of 1941.
To prepare as replacements, the men embarked on a nearly 600 hour, 12-week course. The course covered some 40 subjects grouped as basic and general, weapons, combat engineer and pioneer. The training evolved and improved under the leadership of Brigadier General Edwin Hall Marks who led Fort Belvoir from 1941 to 1944.
Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 changed everything. The training concentration now was on demolitions, bridge building, road construction and obstacles. The training at Belvoir ERTC was the only training replacement engineers received before entering into combat.
By the spring of 1943, the focus moved from furnishing fillers for new units to replacing battle casualties. By summer 1943, the center adopted a 17-week training program designed to produce both adequately trained specialists and non-specialists. All trainees spent six weeks in basic training and specialists trained eight weeks in specialty courses. For the last three weeks, the two groups joined to train in combat conditions.
The Army highly valued the training of specialists at all engineer training centers from May 1941 to June 1944 when nearly 41,000 specialists were trained. The technical knowledge received through the engineer training programs was a distinctive characteristic of the engineer soldier.
In April 1944, the Belvoir ERTC, like all training centers, became an Army Services Training Center. The center now had the added mission of training for extended field service in various theaters of operation. After VJ-Day (Victory in Japan) the Belvoir center established a separation point to assist veterans returning to civilian life.
It was here at Ft. Belvoir that Jan Ross' father, Donald Ross, began his training. He would later join the 300th in England as a replacement in May, 1944 after making his transatlantic crossing on the Ile de France in March. Jan Ross, and her husband, Brad Peters, are the authors of this history.
(Information for this description of the Belvoir ERTC came from the book Builders and Fighters.)
Don Ross, father of Jan Ross (co-author of this site), was one of a few of the men of the 300th who were trained as replacement engineers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. What follows quotes are from letters home to his mother in Springfield, MA.This letter of July 4, 1943 (before the replacement unit left Fort Belvoir for Europe) provides some insight into engineer training:
Just a few things today on July 4th to let you know how things are down in this neck of the woods, we are all pretty god damn happy here today, yesterday we took first place for qualification for rifle marksmanship, that is our platoon did. We beat fifteen other platoons in the 1st Battalion and we set a new high record of 98.3 percent for ourselves. The highest it has been at Ft. Belvoir. All but one of us got a medal for shooting. I'm supposed to get one for a marksman. It's a pretty special feeling and we've really got something to be cocky about now. The engineers have always been cocky and full of fight but the whole bunch of us just felt as if we could go out and lick the whole Axis Army now. Our Lt. is so happy he doesn't know if he is coming or going. It really feels pretty swell. Our platoon commander says this the shootingest outfit he ever saw. Today you couldn't find a happier outfit anywhere. They are giving us extra special meals today, as sort of a present. Even some corn-on-the-cob and watermelon and ice cream. I'm listening to the corporals radio while writing this and we just had a program right here from theater number one in Camp Belvoir with the 31st Engineers Band and 31st Engineers Dance Orchestra 1, it was pretty swell, especially hearing your own outfit come over the air line. We've got the whole day off so most of us are just going to loaf around & catch up on a few odds and ends.
There won't be any Fourth of July celebrations down here today, they had planned to have us parade in Washington this afternoon but it's been called off for us, somebody else is doing it. I haven't seen anything of Virginia except what is in Camp and that is mostly all woods. We haven't been outside the area at all. However, the toughest part is over now so I reckon we'll all come out together on August 28th, that is the day when our course is finished, then we each get a 10-day furlough so the word goes around down here. Has Wallie [his brother] fixed my car yet? Tell him to get it jacked up anyway as the tires will be ruined. I received the three packages that you mentioned. I also received the Devil's Food cake, I might mention that it didn't last long after I opened it. The boys and myself sure cleaned it up. They all send their thanks & I hope you will send some more soon. I also received a package of writing paper from Flossie [his sister] yesterday, I think.
Well, thanks for all the stuff, it sure came in handy. The Maylou sisters just came on the radio with Olivio the boy yodeler. It's seems good to listen to that again. I can't think of anything more to say so I guess I'll check off - Bye -
Excerpts from other letters from Don Ross while he was in training at Fort Belvoir:
June 5, 1943 - We left Devens [Ft. Devens, MA] on Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and arrived at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia about 10:00 a.m. Thursday morning. About 400 of us went down in a troop train made up of tourist Pullman cars. We finally got here and they had a Company Band to meet us. We marched up to Camp and it made us all feel swell. Is my car still there? I will have to write Wallie for I didn't jack it up.
July 4, 1943 - We are pretty damn happy here today, yesterday we were first place for qualification in rifle marksmanship, that is our platoon did. We beat 15 other platoons in the 1st Battalion and we set a new high record of 98.3 for ourselves, the highest it has ever been at Ft. Belvoir. It's a pretty swell feeling and we've really got something to be cocky about. The Engineers have always been cocky and full of fight but the whole bunch of us feel as if we could go out and kick the whole Axis Army now. Our Platoon Commander says this is the shootin'est outfit he ever saw.
June 13, 1943 - Went on a five mile hike last Wednesday and we're going on another one this Tuesday. We're on the go from 5:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. every day but Sunday. They're trying to crowd a 6 month course into 12 weeks, well, maybe they can do it. Ft. Belvoir is 12 miles outside of Alexandria, VA. and 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C. Maybe I'll get in there some Sunday. Did Wallie come in to fix my car yet?
June 26, 1944 - Don't forget to have Wallie fix my car please.
July 7, 1943 - I told you in the letter I wrote Sunday that our Platoon won the championship in rifle marksmanship, well we were awarded the Battalion Cup last night at Retreat Parade. Our Lieutenant is pretty pleased with it and keeps it in his room. Tonight we are supposed to do a little celebrating because of the cup. We plan to have dinner in Washington, D.C. and later we are to meet a party of WAVES and take them on a moonlight pleasure cruise on the Potomac River as far as Mt. Vernon, George Washington's old homestead.
We are practically finished with our basic Army training and about all we'll get now will be regular Engineer training, building roads, barricades, bridges, and so on. After we get them built, we tore them down or mostly blew them up with dynamite, TNT, nitrostarch or Composition C - a new Army Engineer explosive. We are also starting to dig foxholes and trenches. I was in a foxhole when a tank (17tons) ran over it the other day.
July 11, 1943 - Our platoon party scheduled for last Friday night was called off and moved ahead until this coming Friday night. I hope it goes off. I hear Wallie has got my car fixed. I don't think that I'll be needing it for a while.
July 15, 1943 - Last night there was another 10-mile hike, started at 8:00 p.m. and got back here about 11:15 p.m. Had to get up at 4:30 a.m. this morning. Our party is coming off tomorrow night as planned except that we are to eat at the Ambassador Hotel instead of the American Legion Club. Thirty-five WAVES are coming with us. P.S. Tell Wallie to leave my car up on jacks.
July 22, 1943 - I went to Washington last Friday night on the party. I'm afraid some of us had a little too much to drink but we all got back to Camp on time. It really was a swell time. The WAVES were swell. We didn't go on the boat cruise but threw a little party at the Ambassador Hotel. Oh well, it's the last time the outfit will be together as they are starting to break it up. Don't bother about my car - just leave it up on jacks so the tires don't give out as I might be using it shortly.
July 25, 1943 - I've moved out of the Eng. R.T.C., our basic training is over now. We were supposed to have 12 weeks but Saturday they shifted 4 of us over here to attend school. It's pretty nice over here, swell brick buildings and all. I'm having a course in Water Purification. I don't know what it's all about but I think I can hold it. Our course starts Monday and from what I hear it's going to be damn interesting. Leave my car where it is, as I don't think that I'll be needing it for some time.
August 23, 1943 - The course is going along ok. Passed all my exams last week, so I'm still in the running. Start going out in the field again tomorrow on the mobiles. Have to eat out of mess kits again, damn it. Done some more driving with the mobiles Sat. afternoon and guess I'll get it right along now. If things get a little tight, let me know, I still can raise a couple of hundred on my car.
August 29, 1943 - They're kind of stepping the program up again now, went over the obstacle course yesterday afternoon again. The Lieutenant fell in the creek 4 times, full uniform too, he's only a little shrimp and can't jump that far until he grows up. Been out in the field all week on mobile units, have a lot of fun out there. Saw Joe Louis fight down here last night, it was on the air also - WOL - Washington Mutual network carried it at 10:45 p.m. It's the first boxing program I've seen since I've been here.
September 5, 1943. Did Wallie come in and fix up my car this weekend. I hope he does soon.
October 10, 1943 - We had a big Regimental Review and Parade yesterday afternoon, band and all. It really went over big. Saturday morning we had our final exams, it wasn't too tough but a lot of the boys went under. I still had 3rd place from the top, there was a 98 and a 96 ahead of me. I got 95 which I'm satisfied with.
January 6, 1944 - I'm still down here and guess I will be here for a while. Had a letter from Wallie and he says his deferment is up. I hope he don't have to go but I'm afraid he can't get out of it. Might as well make the most of it.
Note: Don Ross left Ft. Belvoir and the States in March, 1944. He joined the 300th Combat Engineers as a replacement from the 446th Replacement Battalion on May 17, 1944 with specialty training in water purification.