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The Man Who Invented the Obstacle Course

Lt. Col. William M. Hoge and the Army's first obstacle course

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.

Soldiers train on an obstacle course during World War II

Enlisted men training on an obstacle course during World War II. The original caption reads: “Swinging across fifteen feet of horizontal ladders are soldiers of the anti-aircraft training center. This is the next-to-the-last obstacle on the course and comes at a time when a man’s wind is coming hard and his arms are feeling fatigue.” Library of Congress photo

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.

“They’d murder me if they ever found out I was responsible.”

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.

A soldier crawls through a present-day obstacle course

A soldier crawls under an obstacle during air assault school at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in Florida Feb. 15, 2011. DoD photo by Capt. Lisa Browne Banic, U.S. Army

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.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

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