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History of Fort Eustis

Fort Eustis is known for its association with Army Transportation, Army Aviation, and as the home to the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. But Fort Eustis and its predecessor Camp Eustis have a history that includes many branches of the Army. In 1914 the world was thrown into chaos by the start of World War One, the Great War.  America entered the war in 1917. By 1918, millions had died, and the war was locked in a deadly stalemate. After a year of combat, Army leaders determined that more and better-trained heavy artillery Soldiers were needed. The task to create a new camp to train Soldiers in heavy artillery fell to the Coast Artillery, headquartered at Fort Monroe, Virginia.

The camp needed to be within 30 miles of Fort Monroe, easily secured from intruders, have adequate water, railroad facilities, roads, and be of reasonable cost. Mulberry Island was the only location that possessed all of the desired attributes. The peninsula between the Warwick and James Rivers had been named Mulberry Island by English colonists in 1610. The land had been home to Native Americans for thousands of years before the English came and settled here 1618. Over the three hundred years from 1618 to 1918 Mulberry Island was a microcosm of American history. Native Americans, colonists, indentured servants, enslaved Africans, Soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, freed men and women, and their former owners rebuilding after the devastation of the Civil War, all were here and have left their mark on this historic landscape. The most visible remains are the home of colonist Matthew Jones and the twelve field fortifications built for Confederate soldiers mainly by enslaved African-Americans. The traces of all who called Mulberry Island home can be revealed on the two hundred and thirty-four archaeological sites that are on Fort Eustis.

On March 19, 1918, the War Department authorized the construction of Camp Eustis for the purpose of concentrating, organizing, equipping, training, and embarking troops for duty abroad as field artillery, railway artillery, trench mortar, and anti-aircraft troops. The camp’s namesake MG Abraham Eustis was born in 1786 in Petersburg, Virginia, he proved his valor in the War of 1812 and the Seminole Wars. He commanded the School of Artillery Practice at Fort Monroe from 1824 to 1834.

With the location and name of the new camp determined, construction began. The construction employed over 39,000 men including brick layers, carpenters, electricians, truck drivers, mechanics, and laborers. They were paid between 30 to 85 cents an hour. On June 7, 1918, eighty days after the order to begin, 100 Soldiers of Battery D, 61st Coast Artillery, arrived and Camp Eustis was open for business.  


Approximately 20,000 men were trained at Camp Eustis during the Great War. They were members of Anti-Aircraft Battalions, Ammunition Trains, and a Trench Motor Battalion. Among the many skills these Soldiers learned at Camp Eustis was how to work with observation balloons from the adjacent Lee Hall Balloon School and with airplanes stationed at the nearby and recently-opened Langley Air Field. 


After the Armistice of 11 November 1918, Camp Eustis was used as a de-mobilization post. It was described by one former Soldier as located far from any village and containing the longest artillery range in the United States. The artillery pieces covered field upon field. Opposite the ordnance warehouses you could usually see a balloon or two afloat from the balloon school.

 

Many of these hastily created installations closed after the war, but not Camp Eustis.  Its combination of location, rail lines, and railroad artillery training facilities continued to be seen as important to national defense. In 1923 Camp Eustis was declared a permanent installation and renamed Fort Eustis.

 

Although founded as a heavy artillery training center, Fort Eustis has ties to other branches of the Army. In 1930, the Army created the experimental “Mechanized Force.”  The Force contained the Army’s only active armored-car troop; a company of infantry tanks; a machine-gun company; a self-propelled artillery battery; an engineer company; an ordnance company; and detachments of Signal, Chemical Warfare, and Quartermaster troops. The Mechanized Force experiments failed due to competing interests and suspicion of the new approach. The Great Depression led to the mothballing of Fort Eustis. It’s the land was transferred to the Federal Relief Agency and the Bureau of Prisons. They operated a camp for homeless laborers and a prison farm. One of the post’s historic sites is the cemetery containing the remains of some of the homeless laborers.


In January 1941, Fort Eustis was re-activated and became a Coast Artillery Replacement Center. Over 20,000 troops were trained in anti-aircraft artillery during the course of the Second World War. The need to care for the large number of troops led to the creation of a Station Hospital in March of 1941, restarting the practice of caring for Soldiers continued today at the McDonald Army Health Center. The installation was an international training center as troops from the British Army’s Caribbean Regiment trained at Fort Eustis. As the war was ending in Europe, there was an effort at Fort Eustis to De-Nazify POWs. The program gave 26,000 Germans a six-day course in democracy.  It was hoped those men could return to Germany and spread democratic ideals at home.


The period after World War II was dominated by the Cold War, and once again Fort Eustis evolved. On 10 January 1946, Fort Eustis became home to the Transportation Corps and School. To supplement the rail and motor training facilities at Fort Eustis, a major port facility was constructed in 1946. The new port facility was named in honor of the Third Port of Embarkation (Mobile) at Oran, Algeria which the Third Transportation Group had operated with great success during WWII. The Transportation Corps evolved as a military body responsible for troop and equipment transportation, and played a critical role in opening and maintaining ports of embarkation and debarkation.  In 1950, Fort Eustis became home to the Transportation Development Engineering Station an organization dedicated to improving the vehicles used by the Transportation Corps. Over the years the organization has changed its focus to aviation. Now, The Aviation Applied Technology Directorate continues to improve the safety and functionality of aircraft used by soldiers around the world.


The Soldiers trained at Fort Eustis were vital to moving 3 million Soldiers and over 7 million tons of material during the frigid winters and blazing summers of the Korean Conflict.


Helicopters proved their worth in Korea and in December 1954, Felker Heliport opened as the Department of Defense’s first airfield dedicated solely to helicopters. The heliport was designed in the form of a giant wheel -- a circular taxiway divided into quarter-sections by two 600-foot runways with eight circular landing pads. Changing missions have led to the heliport being modified into the modern airfield seen today.


The Soldiers trained at the Fort Eustis Transportation School played vital roles in the Vietnam War in the air, on the land, and in the water. By the time of the Vietnam War, Fort Eustis trained Soldiers in helicopter maintenance, and in port, railroad and motor vehicle operations. 


On July 1, 1966, the 7th Transportation Brigade was activated at Fort Eustis. It is currently one of the Army’s most deployed brigades.


Railroad operations and 3rd Port’s water operations, to include the underwater operations of the dive detachment, have all played significant roles throughout the history of Fort Eustis. Since the first heliport, rotary-wing craft have been an important vehicle in Fort Eustis’s history, and today, the 128th Aviation Brigade continues that tradition by training Soldiers in all aspects of helicopter maintenance.


The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act resulted in the greatest recent change in the make-up of Fort Eustis by relocating the Army Transportation School headquarters to Fort Lee in 2010. The Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC Headquarters replaced it in 2011. The BRAC decision consolidated adjoining bases of different services, referred to as joint basing. As a result, Fort Eustis and Langley Air Force Base were consolidated under the responsibility of the Air Force and the 633rd Air Base Wing as Joint Base Langley-Eustis in 2010.   


Withstanding significant changes in mission and purpose in its first 100 years, Fort Eustis has proven to be a vital source of military power and an enduring military installation in the Hampton Roads community. Fort Eustis continues to evolve and be an integral part of our national defense, impacting the future not just of the surrounding community, but the entire world.