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Bringing History to Life

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A group of local students are creating what never was– a history of Bayviews’s Farragut Naval Training Station

They said it was eerie when they were locked in the brig. They said their video camera quit filming and their digital camera picked up some “odd” images, but they’re skeptical about the possibility of ghosts. They’re less skeptical about the possibility of a government conspiracy to purposely infect young men with rheumatic fever. But what this small group of students at Lake Pend Oreille High School is sure of without a doubt is that they’re really learning history... and enjoying it along the way.

    At some point in time, most high school students hear from a teacher that it’s time to learn about World War II. This small group of almost 20 students in Randy Wilhelm’s and Mike Lefler’s classes, however, were told they were going to do a little bit more than just learn about history. They were to research it, study it, experience of it what they could and then, best of all, they were going to preserve it.

    “It’s good to know history,” Brittney Bergman explained. “That way we don’t end up making the same mistakes now. Besides,” she added, “it was a great group of people and we should remember them.”

    The group of people she’s talking about are the almost 300,000 men who served at Farragut Naval Training Center from 1942 to 1946. Farragut is located in Bayview, Idaho, just 30 miles south of Sandpoint.

    On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war. 2,403 lives were lost in the attack. Eight battleships and 17 other naval vessels were either sunk or destroyed. Because the attack fell upon our naval forces, recruiting offices were filled with men who wanted to enlist in the Navy. The three existing recruit-training stations were filled to capacity – in June, 1942, the enlisted strength of the Navy was estimated at 556,000 men.

    The Navy projected a need for four new training stations, two in the east and two in the west. They eventually settled on one site on the west coast and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson favored an inland site because he believed the coasts would be subjected to enemy bombings. After a two-day study by Navy officials, the southern shore of Lake Pend Oreille was chosen. Initially, there were to be facilities built to accommodate 30,000 troops.

    On 23 April 1942 ground was broken. Farragut consisted of 4,050 acres of land. The 6 ½ square mile site occupied a peninsula that formed two bays and encompassed five miles of shoreline.  By the time construction was complete, there were facilities to care for a population of more than 45,000 people. 650 frame buildings were constructed; there was a low-cost housing project for 300 families; a sewage treatment plant; five 50-person dormitories; two chapels; an auditorium and a 1500 bed hospital (increased by 500 beds in 1944). There were 46 miles of gravel and paved roads; 13 miles of railroad tracks; 34 miles of sewer lines; 26 miles of water mains and 20 miles of electric lines. Farragut, in its short life span, was to become the largest “city” in the state of Idaho, and the second largest naval base in the entire country.

    “I didn’t understand how big a place it was and how many people went through there,” said Brittney. That was before the kids went to Farragut for an overnight campout.

    “You definitely feel something different when you go there,” she explained. “The roads are halfway filled in with grass, and there’s lots of foundation pieces and chimneys.” And there’s also the brig.

    Before they ever got to the brig, however, the students got to Al Leiser, the park Ranger assigned to Farragut and a man Wilhelm describes as being “an enormous help” with the project the students were undertaking. “He told us lots of stories,” said Brandon Ryan. It was from Al that the students first learned about a young enlisted man, said to be homosexual, who was “harassed by the other guys. He supposedly hanged himself,” said Brittney. “That story’s not confirmed,” she hastily added.

    They also heard about a German prisoner of war who was thought to have been thrown into the camp’s boiler by one of the guards. “There was a big POW camp at Farragut,” said Mike. Either man is a candidate for the “ghost” said to roam the facility.

    Al also told the students about a rumor that the U.S. Government injected recruits with rheumatic fever in order to test some of the new sulfa drugs. “Over 1600 men (at Farragut) died from rheumatic fever,” Brittney explained. “And all the bodies were cremated,” added Randy. The class told the story of a retired Navy man they met at one of the Farragut reunions who had come down with rheumatic fever while at the camp. “He said that every time he came into port after that, there would be a doctor there to test him and update his medical records,” said Randy. “But when he was discharged, there was nothing in his records to show he’d ever had rheumatic fever.” It’s also said that when Al Leiser began asking questions about the fever, government officials showed up in the area asking about him. These students are a generation that’s grown up on stories of government wrongdoing and conspiracy stories that were later proved to be true. Perhaps they’re a little bit cynical. But the conspiracy, “doesn’t seem too far-fetched,” said Josh Barnes. “I think it’s believable,” added Brittney, though she draws a pretty firm line against giving the idea of ghosts credibility.

    Not that she and the rest of the class don’t have a few questions about what happened when they toured the brig, by flashlight, at 10:30 in the evening. “Take a look at the pictures,” Lisa McFarland said. “Then you decide what they are.”

    In all the digital photos taken in the brig, though in none of the photos taken before or after, round white spheres appear in every frame. “We took the film to (a photo expert),” Randy said. “He said that a photographer could explain what those artifacts were, but only if they’d been taken with a regular camera. Because it was digital, all the explanations went out the door.”

    Still, it wasn’t ghosts the kids were thinking of while they toured the brig, or during the five minutes that Al Leiser locked them inside. It was the people. “You couldn’t help but think of them,” Brittney said. “The average age (of a recruit) was 17 years old,” Josh offered. “That’s our age. A lot of these guys came from the east coast, and they had to teach some of them how to swim.”

    Perhaps it would be enough that these students have learned lots of stories that they relate enthusiastically. Perhaps it would be enough that they have gained a deeper appreciation for history. “We watched (the movie) Pearl Harbor the other day, and you could have heard a pin drop in this room,” Randy said. But these are Lake Pend Oreille Alternative High School students, and learning the history was only the first part of the story. The real story is in their efforts to preserve what they’ve learned.

    It starts with a model, a replica if you will, of the Naval Base in its heyday. “It’s a full scale model,” Lisa explained. Every 40 foot of the base is represented in 3/16” foam core. The students have been building it, “since the beginning of the year,” Brittney said. Asked when it would be completed, they laughed and said, “the end of the year!”

    “We had to learn how to read a topographical map,” said Lisa. “Because we had to figure out the level of the ground. We’ve also looked at LOTS of pictures.” According to Josh, “thousands and thousands” of tiny pine trees, made out of sponges and wire, have to be placed and then they’ll get to work on the buildings... all 700 of them. A similar model of Hidden Lakes Golf Course, built by professional model builders, cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. “We’d like to give ours to Farragut when we’re done,” said Brittney. “It would be a good thing for their museum.”

They’re also working on a book, a coffee-table type picture book that they want to sell for around $20 each. They already have a bid on printing (it’s a $20,000 project) and a great head start on the pictures – the walls of their classroom at LPO are filled with pictures relating to Farragut. “We hope to have the galley done by the end of the year,” said Randy.

    And if that’s not enough, the class has also put together a website about Farragut. They envision a place where veterans can go, and “log in” to the database – enter their own information, then look through the information compiled and hook up with old friends. The website will also include what information they’ve gathered, and a huge database of pictures. They hope to have it up shortly, hosted on the school’s servers, and eventually they’d like it to have its own domain, at www.farragutnavaltrainingcenter.com.

    A final project the students would like to see come to fruition is to return to Farragut one of its original buildings – one of the drill halls. In 1946, when the base was decommissioned, there was a failed attempt at a junior college on the site. Then it was turned over to the state’s Parks Department, and Farragut became an official state park. In the process, the original buildings were either torn down or moved. The 120’x700’ drill hall became a place many area residents have spent a little bit of time in – the old Costco store on Division St. in Spokane. “The students have written to Costco, asking if the building could be donated back to Farragut,” Randy explained.

    When all this is done, the students will have created something that didn’t exist before – a database of information on Farragut. “There just isn’t any history of Farragut,” Mike explained. “People hired independent researchers from Seattle, and they just couldn’t find any information.”

    By the time these students are done, that won’t be true anymore. And just as an extra benefit, they’ve picked up their history credit as well. “I couldn’t handle just reading out of a book,” Jennifer McFarland said of her experience with this project. “I learn better hands-on.”

    “Yeah,” her sister, Lisa concurred. “If you make a project fun, you tend to remember it better.” And it you make it really fun, maybe everyone else can remember it, too.

    The students of this project ask that anyone with information or photographs of Farragut Naval Training Station contact them at the school at 208-263-6121. Anyone interested in supporting the project with cash donations is encouraged to call, as well.

    Photo (front page)- The students take time to pose for a picture before heading in for a tour of the brig. Photo provided by Farragut Project.

 

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Landon Otis

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