The History of Camp Lejeune

Camp Lejeune, named for the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps, was initially built at the outset of World War II. The United States military recognized a need for an amphibious training facility on the East Coast of the country. In 1940, it was considered all but inevitable that the United States would enter into the Second World War against the Axis powers, no matter how much the political leadership spoke about staying out of the war. Conflict with Germany and Japan seemed inevitable, and the nation needed to be prepared. War with both of those countries would have required amphibious fighting (which turned out to be true, given the landing at Normandy and in the Pacific Theatre).

The history of Camp Lejeune Marine base
The history of Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina

Why the Government Chose the Current Location for the Base

Congress had appropriated $14 million to begin to build this base, a seeming pittance in comparison with the high cost of military facilities these days. The question was where would be the best place to build it. The Department of the Navy eventually selected the location that would become Camp Lejeune for the following reasons:

● It was located close to both the ports of Wilmington and Morehead City
● There were miles of pine forest in which to conduct training
● There were 11 miles of coastline for amphibious training

The intent was to build a comprehensive facility that could accommodate all aspects of training. Camp Lejeune was built in a hurry, given that world war was imminent. The planners eventually used the same architectural styles and buildings repeatedly throughout the base. The concept of the base was simple buildings that were repeatable throughout the facility.

Camp Lejeune Grew Exponentially from its Humble Beginnings

In order to build Camp Lejeune, the federal government took the land from people who had already owned it, using powers of condemnation. The government was required to offer owners fair and just compensation for their home. They were left with little choice but to accept what the government offered in compensation, or else they had to fight in court. Decades later, descendants of the original landowners believe that their ancestors got a raw deal from the federal government.

As Camp Lejeune grew, the military needed to build out the infrastructure to support thousands of service members and their families. This included things like plants for drinking water. Even though Camp Lejeune encompassed a wide area, it was still surrounded by existing populations and businesses. Those who are familiar with the sprawling base of today would not have recognized the early Camp Lejeune. It started with a farmhouse, tobacco field and temporary buildings. Given the mission of preparing for the war, the Navy needed to start with what they had.

One of the first major areas on the base was Camp Geiger

One of the first major areas on the base was Camp Geiger. This was originally a tent city that was temporary housing for the Marines while their permanent headquarters was being built. Practically everything that you see today at Camp Geiger was not part of the original section of the base. In fact, the only thing that is still standing today from that time period is the chapel.
Camp Lejeune in the Korean War

After the conclusion of World War II, things settled down dramatically at Camp Lejeune. The base was no longer the hub of activity that it once was, although the military was steadily building the base, recognizing the value that it provided during a major conflict. The time period from 1946-1949 saw the addition of numerous buildings and areas on the base.

While there was steady construction at the base, there were no major exercises until 1950, when a major landing exercise, Operation Crossover, occurred at Onslow Beach. Still, although the threat of renewed war loomed, the Marine troop contingent at the base was below the ceiling strength. That began to change later in 1950 as activities on base were reactivated in anticipation of the Korean War. Camp Lejeune made major contributions to the Korean War effort. Its lab had even developed the armored vest that became known as the flak jacket. By the time that the United States was involved in the Korean War, Camp Lejeune was established as one of the premier training bases for Marines, albeit at reduced troop strength. Today, Marine veterans who served in the Korean War still return to Camp Lejeune for an annual reunion, although they report that they do not recognize any of the current buildings, except for the base’s movie theater.

After the Korean War, Camp Lejeune saw a number of changes due to the reorganization of the units located on base. Once again, after a major war had concluded, the number of personnel on base had shrunk, and headquarters and commands were consolidated to reflect that. Numerous commands and schools were moved to other parts of the base.

Camp Lejeune in the Vietnam War

However, things began to change again as the conflict in Southeast Asia began to broaden. The base began to ramp back up as the war intensified. However, most of the Marines were trained to take part in the war at Parris Island. The wartime population of Camp Lejeune was estimated around 32,000. However, the base was used more as a transient facility for Marines coming to and from Vietnam as opposed to intensive training. There was high turnover among the troops at the base, with many of them staying for far shorter than they had in the past.

There were some key training programs that were instituted at Camp Lejeune during theVietnam War. The 2nd MarDiv Guerilla Warfare Center was built on part of the base, which helped prepare Marines for the type of combat that they would face in fighting the Viet Cong. Here, Marines also learned more about what they would face culturally in Vietnam.

Camp Lejeune has played a part in every major war that the United States has fought since it was opened. In the Vietnam War, Camp Lejeune, along with Parris Island in South Carolina, played an essential role in training Marines to join the conflict. It was a vital base that many Marines passed through before they went to Vietnam. Hundreds of Marines who were at Camp Lejeune in the 1960s were killed in combat in Vietnam.

Camp Johnson has played a prominent part in national military history. Before President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, Camp Johnson was the first training ground for Black Marines in the country. In 1949, the closing of the segregated training area at Montford Point Camp was one of the first major steps en route to the integration of the United States military. After the military was desegregated, the camp was named for Sergeant Major Gilbert H. “Hashmark” Johnson. However, Camp lejeune saw its share of race-related tension in the turbulent 1960s.

The 1983 Barracks Bombing in Lebanon and its Effect on Camp Lejeune

One of the biggest tragedies to affect the Marine Corps affected families based at Camp Lejeune. The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, which was housed at the base, was sent to Beirut, Lebanon to assist in the peacekeeping mission. A powerful truck bomb exploded when the Marines were sleeping in their barracks, killing 241 service members. This was the single largest loss of life in one day for the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima. Many of the victims lived in the Jacksonville area, devastating the community. Today, these service members are commemorated by a memorial which was built on the base.

The Early 1990s Expansion of Camp Lejeune

Even though Camp Lejeune was sprawling and expansive when it first opened, the base soon began to outgrow its area. In the 1980s, there was a vigorous debate about whether to expand Camp Lejeune. Given its coastal location, there has always been concern about the base’s impact on the environment. However, the constraints on the area were viewed to be hampering training. There have always been environmental concerns associated with Camp Lejeune because of the number of threatened and endangered species that live in the area of the base. These concerns have often been in conflict with having the space and environment necessary to effectively train troops. After thorough consideration of the issue, the Marine Corps acquired 41,000 additional acres to expand Camp Lejeune, allowing for the construction of additional buildings and training grounds.

Camp Lejeune in the Gulf War

In the 1990s, Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune continued to contribute at the vanguard of military conflicts across the globe. These Marines were at the “tip of the spear,” becoming one of the first units to cross into Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Marines fought valiantly in several battles that helped expel Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait. During the conflict, Camp Lejeune served as the station of initial assignment for Marines who were called up from the reserves. After the Gulf War, Camp Lejeune dealt with the effects of cuts to military funding that were supposed to happen at the end of the Cold War. The conflict in the Persian Gulf delayed those cuts. However, the Marines at Camp Lejeune escaped some of the most painful cuts because of the value for the dollar that they deliver the military. Marines are cost-effective forces that act as a force multiplier.

Camp Lejeune Played a Pivotal Role in the Global War on Terror

The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 changed the trajectory at Camp Lejeune. Units that had been stood down and decommissioned as part of the post-Cold War spending cuts were not reactivated and quickly sent overseas.One of the most important units, the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, serves in an antiterrorism capacity. It was reactivated right after 9/11, and is stationed at Camp Lejeune. Marines from Camp Lejeune were continuously deployed to Afghanistan and other parts of the globe as part of the Global War on Terror. At the outset of the war in Iraq, then-President George W. Bush visited the base to give a speech to Marines and their families. As the United States readied for the Second Gulf War, thousands of Marines from Camp Lejeune were deployed to Kuwait. For the better part of two decades, Marines from Camp Lejeune were continuously deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Camp Lejeune Today

Camp Lejeune has grown to include a number of satellite camps, as the number of troops stationed there has increased. Some of the base’s satellite camps include:

● Marine Corps Air Station New River,
● Camp Geiger,
● Stone Bay,
● Courthouse Bay,
● Camp Johnson
● Greater Sandy Run Training Area

These days, tens of thousands of service members each year pass through Camp Geiger.

Firsts at Camp Lejeune

Over time, Camp Lejeune has seen a number of firsts, including:

● Assembling the Marine Corps’ first division-sized force
● The first classes of women Marines
● Hatching the idea for Marine Expedition Corps special operations units
● Taking major steps in the desegregation of the military

Camp Lejeune has played a major role in United States military history for the past eight decades, and that shows no sign of changing in the 21st century. Over the years, six presidents have visited Camp Lejeune. The most recent visit from a Commander-in-Chief was when President Barack Obama visited the base to detail plans to reduce the troop force in Iraq. Today, there are over 137,000 people who work at Camp Lejeune, and almost 100,000 people who live on base. There are almost 40,000 Marines currently stationed at Camp Lejeune. The base has nearly 7,000 buildings and 450 miles of roads that are spread out over 246 square miles. The base will continue to be a large part of the Marine Corps for many more years.

Sources:


https://www.lejeune.marines.mil/Offices-Staff/Environmental-Mgmt/Cultural-Resources/HistoricArchitecture/
https://www.lejeune.marines.mil/visitors/history.aspx#:~:text=Near%20the%20end%20of%201942,Marines%20trained%20or%20based%20here.
https://www.lejeune.marines.mil/offices-staff/environmental-mgmt/culturalresources/historic-architecture/districts-buildings/camp-geiger/
https://www.lejeune.marines.mil/Offices-Staff/Environmental-Mgmt/CulturalResources/History-Live/History-of-Camp-Lejeune.aspx