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Soldiers, former land owners gather to reflect on Camp Atterbury’s history

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The past and present converged at Camp Atterbury during last weekend’s 34th annual Former Land Owners Picnic.

Around 135 civilians attended the June 1 picnic at Johnson County Park, once part of Camp Atterbury and now just outside the gate, including about a dozen who once lived on the property.

They were outnumbered by about 6,000 Indiana National Guard soldiers who had begun intense infantry training throughout the camp.

“If you live nearby, I am sorry,” retired Chief Warrant Officer Myles Clayborn quipped. “There will training here as usual, and it will be noisy all summer.”

Clayborn, filling in for Commander Col. Richard D. Shatto, welcomed descendants of the original owners of properties seized by the U.S. government to build Camp Atterbury.

Soldiers in uniform lined the park shelter to assist and visit with families. After the picnic each year, the Indiana National Guard provides escorts and transportation into the military training areas where the attendees’ homesteads once stood.

“People don’t understand that it wasn’t just about losing houses and barns,” Lindley Neville said. “It was about losing communities and a way of life.”

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S government in early 1942 announced that more than 600 homes and farms would be purchased to build an Army training site.

Neville was in high school when his family was forced to leave their home. A short time afterward, he found himself in the Army and on the way to World War II.

Designed to train soldiers for combat in World War II, the original Camp Atterbury stretched across 43,000 acres of land where communities and private homes once stood.

In less than nine months from the time the original landowners were told to vacate their homes, more than 1,780 buildings, roadways and training facilities had been built.

By August 1942, the gates were opened to the first of nearly 300,000 soldiers trained there during World War II.

In addition to training soldiers, a large military hospital was built at the camp. More than 85,000 severely wounded soldiers were treated at the hospital during the war. Camp Atterbury also housed nearly 15,000 German and Italian prisoners of war.

‘Everything changed’

“It changed all of our lives,” said Esther (Stilbower) Gelfius, who was a teenager living in Edinburgh when grandparents on both sides of her family lost their farms to the post and had to relocate

into Edinburgh.

“Edinburgh was a nice, quiet little town, but suddenly everything changed,” Gelfius said. “Many of the other families from Camp Atterbury moved into Edinburgh — and then the soldiers came, too. There was a real housing shortage, and it wasn’t quiet anymore.”

Camp Atterbury was closed following World War II, reopening after the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War. After the Korean War, the Army post was closed and then deserted.

In 1969, the federal government leased 32,120 acres to the Indiana National Guard. The Guard worked to rebuild the camp as a military training site used by all branches of the service, as well as police and civil agencies.

Camp Atterbury was reactivated as a federal military training facility in 2002 to train soldiers, sailors and airmen for deployment in the war against terror. The post was deactivated in 2013 but continues operations under the National Guard.

Gelfius’ daughter, Linda Piatt Medlen, and her niece, Susan Wertz, attended the reunion — both of them born after all of the family’s properties were lost.

“I have never seen any of the land, but I have heard the stories all my life,” Wertz said.

Gefius explained the Stillbower properties were located in the Bartholomew County parts of Camp Atterbury that is now used as an impact area. Because of safety issues, they cannot visit the sites of the family’s old homesteads.

Gelfius was named in memory of her grandfather’s 4-year-old sister Esther, who was burned and died in an accident at the old homestead.

The child was buried at the homestead decades before any living family member was born.

Although they cannot honor the grave with a visit, the family has held on to the little girl’s doll as a family heirloom.

“I have the doll now,” Medlen said. “Even though I never lived there, Camp Atterbury’s land is a part of my family’s history and so it is a part of me, too.”

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