Retired Army Col. Mike Weaver and other volunteers are working to restore the last World War II barracks building on Fort Knox, Ky., for an exhibit at the post's Patton Museum.
There's a story behind the red oak steps of the World War II barracks building he’s renovating.
“These steps coming out of this building have a concave shape,” he says. “Forty years of soldiers going up and down these steps have worn at least an inch and a half off them. … These buildings have meaning to me because I lived in them. They have meaning to me because I can visualize the soldiers that went up and down those steps, and what happened to them in the wars they fought. … You can imagine maybe a young kid from Kansas, never been more than a 25-mile radius from his home, joining the army for World War II, Korea or Vietnam, and living in buildings like these. Maybe he stays in 30 years and becomes a colonel or a general. You don’t know all the history, but you can imagine what it is.”
Weaver – who’s had careers as an armor and cavalry officer, building contractor and state legislator -- is working to save a piece of Army history, heading up a project to restore the last World War II barracks building left on Fort Knox, Ky.
The wooden barracks, meant as temporary structures, were erected at Army posts all over the country in World War II and remained in use for decades as soldiers’ quarters, office space – even, here at Fort Stewart, as hospital buildings.
“These things were extremely useful in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and 70s – probably the most versatile building in the Army for 40 years,” Weaver said. “I lived in them here at Fort Knox when I was going through basic training. I lived in them at Fort Riley Kansas, Fort Stewart, Georgia. … They were all over the place. There’s no telling how many thousands of these buildings were built.
“These buildings were also at Fort Stewart,” he added. “In fact, there was an Army hospital at Fort Stewart made on this model, all out of wood. It was a World War II hospital, and when I came back from Vietnam in 1967 to Hunter Army Airfield, I came back with two strains of malaria and ended up staying at a hospital on Fort Stewart built on that model.”
Volunteers from the Bluegrass Challenge Academy work to renovate a World War II-era barracks building at Fort Knox, Ky. The building is the last of its kind on Fort Knox, and is being restored for use as a historical exhibit at the post's Gen. George Patton Museum.
The buildings saw use far beyond their intended lifespan – only recently falling out of use at many posts.
“We used them forever here (at Fort Knox),” Weaver said. “There were about 25 of them left in December of 2010. We saved one of them, and the other 24, in January 2011, were just bulldozed down.”
Weaver, a member of Fort Knox’s Gen. George Patton Museum Foundation, didn’t want to see all of the history that went with the structures leveled along with the buildings themselves – and other foundation members agreed.
"To me it’s a patriotic thing to renovate this building and bring it back to the way it was and put it here at the Patton museum so people can see it," Weaver said.
Foundation members had wanted to relocate one of the barracks buildings to the Patton Museum for years – but the cost had always been prohibitive. In 2010, however, the foundation had found an ally in Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, now retired, former commander of U.S. Army Accessions Command and Fort Knox.
“We told him that if he would foot the cost of moving it and setting it up next to the Patton Museum, we would foot the bill for the renovation,” Weaver said. “I stepped forward with my contractor experience and a little bit of mediocre leadership ability to supervise the workforce and renovate this building.”
The World War II barracks were never meant to be permanent, so the building’s roof had to be replaced, and the interior basically gutted during the restoration. Building materials weren’t necessarily chosen for their durability – with the exception of the flooring.
“When they were originally built, they put drywall on the outside of the studs and tarpaper over that and wood over that,” Weaver said. “They did have hardwood flooring on the floor and red oak steps going up to the second floor, because it was cheap to do back then.”
Even so, Weaver had to scavenge flooring from two other buildings before they were demolished to complete the flooring in the building being renovated. He also had to tear out 71 cubic yards of drywall, insulation and other materials – a task for which he enlisted the help of teens from the Bluegrass Challenge Academy.
“It’s a program funded by the federal and state government, and it’s kind of a boot camp for wayward kids,” Weaver explained. “In a 22-week program, they’re smoke-free, drug-free and get their GED. When they’re in their 18th week, they get some privileges, and they considered this work a privilege. I got a hell of a lot of work out of these kids.”
Weaver said the Challenge Academy teens quickly understood the importance of the project.
“On the first day, I gave them a talk and told them what this building means and why it should be a privilege to work on it, and they ended up agreeing,” he said. “I’ve worked with young men all my life, and I knew how to handle them. Part of leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do because they believe in it, and they trust you. That’s the kind of relationship I was able to establish with these young men.”
And while working in the building, some of those young men discovered a piece of history left by some other young man long ago – a poster describing how to properly display uniforms and foot lockers.
“The date on it is 15 January 1947. We found that tacked to the wall behind the old insulation and drywall we tore off,” Weaver said. “There’s just so much history in here. Every type of soldier you can imagine – who went through World War II, Korea and Vietnam – lived in buildings like this. They left their footprints here. And we’re trying to hold on to those footprints.”