They called it "Boomtown," a bawdy, tawdry strip of beer joints and massage parlors lining Route 175 along the northern edge of Fort George G. Meade where soldiers on their way to war lived for the night, the devil take tomorrow.
But peace can be hard on camp towns, and although the buildings are still there, Boomtown is no more.
The Army base that served as a mobilization point for millions of American troops headed for Europe, the Pacific, Korea and then Vietnam is now a shadowy, slumbering giant. Were it not for the fact that alleged presidential assailant John W. Hinckley is here in the stockade, where he once tried to take his own life, Fort Meade would rarely appear as a dateline these days.
"To me," said Mabel J. Snipes, 59, who has been a seamstress at Kimbrough Army Hospital since June 1942, "it seems like nothing's going on."
If war were to come again, Fort Meade would spring to life once more. As many as 249 military units from all over the Northeast would mobilize and embark from this 13,500-acre base roughly halfway between Washington and Baltimore, just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But for now, post commander Col. Barton M. Hayward said, "The young, unattached population has gone down, there's no question about that."
The last armored cavalry division left the base for Texas in 1974. "After 55 years, the rumble of tanks is no longer heard at Fort Meade," says the sign at the Meade museum.
Small units with special missions are now the order of the day. Among the most active units is administrative, the 1st Army headquarters, in charge of all reservists from Virginia to Maine.
Fort Meade is now a sleepy place where "terminal colonels" are assigned before retirement--the career path of the last four post commanders. Civilian employes outnumber the military, 16,133 to 8,406 at last count. At Tipton Army Airfield, privately owned single-engine planes appear to outnumber the military craft, and few of either could be seen taking off or landing on recent days. The shelling range was likewise quiet. And even at rush hour, traffic flowed easily along streets named mostly after otherwise anonymous soldiers killed in World War I.
The "temporary" buildings raised during World War II to last five years have lasted 40, but their paint is peeling now and some of their windows are boarded. "Building will be demolished in near future" say the faded, stenciled letters on the siding. The place has an almost eerie, ghost-town quality. It looks like an empty Hollywood set for a 1941 service comedy.
It was not always so.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the future site of Fort Meade was surveyed and streets were mapped for a large new town. Developer Richard Respass envisioned a city of ethnic communities, each self-governing. Streets were surveyed for the Irish, Italian and Polish sections. An interurban railroad was planned to link "Respass City" with Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis.
Then came World War I. Congress designated the site as one of 16 cantonments across the country at which the American Expeditionary Force would be trained to fight the German kaiser. The camp, named after Civil War General George G. Meade, was completed by December 1917 with capacity for 40,550 enlisted men and 1,535 officers on 9,349 acres. Before the war was over, 103,000 soldiers had trained there.
Myrtle Phillips, now 86, had been married only three days when her husband, Roy, went to Meade from Maryland's Eastern Shore. From her home in Greenbelt, she remembered that time long ago when she traveled to camp to see him off to war. "It was people going and coming and loving each other," she said.
In the years between the wars, soldiers were trained in tank warfare, and schooled in baking and cooking. Meade's status rose from camp to fort but, since a Fort Meade already existed in the Dakotas, it was named Fort Leonard Wood. Angry Pennsylvanians, claiming George Meade as a native son, were furious and attached a rider to a military appropriations bill in 1929. Thus, by act of Congress, the installation became Fort George G. Meade.
After passage of the Selective Service Act of 1940, a massive building program began as war clouds once again threatened. On round-the-clock shifts, 18,000 workers completed a new building every 53 minutes. Altogether, 3.5 million men were mobilized here between 1940 and 1946.
Among them was Richard G. McQuay, a 20-year-old draftee when he was inducted here in 1942. "In three days, you were on a troop train that came right in Rock Avenue," he recalled. Discharged from Meade in 1946, he has worked at the post off and on since 1947 as a civilian. Now, he notes, the tracks are seldom used.
While GIs went about the base during the war, several hundred enemy aliens were interned behind brick walls. Meade also became a prisoner-of-war camp where Germans and Italians worked at such tasks as patching and pressing GI clothes, a job Mabel Snipes, among others, trained them to do.
Glenn Miller trained here. So did the French Women's Army Corps. During the Battle of the Bulge, replacement troops moved rapidly through Fort Meade and on to the front. The wartime population peaked at 69,746 military and 3,296 civilians.
Boomtown sprouted along Annapolis Road in 1940. "Everybody was trying to jump over the fence to get that beer before they left good old Fort Meade for parts unknown," said McQuay, who wound up in Europe with the 15th Army. "I was one of the guys who didn't go over the fence, probably because I didn't have the dough. I used to watch 'em. There was action going on there all night."
Some still recall the time 500 airborne troops took over Boomtown to protest what they said was watered-down beer. They held their position for two nights, so the story goes, until the officer who trained them was recalled from leave to calm them down.
Until a few years ago, county and military police patrolled the boisterous Boomtown strip together. There's no need for that now. "Community relations are cordial," said a post spokesman.
At the height of their World War II prosperity, Boomtown businesses averaged $1,000 a week in wartime dollars. The business dried up with the war's end: A penny arcade built in 1942 for $35,000 went on the market for just $3,500. But when the Korean War erupted in 1950, Meade was back in business and so was Boomtown.
The boom-and-bust cycle continued, through the peacetime years of the 1950s and the Vietnam war of the 1960s and '70s. Jane Fonda visited the base to protest the war, and an underground newspaper, "Highway 13," circulated here.
In 1957, the National Security Agency, a joint civilian-military intelligence agency, came to Meade, first located in a three-story building and then an adjacent nine-story one, just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. It is all hush-hush and out of the way. Its thousands of employes come and go without having any noticeable impact on the Fort Meade scene.
When the fort commemorated its 50th anniversary in 1967, the Chamber of Commerce took out a full-page ad in the post newspaper declaring, "Odenton is moving ahead with Fort Meade. . . . Walking together, both Odenton and Fort Meade can confidently expect a great future."
Today's Odenton Chamber of Commerce is not so bullish. "Meade is no longer what it was," said Chamber President Mike Davis. "We don't have the military-type atmosphere of the '50s and '60s." As for Boomtown, Davis said, "that's a dirty word."
The camp town has become so tame, in fact, that the Super 170 Drive-in on the east side of the base, which Davis runs, has stopped showing X-rated movies, for years a staple. Fast-food chains seem to thrive. Overall, Davis said, Odenton is "not decaying but we don't have the growth, it's almost stagnation."
None of Boomtown's merchants and businessmen would go so far as to wish for another war, but most suggest with resignation that for them, peacetime means smaller profits. A few years ago, on military payday, Patio Lounge owner Gene Kidd could count on grossing $300-$400. "Payday now, you might as well forget it," he says. "It's just the same as any other day," which means $100-$125.
"It's kind of in limbo right now," said Dennis Watkins, who has owned the Gemini Tattoo Boutique since 1972. "It's definitely not booming. We don't get that much action out of the military. There aren't that many."
"Before, everything was good; we had a complete line of men's and ladies' fare, a constant trade," said Eric Stein, manager of Sid's Department Store ("Military Accessories . . . We Buy Old Gold"), which also serves as a pawnshop and a dry cleaner. "Dry cleaning is the main business now. There used to be four or five dry cleaners on the strip. Now, there are two of us left. Businesswide, we've more or less adjusted to it."
And the future? "The only prospect I see of this place ever building up again," he said in the nearly empty store, "is if there's another war."