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One Tank Ghost Trips: Camp Atterbury

The Wakeman Hospital at Camp Atterbury in its prime.
Johnson County Museum of History

Indiana plays host to a variety of paranormal venues—all originating from the central hub of Indianapolis and all within the range of a tank of gas or less.

Camp Atterbury in Johnson County has been a dominant presence for many years. Located just south of Franklin, Indiana, and 5 miles due west of Edinburgh, it sits on a terrain of diverse contrasts: from agriculturally flat in the northern boundaries to rolling hills in the central section to steep hills and valleys in the south.

Construction on the original 43,000 acres commenced shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. The United States had just prior entered into the conflict of World War II and quickly required a training center centrally located that had the capability to get soldiers up and ready. The newly formed Camp Atterbury met all those requirements.

But at a cost….

When the government comes to call they generally get what they want. And what they wanted was the land. Farmers were forced to give up land and homesteads that had been in their family for generations. Those that freely sold were given ridiculous sums of money for what they called home; others that refused to sell were forced out. Entire towns (Mt. Pisgah and Kansas, for example) disappeared almost overnight.

An estimated 1,700 graves from at least 10 cemeteries had to be exhumed and relocated. Were they always successful in removing every grave in these 43,000 some acres? Most likely not, making the deceased become an unwilling resident of wartime operations.

An army base seems to run in cycles, some more drastically than others. Camp Atterbury was no exception to the rule. After World War II the base was basically put out to pasture for a few years, only being reactivated at the onset of the Korean War in 1950. Once again it became a vital hub of frenzied activity and the sound of soldiers in cadence resonated throughout. And then as the cycle came back around full turn, it fell dormant.

Camp Atterbury became a ghost town, only coming alive with weekend training delivered by the Indiana National Guard. But…things do change. The base once again resumed life following the September 11, 2001 attack upon the U.S. soil; a breath of life generating a new beginning and purpose. Since, thousands of regular and reserve forces have received training prior to their departure to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The older days transcend into the present, but always leave traces of the past in their shadows. During World War II Atterbury incorporated an area to the north to house prisoners of war. Yes…these men were shipped across the ocean to be retained as enemies of the United States and Johnson County became their temporary home away from home. Some 15,000 Italian and then German soldiers marked time in the POW stockade when their war ended abruptly. The Italian prisoners were for the most part quite jovial and well received; the Germans…not so much.

The Italian prisoners took their captivity in stride. They may have been prisoners of war but that didn’t affect their artistic endeavors. At the east end entrance to Camp Atterbury along the main thoroughfare of Hospital Road is a large stone that sits at the top of the rise before the road plunges down into the expanse of the base. Emblazoned with an Italian dagger it announces—“Camp Atterbury.”

The Italian prisoners were also responsible for erecting a Catholic chapel that set in a meadow bordering the POW stockade. It was built as a result of blood (literally), sweat and tears. This chapel not only represented their deep and abiding faith to God, but also made them feel a little closer to their homeland and loved ones. However, after their departure from the base the chapel fell into a state of disrepair (and disrespect), often used as a shelter for hunters and a constant parade of teenagers with seemingly endless supplies of beer cans to be discarded. Fortunately it was restored and rededicated in 1989.

There is a long history of diversity in this area of southern Johnson County; from the original settlers and the communities they erected, to 70 some years it was used as a military installation. People come and after a span of time depart, but often leave imprints of themselves on not only the land but also in buildings they frequented during their stroll through life. These imprints were fueled by emotions, turmoil, and sometimes personal tragedy. It would appear that some never leave…or so the story goes.

Back in the day (World War II) the Wakeman General and Convalescent Hospital had its own imprint upon the grounds of Camp Atterbury. The 47 buildings comprising the hospital were the largest of its kind in the United States in the 1940s, containing over 9,000 beds. During its tour of duty the facility treated more than 85,000 patients and was one of several of the Army’s plastic surgery centers in the country. Let’s speculate on the doctors and nurses that traveled the hallways of these buildings. Let’s also speculate on the outpouring of emotions and personal turmoil that these buildings absorbed during this period of time. Much like a giant magnet that traps and retains….

Although the majority of the original buildings are long gone, a few remain, and for a different purpose.

The Atterbury Job Corps was formed and is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor as an educational and career technical training program for students ages 16 thru 24. Many of these students have what would be described as troubled pasts. The intent of the program is to outfit them with the skills needed to succeed in today’s workplace. All of the students participating in the program are required to live in the dormitories on campus. These dormitories are the few buildings from the Wakeman Hospital complex that still remain. Get the picture; former doctors and nurses…patients dealing with injuries beyond their control or understanding…pain and suffering…life transformations. Apparently folks from the past have chosen to remain behind. Paranormal activity seems to be a frequent and ongoing reminder of a time when the world was in a different place. The students are seeing ghosts!

The dormitories are reported to be a beehive of paranormal activity: knocks on doors with no one on the other side; electrical malfunctions such as lights flickering in one dorm but not the other and televisions turning on and off at whim; whispers, voices, and footsteps; shadows moving to and fro; the nagging feeling of being watched; strange occurrences in Bellamy Hall; glowing yellow eyes and figures in the nearby woods.

As recent as October of 2013 there were student reports of the apparition of a woman in the LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson) dorm and another of whistling centered in the ABL (Abraham Lincoln) dormitory. The students are residents full time and are a witness to the continuing cycle of unworldly visitations. They have been for years. I would suspect that the administration is well aware of the issue, but certainly not going to publicly admit to it. Not if they want to keep their jobs.

Do not travel to Camp Atterbury and the Job Corps Center with the intention of investigating the paranormal. It is not going to happen! If you are not a student or parent of one you will not get very far. If you are found wandering the grounds, most likely you will be arrested. There is a strict “no nonsense” policy to haphazard visitors, and mentioning the paranormal will only make a bad situation worse. It’s not that they [administration] don’t know that things out of the ordinary are happening, they’re just not talking. Get used to the “thousand-yard stare” if you bring up the subject.

There are, however, place you can explore within Camp Atterbury without the threat of arrest. The POW Chapel built by the Italian prisoners can bring about a sense of unease, even in the daylight hours. The field in front of the structure and woods on the eastern edge was part of the original stockade. One can’t help but to feel a presence…the feeling of being watched. Voices and flirting shadows are witnessed on occasion at night.

There are a maze of gravel roads to the north of Hospital Road formerly dedicated to military operations, but are presently either abandoned or open to public use. Each area has its own time and place in the past, and each its own potential for some sort of paranormal activity; from the remaining pioneer graveyards (not all were tampered with during the initial construction of the camp) to the steel auto bridges over the quiet expanse of the Driftwood River to the remains of a grist mill, now the only evidence being the carved stone foundations. A few of the original military buildings still remain, but very few at that. Each finding on your journey has a tale that begs to be told.

The south side of Hospital Road for the moment is still military and access is questionable. In the near future this area may very well open up. Back in those stretches of hills and valleys lies the remnants of the town of Kansas. There will be new cemeteries to explore. There will be new stories to be told.

The original 43,000 acres of Camp Atterbury has been reduced to roughly 30,000. The difference is divided between the Job Corps, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Johnson County Parks Department, and the Hoosier Horse Park. The 30,000 acres is presently leased to the Military Department for use as a reserve forces training area. Life at Camp Atterbury goes on.

Slowly, but surely, the grounds are being reclaimed. Take a drive and spend the day exploring. You may not directly experience the spirits of those who have made their mark, but who’s to say you won’t feel their presence. POWs/SoThinkMenu/CAPOW-START.htm

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