Editor’s note: The following series explores the Boykin Springs military range and cantonment near the Neches River. During World War II, more than 40 Army Air Corps service members operated the isolated “high altitude precision strategic bombing” proving ground used by hundreds of B-17 “Flying Fortress” aircrews stationed at Alexandria Army Airfield.
Gen. George Patton may have been the first to recognize the military training opportunities behind the Texas pine curtain. Besides large-scale land maneuvers, the Piney Woods were to play an important role in the training of B-17 bomber aircrews during the height of the war.
In 1943, the U.S. had just started bombing the German homeland in Europe, while in the Pacific, Army Air Force flyers were engaged in blocking the Japanese advance in New Guinea and Guadalcanal. To meet the demand for more aviators, the Army Air Corp established Alexandria Army Airfield in Louisiana to train B-17 “Flying Fortress” aviators.
East Texas and central Louisiana were well known to military planners since the largest maneuvers ever executed —The Louisiana War Games — had taken place just a few years earlier in 1941. During the massive military operation, officers like then-Col. Dwight David Eisenhower and Patton started to emerge as superb planners, innovators and leaders.
Military exercise planners divided the state of Louisiana in half. The “Red Army” defended the northern part of the state, with Shreveport as its “capitol,” while the “Blue Army,’’ with Patton leading a newly minted “armored division,” anchored southern Louisiana.
Initially, the Blue Team attempted to move north through central Louisiana, but the Red Team had “simulated” blowing every bridge leading north and the Blue Team’s advance soon bogged down.
Patton devised a high-speed operation that would take his tanks and vehicles around the stymied advance in Louisiana by turning west, then flanking north through East Texas. Far from the front lines, Patton’s newly minted 2nd Armored Division — after his engineers repaired an actual collapsed bridge — crossed the Sabine River near Orange.
Within 24 hours, he and his M3 light tanks raced up U.S. Highway 69’s “Sawmill Trail” passing through the towns of Kountze, Warren, Woodville, Zavalla and Lufkin. Meanwhile, another motorized column moved through Jasper and the Angelina Forest.
Patton’s men had secured much-needed gas along the route to execute the “Hail Mary” run and successfully attacked and captured the Red Army’s capital of Shreveport. The speed of the advance spelled the end for the iconic symbols of the U.S. Army and cavalry — the mule and the horse (both were used extensively during the war games as some army leaders still believed in their utility).
After the war game, known officially as the U.S. Army GHQ Maneuvers of 1941, Patton and other emerging leaders met in the basement of the Alexandria High School and plotted the end of the horse-centric cavalry with a new method of war fighting — the armored division centered on tanks and personnel carriers.
Later in December 1944 during the pivotal “Battle of the Bulge” when the storied 101st Airborne Division was surrounded by the German Army, now four-star Gen. Patton would again wheel his forces 90 degrees and outflank the enemy; this time at the Belgium town of Bastogne. His armored divisions rescued the American forces and ultimately drove the German army across the Rhine River.
The vastness, the sparsely populated region and for the most part, cooperating civilians of East Texas and central Louisiana enabled large-scale training maneuvers such as Patton’s wide armored sweeps.
Additionally the region would soon foster another emerging technology, “high-altitude precision strategic bombing” by the four-engine B-17 bomber known as the “Queen of the Skies.” Airbases began to spring up in central Louisiana, but the Army Air Corp was in desperate need of a bombing range to train aircrews headed to the Pacific and European theaters.
Soon Army Air Corps planners remembered a remote, former Civilian Conservation Corps camp from the 1941 war game. Ideally placed in a former cutover forest miles from cities and towns, Boykin Springs would soon prove critical to the war effort.