Museum Specialist Scott Franklin and former Fort Leonard Wood resident Bill Wieberg examine World War II artifacts Friday in the curation facility of Fort Leonard Wood’s John B. Mahaffey Museum Complex. Wieberg visited the installation to see his former childhood home and learn about what has happened at the installation since he lived here. (Photo by Amanda Sullivan, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office) Credit: Amanda Sullivan, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office

A lot has changed since 83-year-old Bill Wieberg lived on Fort Leonard Wood during World War II. Rough and bumpy dirt and gravel roads have been replaced by smooth pavement, once expansive woodlands are now housing areas and wooden, World War II-era temporary buildings have been mostly replaced. What began as a training site when it opened in 1942, developed into a 63,000-acre installation that trains about 80,000 service members and civilians each year.

For Wieberg, the extent of the development was surreal.

“I am just flabbergasted that all this happened while I was gone,” he said during a tour of Fort Leonard Wood Friday. “Believe it or not, driving around I am picturing making a right turn on Pulaski Avenue down to my house, knowing seriously in the back of my head that it’s no longer there.”

Joined by his son Ken and family friend Joe Ammann, who helped coordinate the visit, Wieberg was escorted around the installation by members of the Directorate of Public Works Natural Resources Branch’s Cultural Resources team to seek out some of the locations from his childhood, and to exchange information about what Fort Leonard Wood would have looked like when he lived here.

Life on Fort Leonard Wood during World War II

After serving in the Marine Corps in the mid-1930s, Wieberg’s father was given the opportunity to come to Fort Leonard Wood as a civilian worker in 1940, to manage the icehouse. The installation was still under construction at the time, so the family, who lived in St. Louis, moved to Rolla, where they stayed until family housing was completed at Fort Leonard Wood in 1942.

According to Wieberg, the job opportunity was great for the time.

“In those days, there wasn’t much work for people,” he said.

A fluency in German passed down through family heritage — along with a knowledge of refrigeration — proved useful for his father when working with and managing German prisoners of war, who began arriving here in 1943. Trusted POWs with proven good behavior were given jobs, including at the icehouse, where they produced ice blocks for the railway boxcars transporting service members’ remains home from the war.

“They would make these large, 1,500-pound blocks of ice and put them in the box cars,” he said. “Dad said they were to keep the bodies cool because they were coming from Europe and going west.”

Archeologists took Wieberg to the location where the original icehouse would have stood along the railway. The building his father worked in no longer exists, but Wieberg was able to see some of the still-standing, one-story warehouse buildings and the location where other buildings he used to frequent once stood.

“As far as the building, all I recall is inside, and the process of starting up early in the morning to make these blocks of ice and then installing them in the box car,” he said. “I just got to see where they put them, but not what was in them.”

Searching for tangible reminders of the past

The house with white wood siding and No. 37 next to the door, where Wieberg lived with his parents and sisters, is long gone. So is the enormous swing set and row of teeter-totters his father built for him, his siblings and the neighborhood children in the tree-lined area behind the housing development.

“We were Catholic, so we went to school in Dixon, at the Catholic school,” he said.

He recalled walking across the field from his house to a nearby post exchange, and said everything was food stamps then. There were vouchers for groceries, meat, toiletries and household things, he said, and compared to the PX on post today, it was nothing to write home about.

“It was a smaller building,” he said. “But it had enough in it to buy your groceries.”

Another memory that stood out in his mind was soldiers picking him up from his house in a jeep and taking him to and from his dad’s workplace. The house, he recalled, was just off Pulaski Avenue.

The group traveled to the approximate location of the only known neighborhood at the time, but Wieberg said it didn’t feel familiar to him. Fort Leonard Wood archeologists have no record of another neighborhood existing at the time, but Andrew Phillips, a DPW archaeologist, said they will use the information and photos provided by Wieberg to determine if there may have been another neighborhood that has been lost to history.

Bill Wieberg, an 83-year-old who lived on Fort Leonard Wood during World War II, examines a hand-made toy plane at the John B. Mahaffey Museum Complex. (Photo by Amanda Sullivan, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office)

Life after Fort Leonard Wood

The family moved back to St. Louis in 1947, and Wieberg followed in his father’s footsteps by serving in the Marine Corps as a machine gunner from 1956 to 1958.

Wieberg is the only living member of the small family who came to Fort Leonard Wood eight decades ago, and despite not recognizing much, Wieberg said seeing what happened here over the years was enough.

“It’s been 80 years, so it was a long time ago,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed this.”

In the end, his son Ken said the fact that so little tangible evidence of his father’s childhood remained, didn’t make the experience any less special.

“After hearing all of his stories about growing up here, it’s great to see everything,” Ken said. “Even though most of it is no longer here, there’s little footprints everywhere.”

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