Taps for Fort Hayes
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Bill Bush

In 1944, Russell Pollitt Sr. found himself being herded from doctor to doctor through a "warehouse" at Fort Hayes with hundreds of other recently drafted men.

Pollitt was convinced he wasn’t going into the Army. The 18-year-old from Manchester, Ohio, had tried to enlist in Cincinnati and was rejected for poor vision.

At Fort Hayes, there was a "stop" sign hanging from the ceiling where the men were supposed to wait until a doctor finished examining the previous person’s eyes.

"But I didn’t see it," said Pollitt, now 80. "This sign must have been about 12 or 14 feet in the air."

The doctor scolded him — prompting Pollitt to make a lifealtering mistake.

"I said, ‘Hey, don’t be jumping on me, I’m not in the Army yet,’ " Pollitt said.

"Well, you’re gonna be," the doctor responded.

When Pollitt walked out the back of the warehouse, he was on his way to basic training in Texas. By December 1944, he was a machine gunner riding a halftrack across France, fighting his way into Germany.

For hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Fort Hayes was their introduction into the military. Born in 1861 during the Civil War, the fort near Downtown has maintained a presence there since.

But that’s about to come to an end.

The last remaining Army Reserve units based at the complex of about 71 acres — the 391 st Military Police Battalion, 375 th Criminal Investigations Division, retention and transition division and a military-intelligence attachment — are pulling up stakes. The 375 th and 391 st recently served in Iraq.

The military is building a new Army Reserve center at the Defense Supply Center in Whitehall. It will be ready by the end of 2009, ending a century-and-ahalf military presence at Fort Hayes. The Whitehall Memorial Army Reserve Center at 712 Country Club Rd. also will close and move to the new facility.

The military is consolidating sites all across the nation, said Maj. Annmarie Daneker of the 88 th Regional Readiness Command in St. Paul, Minn., which commands all Reserve units in six Midwestern states, including Ohio.

"It’s much cheaper to build a better, more energy-efficient Reserve center than modify a 50-year-old building," she said. "It doesn’t make sense to have both centers open or have a large center accommodating a small number of people."

The military informed the city of Columbus last year that 9.7 acres at the southwest corner of the fort was becoming surplus. Columbus Public Schools — which already operate a high school, middle school, vocational center and bus depot on the site — are now in line to become the sole owner of the historic site.

The Army began using the site in 1861 but didn’t get the deed to the land until 1863, when it purchased the site for $16,000. At the time the camp was about a half-mile outside Columbus, population 19,000.

It began life as the Columbus Barracks and later was named the Columbus Arsenal. In 1922, it became Fort Hayes in honor of President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Its first building was the main barracks that today is called the "Shot Tower," because of folklore that it was used to make shot by dripping lead from the top of the tower into a pool of water at the base. Historians have debunked that story and say the building never made shot.

Over the decades scores of other buildings were erected, including barracks, a hospital, an officers club, officers’ houses, a mess hall and an administration building.

In 1970, Fort Hayes was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant Ohio landmark.

"At the time it was the oldest military installation in continual use in Ohio," said Barb Powers of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office.

Nathaniel L. Hill’s father went through Fort Hayes in 1941. Thirty years later, Hill became commander of the military facility then called the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station.

By then, the 2,000 troops that lived at the fort during World War II were gone, replaced by about 50 commuting soldiers and civilians responsible for inducting troops into the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

The base was like a ghost town, having lost its hustle and bustle, Hill said. The barracks and officers’ homes were mostly still there, but "there was no one living in those quarters."

"We had no guards at the gate," Hill said. "As a matter of fact, I can’t remember if we even required a sticker on your car to get in."

But the draft was still on and so was the Vietnam War. The base processed about 150 to 200 recruits a day in a large garage commonly called the "Mule Barn," said Hill, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who had flown cargo and midair refueling planes in Vietnam.

"If the wind was blowing 25 mph outside, it was blowing 20 mph inside," Hill said. "I mean, it was drafty."

Sometime in 1973, Hill’s operations moved to an office building in Clintonville, and the fort became even more desolate, he said.

Now the Reserve maintains three buildings on the 9.7 acres it controls, which the Franklin County auditor’s office values at $13.8 million.

Columbus Public Schools will get the property free. The district plans to mothball the historic guardhouse at the gate entrance and use the remaining buildings for adult education and health and family services programs, according to its application to the city.