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Can Such Things Be?
September 1, 2012

The Sordid Tale of Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky
by David Coker

EVANSVILLE, IN — The advent of World War II meant many things to different people. To those young men eligible for the draft, it meant being drafted into the Armed Services and off to basic training and being shipped off to serve and fight in a foreign land. To many woman and those not eligible for the draft, it meant badly needed employment for those who struggled during the Great Depression. 

But to nearly 1,500 people from farm families in nearby Henderson, Webster and Union Counties in northwestern Kentucky, it meant much more — it meant giving up their land, farm equipment, homes and way of life to the federal government in the name of patriotism and the war effort.    

At the time, little did these humble farm families  know that the creation of the Army’s Camp Breckenridge in 1942 would eventually lead to a rancorous legal dispute and hard feelings on the part of family descendents which would span seven decades. It is a rather sordid tale, but one to be remembered. 

Hence, last weekend,  the 70th year reunion event of Camp Breckenridge Commemoration event was held at the James D. Veach Museum and Arts Center on the grounds of Camp Breckenridge outside Morganifield in northwestern Kentucky.  

In January, 1942, Kentucky Representative Beverly Vincent revealed to the public that the War Department had authorized the construction of an Army training base somewhere near Morganfield, the facility was to be designed to train some 30,000 troops annually. A few short weeks later, farmers in the surrounding area were told two things:

1. if they accept the appraised value of their property, payment would be tendered immediately, and
2. As soon as the war is over and the property is declared “surplus,” the owners would be offered a right of first refusal to repurchase the farm land with compensation for damages. 

Finally, on March 3, 1942, 121 orders to vacate the property were sent by the U.S. Marshal’s office and the 36,000 acres of farmland to build the training base.  

A book by Ruby Higginson, Land of Camp Breckenridge: Injustice to the Farmer (1978), tells how at the same time the Army began confiscating land, oil wells were starting to be drilled in the vicinity of the proposed camp. Higginson, an Evansville, Indiana, resident who was in high school at the time the land was taken, painfully details in graphic descriptions what happened to the various people involved in the massive land grab through negotiated sales and condemnation proceedings. Many farmers long remained upset about how government officials eventually lied to all the land owners and broke every promise made to them. 

In the post-World War II era, family members who lived on farms taken for the base have been engaged in a never-ending legal struggle while government officials seemed to be insulated from public opinion and ridicule. In the ensuing years, the federal government sold the mineral rights on much of the land which has since produced coal, oil and natural gas.

From 1950 until 1965 the camp remained closed. Finally, in 1965 the land was declared “surplus” and the government broke the acerage up into such large tracts that none of the area farmers could afford to buy any of their former land holdings. A lawsuit was filed in federal court in the late 1960s but a judge dismissed the case. Congressional action in 1993 allowed the plaintiffs a hearing in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and in 2005 Judge Susan Braden issued a preliminary ruling awarding some $32.5 million – proceeds from the sale of mineral rights to the land --  to the former land owners. In the ruling, Judge Braden instructed the Justice Department (acting in behalf of the Army) and the former land owners to negotiate a settlement. 

Subsequently, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner spent several months attempting to mediate an equitable settlement.  Finally, a 3-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Claims in February, 2009 dismissed the previous recommendation. Justices Lawrence Margolis and Loren Smith wrote a 20-page opinion stating that “any award to the Claimants would constitute a gratuity,” and recommended Congress be advised that they should receive nothing. 

However, in a 42-page dissenting opinion, Judge Charles F. Lettow sided with the landowners and claimed they should be awarded some $22.9 million because about a third of the land had been condemned through court action rather than by a quasi-voluntary sale. 

He went on to argue that the Tennessee Valley Authority purchased the coal rights on some 30,540 acres of the land for $7.4 million but later sold these rights to private interests for over $400 million. Judge Lettlow stated the case is the epitome of an instance where the government has enriched itself by “the overreaching of its agents,” and “the claimants deserve recompense. “  

Despite their legal setbacks, the Breckenridge Land Committee continues to meet regularly. The group sends out a newsletter and receives monthly reports from their lawyers. Currently, members are attempting to exert pressure on Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s staff since the case has been reported back to the Senate by the Court of Federal Claims. 

A display of antique farm machinery that would have been used by area farmers at the time the land was seized, accompanied the reunion event.

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© 2012 by David Coker and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

A version of this article appeared in the Evansville Courier & Press.

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© 2012 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation