By Stephanie Nutt
Special to GUIDON
On June 1, rehabilitation work on Building 2101, the World War II-era African-American Officers’ Club, was briefly suspended for a unique ceremony.
Earlier in the project, the signature of Harold Gruelle was discovered on an interior wall by members of the construction team. Gruelle was a Soldier who trained at the Engineer Replacement Training Center at Fort Leonard Wood in 1942. He had been a carpenter prior to his military service, and his carpenter skills may have been put to work for a period of time on construction efforts for the installation.
With a little bit of sleuthing, Gruelle’s family, including his 94-year-old widow, were tracked down and contacted (you can read the article online at www.army.mil/article/201882/).
During the ceremony, Col. Tracy Lanier, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander, along with personnel from the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District, Fort Leonard Wood Area Office; Patriot Construction, LLC and their subcontractors, signed their names on an interior wall of the building, leaving their signature just as Harold Gruelle did some 76 years ago. All have been instrumental in the preservation and rehabilitation of the building, one of only two surviving World War II-era African-American Officers’ clubs in the Army system.
The ceremony served several purposes. First and foremost, it served as a way for the Garrison and DPW Environmental Division to thank USACE, Patriot Construction, LLC, the construction contractors, and others for their exceptional work throughout the project. It provided those closely involved in the project the opportunity to document the role they played in preserving this important historic property.
Finally, it created a time capsule of sorts. Next to the signatures was placed a copy of the GUIDON article about Harold Gruelle and the heart-warming message from his widow thanking the team for discovering her late husband’s signature and “redeeming history of his service in the U.S. Army.” In the future, if someone discovers the signatures, article, and message, they will understand the significance.
In order to underscore the historic significance of the building, Charlie Neel, Environmental Division chief, recounted the story of the Freeman Field Mutiny, a landmark event in the early days of the civil rights movement when African-American officers of the 477th Bombardment Group attempted to enter the whites-only officers’ club at Freeman Army Airfield in Indiana.
Between April 5 and 11, 1945, a total of 120 African- American officers were arrested for peacefully attempting to enter the whites-only officers’ club. Ultimately, the 477th Bombardment Group was transferred to Godman Field in Kentucky, where they awaited trial. According to Neel, the Freeman Field Mutiny is cited by civil rights historians as one of the seminal events eventually leading to the desegregation of the Army.
According to historical records and first-hand accounts, similar activities were also occurring at Fort Leonard Wood during that period of time. As the story is told, Building 2101 was converted to an African American officers’ club after two African American officers entered the Officers’ Club for an important social function attended by the Engineer Replacement Training Center commander. They were made to leave the club and were not allowed to attend the event. As a result, African American officers were provided their own service club for recreation and social purposes and were not allowed to mingle with their fellow white officers at an integrated club. The conversion of Building 2101 from administrative use to a service club occurred sometime in the summer or fall of 1942. During the spring of 1943, the building was enlarged with an addition of a large recreation hall and the creation of four guest rooms.
Lanier closed the ceremony by offering his personal thanks to the team for their hard work and dedication to the project. He stressed the importance of Army officers being able to gather in a relaxed environment and discuss issues across ranks, ultimately helping to advance their careers. During the period of time when the Army was segregated, African American officers were denied the opportunity to interact with all officers in such a setting. He expressed that he stands on the shoulders of those World War II-era African American officers, and may not be where he is today if it were not for their determination and perseverance.
Building 2101 stands as one of the last few tangible pieces of the segregated Army history. Its preservation and continued use will provide countless opportunities to tell the story of the African American Army officers’ experience during World War II to future generations. The renovation of the building is expected to be completed in November.
(Editor’s note: Nutt is the Cultural Resources Coordinator for DPW’s Environmental Division.)