The 42,784 acres which comprise Camp Roberts have long held the encampments of soldiers. The early Indian tribes of California hunted and lived on this land, and exploration detachments of the colonial Spanish Army mounted scouting parties throughout the area.
Camp Roberts is located on U.S. Highway 101, which follows the old Mission Trail. This is a highly recommended scenic drive for history buffs. The road is still referred to as "El Camino Real", which broadly translates from Spanish as "The Royal Road" or "The King's Highway". Camp Roberts is located north of the historic Mission San Miguel, which in its heyday was one of the best managed of the 21 missions established in Alta California by the Franciscans. It was one of the most productive in grain and livestock. The land which comprises Camp Roberts was, in fact, part of the original holdings of the mission that was founded in 1797.
Political upheavals in Spain and Mexico resulted in a declaration of independence by Mexico in 1826. Soon after, the Mexican government closed down the missions and distributed their vast land holdings to favored individuals and families. One of these land grants became "El Rancho Nacimiento", or "Ranch of the Nativity". Through a series of sub-grants, sales, and leases, "El Ranch Nacimiento" was reduced to about 44,000 acres (the original size of Camp Roberts). While all of these transactions were taking place, the Territory of California was admitted to the United States of America, formalizing American control over the area.
In the middle part of 1902, Congress authorized a study to locate and describe lands suitable for development of new military posts. Among the many sites examined was one referred to as the "Nacimiento Ranch". A board of inquiry was formed, headed by Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles, who had a reputation as a great Indian fighter.. He reported that the ranch was suitable for one regiment of cavalry. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ordered to make a detailed survey and report. Their document characterized the area as "healthy as any in the State of California, in addition to its mundane qualities and excellent range and training ground." The price was right, the land was at that time assessed at $5.76 per acre.
The next step would have been the official designation of the surveyed area as a military post; undoubtedly that would have been the case, except for a Salinas physician who felt called upon to write to President Theodore Roosevelt. He described the area in most unfavorable terms, writing of alkaline water, wind storms, epidemics and desert heat. He pleaded not to subject U.S. soldiers to such "inhumane conditions." Ironically, the doctor's surname was Roberts, not related to the soldier for whom the site would one day be named. The battle was thus joined; correspondence, surveys, charges and countercharges flew back and forth between California and Washington, DC. The original Corps of Engineers report was ultimately sustained, but by then other posts had been established in less controversial areas.
The Army met its training needs through World War I with out the benefit of Camp Roberts. However, the 1902 Corps of Engineers report remained, and the assets the area had to offer for military training were just too obvious to over look. With another world war looming in the horizon, Congress authorized funds for the purchase of land and building of training sites in 1940. The land which is now Camp Roberts was acquired by leasing six adjoining ranches, including Rancho Nacimiento, in 1940. The Army eventually purchased all of the leased parcels plus additional lands, concluding the final purchase in 1943.
Construction of the Main, or West, Garrison cantonment area began 15 November 1940, the first commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Martson, who had rented office space in the Bank of America building in Paso Robles. His "command" consisted of the office, plans and specifications for the construction of the facilities, and a few tents. From these humble beginnings the operation grew to ultimately involve of 8,000 workers in the construction of a training station capable of housing 30,000 trainees at one time.
It was while the site was still under construction that the original name of Camp Nacimiento Replacement Training Center was changed to Camp Roberts, in honor of Corporal Harold W. Roberts, a tank driver in World War I. Corporal Roberts lost his life driving his tank in action in the Montrebeau Forest in northeastern France. The tank fell into a shell crater filled with rainwater while maneuvering to aid another tank. While the tank rapidly filled with water, Corporal Roberts shoved the gunner out, but was unable to get himself out and drowned. For his selfless act, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. In seeking an appropriate name twenty-two years later for a camp with a primary purpose of training new soldiers, the Army remembered Harold Roberts, who was only 19 years old when he laid his life down for his country. Camp Roberts is one of only a few military posts named for an enlisted man, and it is the only such site still in operation.
Camp Roberts officially began it mission as a replacement training center in March 1941. At that time it ranked with the world's largest military training facilities. It may still be so in terms of training capacity, and so far as it is known features the largest parade ground (the length of fourteen football fields) on any military facility.
The main Garrison was constructed to accommodate 23,000 officers and troops. The East Garrison, across the Salinas River, could accommodate 6,000 troops. The 26th Field Artillery Brigade was the first unit to occupy the East Garrison.
436,000 World War II Infantry and Field Artillery troops passed through an intensive seventeen week training cycle. Both the Infantry and Field Artillery Replacement Training Centers achieved enviable proficiency records where it counted, in the combat zones around the world to which their graduates were sent. A peak population was reached in 1945 when 45,000 troops were quartered in large tent cities located at the fringes of the Main Garrison
Besides the two Training Centers, Camp Roberts also had a 750-bed hospital complex (also supplemented with tent cities), and internment compounds for Italian and German prisoners of war. Many of the Italian POWs joined a special Army Service Unit after the surrender of Italy, and spent the remainder of the war as workers at Camp Roberts.
It was a different scene on 1 July 1946. With the out processing of returning soldiers from World War II complete, Camp Roberts went from busy city to ghost town literally overnight. The site was inactivated as a training base and reverted to "caretaker" status denoting a skeleton crew of maintenance personnel as the only permanent residents. During the summertime, National Guard and Army Reserve troops conducted fifteen day training cycles throughout the garrison. While retaining all of its value as a military training site, the camp remained inactive remainder of the year, until the onset of the Korean Conflict.
In June 1950, the People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) crossed over a demilitarized zone and invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea). United Nations (UN) forces quickly responded, and in July 1950 Camp Roberts was again activated for troop training. The 321st Signal Base Depot had the honor of being the first unit to return for training. Camp Roberts chalked up another "first" with the addition of the Armor Replacement Training Center to the Infantry and Field Artillery centers established in World War II. The establishment of the new Armor center made it possible to training replacements for all three combat arms at Camp Roberts. Additionally, the terrain resembled that found in Korea, increasing it value for training for that combat area. The 7th Armored Division was the leading division at Camp Roberts during this period, and its patch was a familiar site in the area. By the end of the fighting in September 1953 approximately 300,000 men completed training there. Upon completion of returnee out processing in 1954, the site reverted once again to "caretaker" status, continuing to train National Guard and Army Reserve units in the summer cycles.
Little activity was sustained at this site from the end of the Korean War to the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam era, Camp Roberts once again bustled with activity, though not on as grand a scale as World War II or the Korean War. The installation was not officially opened, and thus earned the title, "most active 'inactive' post in the U.S.". Camp Roberts supported a variety of operation, including the construction of a satellite communications station as part of a worldwide strategic communications network (the first station of its kind in the world). Additionally, the Army's Combat Development Experimentation Command (CDEC) used the site for weapons testing, and the Navy used one of the live-fire ranges to train gunners for river patrol boats.
Camp Roberts was officially closed by the Army in April 1970. On 2 April 1971, the California Army National Guard received control of the site, under a license from the Army, to establish a Reserve Component Training Center. The site continues to operate in this fashion today, and while reserve component units have priority under National Guard management, military forces from all service branches (and some foreign countries) have trained there. The qualities in the original Army Corps of Engineers study still serve the training needs of the military today, and will continue for the foreseeable future.
To view postcards of Camp Roberts during
World War II, CLICK HERE