On December 15, 1935, I celebrated by 17th birthday. Four months later I was inducted into the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Having passed our physical exams, we were sworn in and loaded onto a troop train the following afternoon. This train contained over 200 enrollees out of Dallas, Texas. Altogether, the train had over 300 enrollees, with U.S. Army personnel in charge. When we asked our destination, we were informed: “You will find out when we get there.” I strongly suspect, at that point in time, the U.S. Army violated our civil rights. However, we had never been told this unknown fact; we remained totally unaware we had civil rights until 30 years later.
We traveled that afternoon and all night and arrived in Williams, Ariz. The next evening at dusk, we were divided into truck-load lots and dispersed across northern Arizona. I was very fortunate to have been placed in the group slated for Company 819, which was situated about 300 feet south and 200 feet east of the old water tower in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.
We were all dressed in very light clothing and never dreamed we would wind up in such high altitudes as exist in northern Arizona. Needless to say, we were chilled to the bone when we arrived at camp about 1 a.m. On the way, I was standing directly behind and in the center of the truck cab. I could see both the right and left sides of the road. The smells of pine and juniper were completely foreign to me. As we approached the entry area of the park, seeing the ponderosas outlined against the night sky is something I will never forget. I will forever love this place. Time has in no way diminished this feeling.
The first few days in camp were devoted to another physical exam, inoculations, clothing issue and indoctrination. Afterwards, we were assigned to various work projects. During the first year in camp, I worked quarrying flagstone near Cameron, at the sewage disposal plant, as a barracks orderly and an ambulance driver. The next one and one-half years, I was assigned to the Naturalist Department as assistant to Dr. Edwin D. McKee. This association with Dr. McKee will forever effect my life; he inspired me to greater goals. I achieved the rank of a directional drilling engineer, drilled oil wells and traveled in over 60 countries throughout the world over a 35 year span. I shall forever be indebted to Dr. Edwin D. McKee.
I am adding a brief history of the Corps. It touches on the roles we played during the 16 most turbulent years of the 20th Century and brought us to middle age. It is entitled:
A journey of 100 years on a hard rocky road to nowhere
March 31, 2002, marks the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was made up of 225,000 World War I veterans, plus over three and one-quarter million youths between the ages of 17 and 28 years. During the three and one-half years between the stock market crash and the creation of the Corps, these men would pay a very dear price that would forever effect their lives.
In the case of the World War I veterans, many would march on Washington in 1932 in an attempt to get early payment of their promised war bonuses. They effected a peaceful demonstration towards this end; they erected a shanty town in which to live on the Capitol grounds. All this became a major embarrassment for the administration.
These men were facing extremely dire straits, they were hungry and in need. Instead of helping them, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur branded them as communist troublemakers, unleashed the U.S. Army on them with bayonets, tanks and cavalry in the wee hours of the night, drove them from the field and sacked and burned out their dwellings and belongings. I was about 14, selling papers on the streets, when this happened.
I could not believe the headlines. I feel very strongly that this government owes these men an apology, even though there are only a few of them left. I knew some of these men who suffered injuries from mustard gas; they were a horrible sight to see — I can still hear their struggles to breathe.
For the young men that made up the Corps, a great number had to drop out of school in order to provide for their families. The end result of all this: the average grade level for the entire Corps was eighth-grade. During the past three decades, I have gathered stories from these men as to how they and their families survived those first three and one-half years of the Depression. What I heard borders on the unbelievable. One fellow told me recently that his mother would get her seven children out of bed at 4 a.m. and the entire family would go to some horse stables, break apart the pieces of manure and glean out the whole grains of undigested oats or corn – this was their means of survival. Another man, raised in the Dakotas, told me his family survived by harvesting tumbleweeds in their early-growth stage. They chopped them up like green beans and canned them for winter use and ate them in summer for as long as they lasted. As for myself, I still hear the sobbing of my siblings as they cried themselves to sleep because of the hunger in their bellies.
The origins of the three and one-quarter million young men in the Corps were from the 25 percent of the nation’s unemployed. During the nine and one-third years of their existence, the men of the Corps restored this nation. Over 360 Civil War battle fields and 4,000 historic structures were restored; four billion trees were planted; they constructed 60,000 buildings, 38,500 bridges and the Great Smoky Mountain and Bandelier National Parks — even the Presidential Retreat, Camp David. Thousands of miles of roads, trails, fences, telephone and electrical lines, dams, reservoirs and lakes were either built or restored by the Corps.
The Corps’ greatest project was restoration of the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains. They furnished the labor that surveyed and staked out the contoured furrows for the farmer to follow in order to contain the erosion of our precious soils, planted wind breaks to harness the wind, hauled and spread limestone to sweeten the earth again, sodded and reseeded thousands upon thousands of acres of land, repaired the washed-out gullies and built check dams. This part of the country is now once again the great producing bread basket of America.
On Jan. 8, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the Congress for an increase to 158,000 officers and men for the U.S. Army, which included the Air Force at that time. By the year’s end, two and one-half million men were in or had passed through the Corps. They had learned vocations that would be extremely useful to the military at the outbreak of hostilities with the axis powers four years later. In my opinion, they were a ready-made cadre absorbed into our armed forces during the first two years of conflict. They, in fact, became a large part of the backbone forces of that early conflict. We also believe 2.5 million of these men served in the armed forces; that equates to 166 divisions and one more for the officers (reserves) and that totals 167 divisions; men who were labor-hardened, with vocations that helped make up our Armed Forces at the beginning.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was swallowed up by the armed forces. I believe they made up 25 percent of that group. They perhaps made up 62 percent of all those American forces that defended Bataan and Corregidor, plus the U.S. Marines that invaded Guadal Canal. John Basilone, an ex-CCC enrollee, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, plus the Navy Cross, for his defense of his position. Another ex-CCC’er, Tony Stein, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his initial assault on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.
Two others, Michael Strank and Ira Hamilton Hays, helped raise the flag atop Mount Suribachi. Hays was the only one of the four that returned alive to American soil. He too became a casualty of the flag raising; he returned to the States and was assigned to selling war bonds. He simply could not allow himself to be portrayed as an American hero for the mere fact he had raised the flag. He took to drink and died in a gutter in Chicago. In my opinion, he was a hero of the first order.
In October of 1983, the CCC Alumni Association held its 50th anniversary convention at Eagle River, Wis. Prior to that date, we invited President Reagan, Vice President Bush and the Secretary of the Interior to address and honor the 3.5 million Corpsmen for their great contribution to this nation and its freedom. They all declined, as had each President since our yearly conventions began. Shortly after Reagan declined, he crossed the Atlantic to pay tribute to the dead German SS.
For nothing else, the Presidents should have thanked the CCC for constructing Camp David, the retreat they all seem to have enjoyed for the past 67 years. High-ranking government officials seem to pay tribute and bestow honors to show-business personalities and sport teams. For all the men who labored to rebuild this nation, who suffered and died to help preserve it, there has never been even a thank you for a job well done. From the time Reagan started running for office, all he could talk about were American values. Something is wrong, for in no way can I correlate his sense of values to those we, the CCCers, lived our lives by.
To the nation’s historians, to our elected leaders and the heads of our education systems, you all should hang your collective heads in shame for the treatment accorded these men and the trashing of our history. Case in point: Mr. Tom Brokaw recently published his book, “The Greatest Generation.” He completely deleted these 3.5 million men who made up the CCC. In all probability, for all the years he has lived, he walked the trails, camped in some of the 800 state parks, fished in the thousands of lakes we created and did not know from where these things came. In my opinion, he simply did not know anything about us. Tom Brokaw, we harbor no hard feelings, you are a victim along with the Baby Boomers and all the generations since.
I close with a poem I composed while driving across southern Kansas on Route 54 westward on my return from our 50th anniversary. This area was the approximate center of the Dust Bowl. The poem tells the story of these CCC men, together with what happened to many of them.
Following that is an expression regarding our legacy. Both the poem and what I call our “epitaph,” I wrote in 1983. America, I say this to you: We were your true and faithful sons, we served you in hunger and hopelessness. We never faltered or lost our faith. The bodies of our comrades abide in the depths of the seven seas, on a thousand faraway battlefields and in local graveyards all over America. All we have ever asked of you is recognition.
I gaze across vast fields of grain
That spread far beyond these western plains
Where contoured furrows weave and flow
To yonder hills you knew of yore
Where, in your youth, you labored so,
To plant the trees, reclaim the land
You did so many things that stand
And, as you labored there, “Oh, did you hear that distant thunder in the air?”
It called for you, “Oh, silent ones,”
From far-off shores you never knew
You would know the sound
Of shot and shell
Screams of death, the fiery hell.
For four long years, you struggled there
You dreamed of home and things to be
But dreams are never as they seem
And now you sleep on far-off shores.
And, in the place you called your home,
Those trees you planted now reach the sky.
They spread to yonder mountains high
Where even eagles dare to fly.
Hear their screams,
“Remember Me, Remember Me.”
To the future generations of Americans … we men of the CCC, who labored to restore this great mother land … pass it into your hands. Her productivity fuels the torch of freedom. Neglect and weaken her and the flame will die, and you shall surely perish. Keep her production of natural resources strong and she will reward you and keep you free forever. If you future generations see fit to raise voices in song of praise for us, we will consider this our reward.
– From a proposed plaque for a CCC memorial
Like the great Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream, and that is one day a duly-elected president of these United States of America will, while delivering the State of the Union address, call before him an ex-CCC enrollee or the president of our alumni associations and bestow upon that person, as a unit citation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Perhaps this would help preserve our history. The century has ended, we are out of time. If our ears are ever to hear the singing of our song, the time is now.
(Editor’s note: Roy Lemons, who lives in Rio Communities, served in the Civilian Conservation Corps from April, 1936, to September, 1938, in Company 819 at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He presented this essay to the membership of the CCC’s alumni association at a recent meeting.)