When World War II started in Europe in September 1939, the United States was the 17th largest military power. Its army, containing just 190,000 troops, was effectively a constabulary force. By February 1941, all that had changed. Thanks to the recently passed conscription law, the number of recruits had ballooned almost ten-fold, with millions more to come. The American military had experienced such crash-program increases before, in the Civil War and World War I. And as before, the draftees entering service were raw material. Before they could be shipped out to the new and expanding training centers being prepared for them, they had to be shaped up. While all base and camp commanders had that problem, it was particularly acute for Lt. Col. William M. Hoge.
Hoge, a West Point graduate (1916), earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I. After the war, Hoge remained in the Army, obtaining advanced degrees in engineering and working on Civil Works projects in the United States and the Philippines. In December 1940, Hoge was assigned to command the Engineer Replacement Training Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., about twenty-five miles south of Washington, D.C.
Part of a series of War Department land acquisitions on the Belvoir Peninsula in 1912, the Belvoir estate was re-named Camp A. A. Humphries, after the Civil War hero and former Chief of Engineers, and was initially used for engineering field exercises and as a rifle range. In 1935 its name was changed to Fort Belvoir. By 1941 it had grown to 9,000 acres and had 12,000 men, organized into 12 battalions, going through a 16-week training course.
Combat engineering training requires room – room for heavy equipment operators to run their bulldozers, cranes, back hoes and other construction vehicles; room to build things and blow them up; and room to transport large things like bridging equipment. Performing these and other tasks requires a high level of physical fitness, and that was the rub. Hoge’s most vexing problem was how to provide proper military outdoor physical exercise training. Because he was located on a peninsula, he couldn’t expand. Space was at a premium.
It was while trying to figure out a solution one day to the physical fitness problem that he recalled one of his subordinates, Paul W. Thompson, had spent a year in Germany as an attaché. Calling Thompson into his office, Hoge asked him, “What in the hell do the Germans do to get exercise for their men? They have much less area than we have.” Thompson told him about specially designed fields filled with a variety of trenches and constructions that the men had to overcome through climbing, crawling, swinging, hopping, and jumping.
Hoge brought in the officer responsible for physical training and the three drew up a blueprint for the Army’s first obstacle course. In an interview conducted years later, Hoge recalled, “It wasn’t as big as a city block from beginning to end, but you did all these things in a short space. You’d run, climb walls, jump over ditches, crawl through pipes, walk on logs over running streams. I don’t know what all we didn’t try. We put everything we could in that space.”
This first obstacle course began with a 2-foot hurdle and ended with 12-foot ladders and a 6-foot breastwork. In between the men had to crawl under barbed wire, crawl through concrete pipes, leap ditches, swing on ropes, clamber over barriers, and more. From start to finish a person could complete
the course in ten minutes or less. The process was then repeated.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall soon heard about Hoge’s creation and came down to see it for himself. Impressed, he promptly ordered every base and camp to build them.
During a review conducted a few weeks after its creation, parts of the original design were judged as being too easy. New obstacles were created, including a 20-foot fireman’s pole, one that duplicated boarding a ship by climbing up cargo netting from the rolling gunwales of a rowboat, crossing a stream by overhead horizontal ladder, and a climb up a 45-degree slope. But by then Hoge had moved on to a new command and an even bigger challenge, that of building the Alaska Highway.
Years later, in recalling his role in the obstacle course’s creation and referring to the countless soldiers who went through it, Hoge said, “They’d murder me if they ever found out I was responsible.”