A few days after his transfer from Fort Wolters, Texas to Fort Ord, California in 1943, Army Staff Sergeant Charles Otto Campbell wrote to his girlfriend, Phyllis, “This place is paradise, baby.” Campbell, known as Chuck to his friends and family, was awestruck by the “almost unbelievable weather” at Fort Ord, as well as by the “beautiful Pacific Ocean.” The nearby town of Monterey was full of interesting diversions. Four days later, in another letter to Phyllis, he declared himself “in love with this camp.”
Chuck Campbell was one of nearly 1.5 million servicemen and women who passed through Fort Ord from 1917 to 1994, when it was closed by the military. The Veterans History Project (VHP) has oral history interviews and other materials pertaining to over 1100 of these veterans—and will soon add the stories of nearly 100 more, in the form of oral history interviews conducted by students at California State University, Monterey Bay, which occupies a portion of the former base, and in conjunction with the Veterans Transition Center, also a resident of the base.
These interviews are part of a larger effort on the part of CSUMB Professor Enid Baxter Ryce to document the unique military history and sense of place of Fort Ord—even as the physical presence of the base ceases to exist. In addition to VHP interviews, the work of Ryce and her students has resulted in a website (Planet Ord) and a multimedia exhibit currently on display at the Monterey Museum of Art. Entitled “Insignias of Fort Ord: Art in Everyday Military Life,” the exhibit uses visual art to document the history of those who served at Fort Ord, through drawings and sketches of veterans and unit insignias, and also illustrates the artistic elements of the base itself. Soldiers at Fort Ord literally made their mark on the landscape in the form of murals painted on the walls of the base; since it was decommissioned, these murals have languished.
As his letters testify, Fort Ord and Monterey were important places for Chuck Campbell, as they were for other veterans who served there, many of whom chose to reside nearby after the end of their military service. The connection between military history and sense of place has been a particular fascination of mine (I wrote about it in this blog post on Washington, DC, and will continue to explore it in upcoming blog posts profiling other cities and military bases), and the interviews conducted at CSUMB offer an opportunity for Monterey veterans to tell their stories within the context of a particular place.
If you are in the Monterey area, we welcome you to attend a presentation given by Rachel Mears, head of VHP collections, myself, and student interviews and veterans, in conjunction with the “Insignias of Fort Ord” exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art. Details on the events (held at the Museum and CSUMB) are here and here.