Chemical Warfare, German POW’s, and Hollywood Leave Legacy of War in Alabama

On the back of the civilian picture below is written:

“J. B. Duncan took working at Camp Sibert”. 

Joe Berry Duncan was my great-uncle, my grandfather’s brother. Curious as to what the lettering around the picture meant, my husband Mike and I did some online research. Mike discovered that CWS stood for Chemical Warfare Service. We learned that the Chemical Weapons Warfare Training at Camp Sibert, AL, operated from 1942 to 1945. Since Uncle J. B. was never in the military, my ex-U.S. Marine brother-in-law, Randy, told us the picture was probably for identification as a civilian worker at the site.

Camp Sibert was established by the U. S. miltary as the first Chemical Warfare Center in Alabama on June 18, 1942, on 36,300 acres in Etowah County and part of the adjoining St. Clair County (where we live). It was the first of its kind and, in the beginning, provided the only large-scale area in which to train with live chemical munitions. Almost half of all chemical warfare units in World War II were trained here. It was deactivated in December 1945. In an excellent article about Camp Sibert, Mike Goodson, a columnist for The Gadsden Times, writes:

During its brief existence, the chemical warfare training facility had some rather distinguished troops stationed here, including boxer Joe Louis and entertainers Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton.

Mustard gas and other live chemical agents were used during military training at Camp Sibert. The 4.2-inch mortar was the weapon most often used, and the ordinance most often found lurking under the surface during post-war clean-ups, some of them live. Since the war ended 67 years ago, the clean-up and disposal of these hazardous materials have been farmed out to various companies who specialize in such work under the auspices of various government agencies. From the online articles I’ve read, there does not appear to have been any accidents during these clean-up and disposal efforts. Needless to say, this vast area covering parts of two large counties is now real estate which include homes and businesses. The clean-up crews are reported to have recovered tons of metallic debris, but if I see a funny-looking rusted canister anywhere around I’m certainly not going to investigate.

Down the road about 10 miles from where we live, between Ashville and Attalla in the area once called Camp Sibert, is a derelict old hamburger joint called “Wimp’s” that looks like no other hamburger joint I ever saw. As a child, we often passed the place (might have even gotten a hamburger there, but I don’t remember), and I would ask my Dad about it and why it was built the way it was. He told me it was built by German prisoners of war back during World War II, and was an example of German engineering. “Those Germans build things to last,” said Dad.

Mike says this looks like a concrete bunker with windows.

The building lasted, and so did Wimp’s for years and years. And, of course, whenever I looked at the name I thought of “Wimpy” on Popeye, who would “gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”. But the old joint finally threw in the towel and has lain fallow for years, growing only crops of head-high weeds through broken concrete, and the occasional hardy sapling. The old sign is bent and the colors are faded, but it’s still readable. At first Mike and I thought some other enterprising agency might have made use of the place at some point, until we laughed and realized that the letters “MP’S” over the door were the last of WIMP’S to survive.

Then, during my continued research on Camp Sibert, I learned that, besides hosting soldiers trying to get a grip on fighting with chemical weapons, it also hosted German prisoners of war, some of whom may have stayed in this area, or in the United States, after the war. If there are any such families, I would like to hear about them. I have German ancestry myself.

The Camp Sibert picture above is used by permission of wartimepress.com, an excellent archival publication for World War II pictures and information. 

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4 thoughts on “Chemical Warfare, German POW’s, and Hollywood Leave Legacy of War in Alabama

  1. my daddy was stationed there when he was in the army. he had 6 kids and 1 on the way. If he joined to get away, he didn’t go very far.

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