Fort Polk, once called Camp Polk, has seen many openings and closings.
After World War II in early 1946 Camp Polk was downsized to a medical training facility, then declared inactive and closed in December of the same year. The once training facility that prepared thousands of soldiers for World War II stood quiet for four years.
In August, 1950 the camp was opened to meet the demand for troops during the Korean War, then closed in 1954. The population of Leesville dropped from 14,000 to 6,000. Some 800 houses stood empty. Business activity dropped by two-thirds. The annual payroll of $54 million vanished almost overnight. How could then Colonel Eisenhower play such an important part in opening the army base close it as President of the United States, people asked?
Due to growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, called the Cold War and the Red Scare, fear of nuclear war became a concern. Families and communities built bomb shelters. Schools had duck and cover drills. People were blacklisted. Thousands lost their jobs. The Red Scare changed many lives.
The Army started searching for a place to conduct maneuvers to prepare for a possible nuclear war. Seven million acres for the maneuver were needed. Camp Polk in Louisiana and Fort Hood in Texas (declared a fort in 1950) were the two Army bases considered for the maneuver. In June, 1955 some 350 people packed in the Vernon Parish courthouse for a meeting held by chamber of commerce president Winford Morris and Mayor R. J. Fertitta. The business and political leaders asked landowners to sign documents giving the army permission to use their land. The strong support from the community and Fort Hood's more urban geography with limited space gave Camp Polk the advantage. Soon U.S. Senators Russell Long and Allen Ellender announced that the Army would reopen Camp Polk and it would be declared a permanent installation and renamed Fort Polk. The new installation would train the military for nuclear war.
Once boarded businesses in Leesville were reopened. Leaking roofs were repaired. Broken windowpanes were replaced. Dust from dust-covered rafters covered dancing soldiers. Former Camp Polk workers returned to Fort Polk to old jobs. People filled the streets once again.
Just as the 1940-1944 Louisiana Maneuvers prepared soldiers for conventional war, the 1955 Louisiana Maneuver, also called Operation Sagebrush, prepared soldiers for nuclear war. Unlike the 1940s maneuvers that involved 470,000 soldiers for months, Operation Sagebrush involved 85,000 troops for fifteen days. Including prep personnel and prep time, the maneuver involved 110,000 soldiers and 30,000 airmen for 45 days from October 31 to December 15, 1955.
In the maneuver the provisional army, meant to represent the U.S. forces, was built around the 9th Field Army. It was made up of the 1st Armored Division, 3rd Infantry Division, and the 77th Special Forces Group. The army units were supported by the 366th and 405th Fighter Bomber Wing, 345th Light Bomber Group, 363rd TAC Recon Wing, 507th TAC Air Command Group, and the 11th Tactical Missile Flight. The aggressor army was made up of the 18th Airborne Corps, 4th Armored Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Air support was provided by the 312th Fighter Bomber Wing, 479th Fighter Day Wing, 461st Light Bomber Wing, 363rd TAC Recon Wing, and the 507th TAC Air Command Control.
The maneuver area was bordered by the Sabine River to the west, Lake Charles to the south, Arkansas to the north, and an imaginary line from Lake Charles through Alexandria to Monroe to the east. The center of fighting was Sabine, Natchitoches, and Vernon Parishes on Peason Ridge and Fort Polk, once called Camp Polk.
The people of Cenla were amazed by the weaponry they didn't see in the 1940s. The new, "flying contraption", called a helicopter, amazed the population. No more horse cavalry units of the 1940s, instead soldiers traveled in Jeeps, trucks, and personnel carriers. No more small tanks, instead the Army's new M-18 Patton tanks were much larger and heavier than World War II. Jets with afterburners replaced the propeller planes.
The weapon that amazed all, even the military, was the army's Atomic Annie, also known as the M65 280mm atomic cannon. The gun barrel was a 280mm (11 inches) diameter cannon which could fire a 15 kiloton nuclear projectile 20 miles, even though some who worked on the gun said 35 miles (a 15 kiloton bomb, called Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima). The problem with the cannon was weight and size. It weighed 94,000 pounds (47 tons) and because it was 39 feet long, it had to be moved by a front truck and rear truck. The length and weight of the two trucks plus the cannon were 85 feet long and 168,000 pounds (84 tons), which is why the cannon was discontinued by the military and replaced with a much smaller 203mm (8 inch) howitzer.
Many who lived through the 1940s maneuvers and the 1955 maneuver reported the 1955 maneuver was more life changing. Late November and early December, 1955 were wetter than normal. Roads were muddy and vehicles bogged down. Bridges collapsed. Culverts stopped up and roads became rivers. Army vehicles were more numerous and heavier. More engineer units were needed to keep roads open. On cloudy days jets flew lower just over the treetops.
Was Operation Sagebrush a success? Obviously, nuclear war never happened. Fort Polk was declared a permanent army installation, even though it would close again in June, 1959. The "sky cav concept", which was the use of helicopters to move troops, was used in Vietnam ten years later in the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. The 1st Armored Division returned to Fort Hood. Even though much was learned in Operation Sagebrush, the army considered it to be a failure. The maneuver showed the military the U.S. was not ready for nuclear war.