Camp Barkeley was located eleven miles southwest of Abilene in Taylor County. After the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the U.S. Army began to rapidly expand as a precaution and needed temporary camps to train and house troops. The camp was named for David B. Barkley, a native Texan who received the Medal of Honor in World War I, but his name was misspelled. Construction started in December 1940 and was completed in seven months. It was initially a training camp for infantry and supply troops. The first to occupy the camp were 19,000 soldiers of the Forty-fifth Infantry Division under Maj. Gen. William S. Key on February 23, 1941. Before his later fame as a cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, Bill Mauldin was on the division’s newspaper’s staff. Camp Barkeley included the main camp of 2,500 acres, bivouac and maneuver areas of 58,000 acres, and combat ranges of 9,400 acres. Central Texas was favored because the climate allowed year-round training.
The camp’s role began to change because the Medical Department wanted to expand the network of Medical Replacement Training Centers (MRTCs). In addition to two camps already being constructed as MRTCs, the United States surgeon general pushed for three new camps in March 1941, including one in Texas. The War Department decided against this, but in July 1941 it did order the expansion of Camp Barkeley to include a third MRTC with capacity for 4,000 trainees. The MRTCs at Camps Lee and Grant, located in Virginia and Illinois respectively, provided the new MRTC at Camp Barkeley much of its training cadre. The rest of the training cadre were selected from among promising trainees. Nevertheless, training cadre remained in short supply for much of the war. The MRTC at Camp Barkeley was activated under Brig. Gen. Roy C. Heflebower on November 1, 1941, and, before construction on new facilities was even finished, the first training cycle of Medical Department enlisted men began on December 1, 1941.
U.S. entry into World War II on December 7, 1941, dramatically expanded the MRTC at Camp Barkeley. It nearly doubled to 7,600 trainees by February 1942 as it took over hutments vacated by the Forty-fifth Infantry Division, which left for training on the East Coast. A reorganization of the War Department in March 1942 subordinated the surgeon general to the newly-created Army Service Forces (ASF) that, among other things, took over administration of the MRTCs. The surgeon general implored the Director of Training, ASF, to construct proper classrooms at Camp Barkeley because the existing hutments were not suitable for instruction, but construction could not keep up with demand. The Medical Department received permission to establish an officer candidate school (OCS) to train commissioned personnel for the Medical Administrative Corps (MAC) at Camp Barkeley. The MAC was created in 1920 after World War I demonstrated the need for medical administrators. During the conflict, physicians had spent much of their time carrying out administrative duties as medical supply officers, registrars, adjutants, and so forth, instead of tending to patients. The MAC provided medical administrators to do paperwork and other duties so the Medical Corps (MC) doctors and surgeons could focus on patients. Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania was too small and crowded to expand the first MAC OCS established there; a second one was needed elsewhere.
Camp Barkeley’s first MAC OCS class of 250 candidates began on May 11, 1942, and added an additional class each following month. The U. S. Army kept growing rapidly, and more Medical Department enlisted men were needed, so the MRTC again doubled its capacity, reaching nearly 15,000 trainees. The hutments left by the Forty-fifth Infantry Division were insufficient, and many trainees lived in tents until more housing was built. The MAC OCS had high standards—only 65.3 percent of officer candidates graduated at Camp Barkeley compared to 79 percent at Carlisle Barracks. Consequently, an Officer Candidate Preparatory School was established in April 1942 to reduce the number of failures. The Director of Training, ASF, shuttered the MAC OCS at Carlisle Barracks from February 1943 to May 1944, and for more than a year the MAC OCS at Camp Barkeley became the sole source of MAC officers. Each MAC OCS class increased to 500 candidates every two weeks and peaked at 3,011 candidates in July 1943.
The Director of Training, ASF, predicted a surplus of MAC officers and in August 1943 ordered Camp Barkeley to lengthen training and greatly reduce the size of MAC OCS classes. At the same time, since the Director of Training, ASF, decided to close Camp Pickett in Virginia, African American medical personnel began being trained at Camp Barkeley. Due to the overabundance of MAC officers, Director of Training, ASF, wanted to close the remaining MAC OCS at Camp Barkeley, however, the Surgeon General believed this would hurt morale and determined MAC officers could also replace MC officers as assistant battalion surgeons. The MAC OCS stayed open but as a token institution. Classes shrank until only 106 candidates were enrolled in January 1944, and no classes followed for four months. The 1846th Unit POW Camp under the command of Lt. Col. Harry Slaughter was established at Camp Barkeley on February 1, 1944, and eventually held 840 German prisoners of war.
With the surgeon general’s approval of major revisions to Medical Department organization on March 9, 1944, which allowed MAC officers to fill many positions previously reserved for MC officers, the MAC OCS at Camp Barkeley gained a new lease on life. The MRTC was redesignated an ASF Training Center in April 1944 with 37,150 trainees, cadre, replacements, and fillers. This included 1,000 to 1,400 African American trainees, including a few candidates at the MAC OCS. There were not enough black soldiers to justify segregated training, but most recreational facilities on post were off limits to them, and Abilene was strictly segregated. The MAC OCS enrolled four new classes of 500 candidates each from July to September 1944. The Medical Department’s needs then declined, and Camp Barkeley shrank down to 15,000 trainees by November 1944.
With the need for MAC officers and Medical Department enlisted men still declining, the Director of Training, ASF, consolidated Medical Department training at Camp Barkeley with Signal Corps training at Camp Crowder, in Missouri, in March 1945. The last MAC OCS class graduated on March 15, 1945. The ASF Training Center closed on April 1, 1945, and Camp Barkeley was deactivated on 30 April 1945. From May 1942 to March 1945, the MAC OCS at Camp Barkeley graduated 12,500 of 17,094 MAC officers, including 158 of 189 black MAC officers. Additionally, not counting tens of thousands of infantry and supply troops, 77,898 of 293,566 Medical Department enlisted men were trained at Camp Barkeley.
The War Department estimated the camp’s total cost, from December 1940 to September 1945, including land and construction, at $27,332,000. When it closed in 1945, the military reservation encompassed one-ninth of Taylor County—77,436 acres—of which the government owned 18,976. After the military abandoned the camp, the leased land reverted back to its owners. Camp Barkeley had long-term effects on Abilene. Construction and army payrolls helped support the local economy, and the community’s demonstrated ability to maintain satisfactory relations with a large military population factored in the government’s decision to locate Dyess Air Force Base there in the 1950s. A Texas Historical Marker was erected at the site of Camp Barkeley in 1969.