By Marianne Love
It served as a small slice of life's big picture and ignited like a field of tinder dry weeds. It faded so quickly, like a wisp of smoke.
Yet in spite of its momentary flutter, the sights, sounds and memories of Farragut Naval Training Station at the southern tip of Lake Pend Oreille flame within the hearts and minds of thousands of World War II veterans as if they happened yesterday. Its embers floated far from Farragut's boundaries, sparking nearby communities into an era of excitement and new blood. These days, cracked cement foundations, the brig, a few pump houses and two giant water towers have survived as the few visible vestiges of an era when the urgency of the war effort thrust North Idaho into a vital role.
Farragut Naval Base rose almost overnight on wide-open fields and rolling hills that had once served as a seasonal stop for early Indian and pioneer migrations. In late 1941, the U.S. government snapped up the land from private owners, Kootenai County, and a railway company to establish an inland naval base more than 300 miles away from the western coastline, where the nation feared a Japanese invasion. For the next nine months more than 22,000 men worked 10-hour shifts for 13 of every 14 days for Walter Butler Construction Co. to build mess halls, libraries, movie theaters, living quarters, chapels and other buildings. In the great hurry and with a supply crunch, many of the 776 buildings were constructed with green wood. The flurry of construction activity provided a giant economic shot-in-the-arm for surrounding communities like Sandpoint, still mired in a slow revival from the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"They paid $1.60 an hour," recalls Hope resident Fred Kennedy, who later operated a tugboat/barge service on Lake Pend Oreille. "No one had ever heard of such wages." Carpenters, laborers and tradespeople from throughout the Sandpoint area pounded nails, hauled supplies and filled in wherever needed as the huge base sped into motion.
Between its opening in September, 1942, and its decommissioning in June, 1946, this stunning expanse of 4,000 acres served as temporary home to almost 300,000 naval recruits. Located about 30 miles from Sandpoint at the far end of the lake, the Farragut Naval Training Station -- briefly to become Idaho's largest city -- served as boot camp for "Blue Jackets." During basic training, recruits left home for the first time, came to Farragut and learned to how march, row, swim and use firearms before heading off to the Mediterranean Sea or the South Pacific. Others received additional training as signalman's gunner's mates, the hospital corps or radiomen. WAVES (women naval officers) served as nurses at the base hospital.
Another group of soldiers -- some as young as 16 or 17 -- arrived at Farragut from Europe. Wearing shirts inscribed with "PW, " 750 German prisoners of war, many from Austria, worked side by side with American soldiers. They ran loose in camp and trimmed shrubbery or mowed lawns at the facility named in honor of the Navy's first admiral, David Farragut.
Base personnel also played a major role in Sandpoint daily life during those years. They brought their spending cash with them while on furloughs here. Retired business woman Edith Jennestad, whose family owned a clothing store on First Avenue, remembers Farragut's impact on the community. "We were amazed when we opened the paper and learned that they were going to have this base," she recalled. "That was a real plum for Idaho." Her father, Ole, had opened Jennestad's at 317 North First in 1908. "Farragut really boosted business," she recalled. "Father sometimes wouldn't get home until 1 a.m." The Jennestads outfitted the prisoners of war with boots and socks, and once Ole was asked to go to Farragut and measure base commander Commodore Frank Harrison Kelley for uniforms. "He heard my father fit people well," Edith said.
Farragut's presence also meant new friends, Jennestad recalled. Her next door neighbors, the Racicots, kept sailors. In fact, Sandpoint families often invited the lonely men over for holiday dinners. And many young women from Sandpoint were torn between these men and their sweethearts already involved in military action abroad. Zelma Carter was barely 19 when she went to work in the dry cleaners at Farragut in 1943. "There really wasn't anything special you wanted to do but go to work," she recalled. "At the time you were interested in boys, they were all gone." In her leisure time, Carter enjoyed weekend social activities when, according to a newspaper report, "the streets downtown on a Saturday afternoon would be literally navy blue... masses of sailors walking down streets arm-in-arm, whistling at every girl. The invasion meant fun Saturday nights to Carter and her friends. "My mother never knew how many to cook for because we always brought home sailors," she remembered. "We would go off dancing and Daddy would come with us."
Following the Naval base's decommissioning after the war, a vocational/technical college opened in 1946, but it quickly folded from lack of funding. Later, the land comprising the training station was turned over to the State of Idaho. During the '60s and '70s, Farragut hosted worldwide Boy and Girl Scout jamborees. Even a controversial church picnic, referred to by some as "Idaho's Woodstock, " brought nationwide attention to the area in 1971.
The spot now serves as one of Idaho's premier state parks. During summer months, bikers and horseback riders play on its fields of purple knapweed and golden tansey where scores of sailors once practiced marching. Swimmers and boaters and campers enjoy spectacular scenery around Buttonhook Bay where young recruits learned basic seamanship. Across the bay on their high perches, Rocky Mountain goats seemingly stand watch over the rolling hills where six camps of 5,000 men each resided. In a large open field just inside the park, remote controlled model airplanes often buzz the skies above the parade ground.
Today the park's museum draws hundreds of silver-haired memory seekers. Typically, the 70- to 80-year-old visitors start at their camp sign-in sheet, thumb through 1,100 laminated group photographs and eventually spot themselves among the neatly organized rows of youthful sailors. Then, the stories flow. "When they find their picture, that seals the memory," Farragut State Park assistant manager and historian Al Leiser says. "The experience [at Farragut] was a very powerful period in these men's lives."
Anyone within listening distance can evesdrop and learn vivid details about half a century ago when the "cattle wagons" brought young men from the Athol train station seven miles away and dropped them off for shots, uniforms and general processing. They were eventually assigned to one of Farragut's six camps, which remained their world for more than two months before they left for faraway places to do their part in the war effort. Some recruits had dismal memories of North Idaho, while others were charmed enough by the area to find their way back.
Montana native Paul Mikelson returned to Farragut for a visit last summer. He completed boot camp and radio school before heading to the South Pacific. Besides the cold and general misery, he recalled many recruits contracting rheumatic fever. In fact, his hometown buddy had to go home after being stricken.
In 1943, a 28-year-old mortician from Clarinda, Iowa, arrived at Farragut after receiving his draft notice. After completing boot camp, Harlan Walker stayed another 16 weeks and attended the hospital corps service school before spending the rest of the war at the Seattle Naval Hospital, treating casualties straight from Iwo Jima.
"About the time I was discharged, I began to read about those great big kamloops trout in Pend Oreille," he recalled. " I had an excellent job with a good (mortuary) firm in DesMoines, but I'd seen enough death in that hospital. It made this country look that much better. I also knew the resort facilities on the lake were not too great... I couldn't get Sandpoint out of my mind." Walker, his wife Margaret and their partners bought 800 acres of mining property southeast of Sagle and opened Talache Lodge. The premier fishing resort attracted the likes of Bing Crosby, Lon Chaney, Phil Harris and even two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
About the same time, Don Samuelson, another Iowa transplant who had served as Farragut's weapons instructor and gunsmith throughout the war, came to Sandpoint and opened the Pend Oreille Sport Shop with his friend Jim Breinich. The two maintained their partnership until the mid-'60s when Samuelson became involved in politics, first as a state senator and then for one term as Idaho's governor. In August, 1966, he upset incumbent Governor Robert Smylie in the Republican primary and defeated Democratic opponent and fellow state senator Cecil Andrus.
The Farragut experience helped fulfill Samuelson's childhood dream. "When I was in the fifth grade back in Illinois, I read a book on Idaho history," the former governor explained. "It had pictures of the statehouse and Bunker Hill. From that time on, I wanted to come to Idaho." His first deer hunt in the mountains above Bayview and hikes up Bernard Peak, which overlooks Farragut, helped set the stage for the move back to Sandpoint.
Now at 83, he still enjoys trips to the park and looks forward to this September's 50th anniversary of Farragut's decommissioning. Samuelson, Carter and Walker will be among a few hundred returning personnel who hope to swap stories and rekindle few of the flames of youth that once burned so brightly in the place "where fightin' Blue Jackets were made."
Marianne Love is journalism instructor at Sandpoint High School and author of "Pocket Girdles: Confessions of a Northwest Farm Girl," available in all finer bookstores.
This article is from Sandpoint Magazine.
Farragut Caught in Time
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