Army Air Force depot, Illinois State Fairgrounds (WWII)

Soldiers stationed at the Illinois State Fairgrounds march in review in Lincoln Park on June 18, 1942 (Courtest State Journal-Register)

Soldiers stationed at the Illinois State Fairgrounds march in review in Lincoln Park on July 18, 1942 (courtesy State Journal-Register)

Livestock moved out of the Illinois State Fairgrounds with the start of World War II, and soldiers moved in.

The U.S. Army Air Force took over the fairgrounds in March 1942 and operated a supply depot and training facility there for the next four years. The Illinois State Fair was cancelled for 1942, ’43, ’44 and ’45.

The facility, which ultimately was officially designated the 847th Army Air Forces Specialized Depot, was staffed by hundreds of AAF soldiers and hundreds more civilians.

The depot’s focus changed as the war went on. Originally, it was primarily a fuel storage area, with thousands of 55-gallon fuel drums stored near the grandstand. Training gradually became a larger part of its mission, although the facility remained a storage depot as well.

Chinese-American soldiers from the fairgrounds play cards at Springfield's USO center (courtesy SJ-R)

Chinese-American soldiers from the fairgrounds play cards with hostesses at Springfield’s USO center (courtesy SJ-R)

For part of 1943, about 150 Chinese-American soldiers, members of the 407th Air Service Squadron, underwent training at the fairgrounds prior to being deployed with Gen. Clair Chennault’s unit in the Burma-China-India theater of the war. Later, many soldiers stationed at the fairgrounds were taught how to refill oxygen cylinders used by Air Force fliers.

In October 1944, Lt. Col. W.T. Sing, then the depot’s commander, revealed that gliders used to carry Allied troops to the Arnhem, Holland, battlefield were shipped from the fairgrounds. According to the Illinois State Journal:

“The shipments were made possible only through the record setting pace maintained by the labor crews at the depot, with have resulted in commendation to this post by the air service command,” Lt. Col. Sing added, explaining:

“With an average of 96 workers on the job, one freight car was loaded with crated gliders every 12 minutes during one schedule and on one occasion the shipping pace was stepped up to loading a car every 8.9 minutes.”

Relations between Springfield and the depot were largely good. Depot soldiers marched in parades and reviews, officers spoke to civic groups, and local clubs and the USO sponsored dances for men stationed at the fairgrounds.

For a USO dance at the YMCA in June 1942, the announcement said, “young women from one to 200 on the approved list will act as dancing partners.” At another USO dance, held in 1943 at the Governor’s Mansion, an unwitting Cuban-American GI ended up with Mabel Green, the wife of Gov. Dwight Green, as his partner.

In March 1944, however, after a depot soldier was badly beaten in a downtown bar and following a sharp increase in the rate of venereal disease among members of the 847th, commanding officer Col. H.G. Woodward declared three downtown taverns off limits. Only intervention by Mayor John “Buddy” Kapp and other local officials kept depot leaders from banning soldiers from the entire city, the Journal reported.

Military Police Maj. Paul Vermillion said his men had been ordered to scrutinize all local hotels, taverns, night clubs and other “hot spots.” The off-limits order applied to the Friendly Tavern, 209 N. Fifth St.; Phil’s Place, North Sixth Street; and the Log Cabin, 113 N. Sixth St.

“Those places ordered out of bounds have been hangouts for underage girls and several times we have had men report having been beaten up in the establishments,” the major stated.

“Venereal disease on this post has increased 80 per cent in the last month at this camp to give our station the highest incident rating in the United State in proportion to the number of men assigned here. We feel a responsibility to the parents of the men involved and therefore directed the order.”

Nazi leader Hermann Goering's bulletproof Mercedes attracted attention at the 1946 Illinois State Fair (courtesy SJ-R)

Nazi leader Hermann Goering’s bulletproof Mercedes attracted attention at the 1946 Illinois State Fair (courtesy SJ-R)

Depot activities wound down as the war ended, and the fairgrounds was officially decommissioned on May 1, 1946 – giving state officials just enough time to refurbish the grounds for the 1946 Illinois State Fair that August.

Lincoln Ordnance Depot

The 847th Army Air Forces Specialized Depot was one of four major military supply facilities in Sangamon County during World War II. Two of those, the Sangamon and Oak Ordnance Plants near Illiopolis, are the subject of a previous SangamonLink entry.

The fourth was the Lincoln Ordnance Depot, located on 472 acres generally between Hazel Dell and Toronto roads. The depot was designed to be one of the largest rail switching yards for storage and distribution of war supplies in the world. It was served by 22 miles of side tracks and included 2.5 million square feet of storage space, 1 million of that under roof.

One of the depot’s primary assignments was to ship finished ammunition prepared at the two Illiopolis manufacturing plants.

schs-logo-2About 475 people worked at Lincoln Ordnance. The depot largely wound down operations after the war, but remained under federal control as a supply center for years. The site currently is an industrial park.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.


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8 Responses to Army Air Force depot, Illinois State Fairgrounds (WWII)

  1. Gary Kreppert says:

    I found this article extremely interesting … especially the section regarding the “off limits” bars in downtown Springfield. In addition, I was totally unaware of the high rate of venereal disease that infested the base.
    This article was discovered as I was researching the structure that formerly stood just inside the 8th Street Gate on the east side of the roadway known as the “Officers Club”.
    During the late ’40s and early ’50s this building was used for social events and meetings.
    My curiosity was why was the name “Officers Club”. Was it something left over from when the military was based at the fairgrounds during WWII?

    • editor says:

      Gary: I hadn’t run across a reference to the Officers Club before, so your comment was really interesting to me too. I found a 1955 article about how Gov. Stratton wanted to put the fairgrounds to better use during non-fair periods that explained the origin of the Officers Club. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

      “The most frequently used building on the fairgrounds is the Officers Club, which serves for one wedding reception after another.

      “The name Officers Club has no significance. It comes from the
      fact that the building was constructed as a club by officers attached to an air force depot unit stationed at the fairgrounds during the late war. They turned the building over to the fair administration upon leaving and it has been Officers Club ever since.”

      Thanks for bringing this to our attention. There’s always something new to learn.

  2. frank weitzel says:

    my grand father michael b. Reagan was a chief clerk there during the war . in the 1930’s he was a member of the cc camp at Murphysboro, Illinois . he took classes at night at the teachers college nearby (siu Carbondale). when the war started the military literally came to his door , to recruit him for working at the state fairgrounds , army air corp depot . they had found out he took business and classes, at the college . they also wanted young men that would work a heavy amount of overtime , as needed for the war effort. any overtime , plus interest , was accrued , until the end of the war . even though he was working in a war support capacity , he was deeply ashamed to be seen as an able bodied man , in public without of uniform .

  3. Debbie DeWitt says:

    Cleaning out my mother’s house, who recently died from Covid complications, I found a round ID pin, with a picture of her dad. It was entitled, “Lincoln Ordnance Depot, Springfield, Illinois, and under his picture was the number “492”. I wish I knew when he was employed there, and his story about it. As I read this story, I remember that my mother worked, I believe in Illiopolis. She said she was in charge of securing rare wood used to ship the ammunition around the world, during WWII. I wonder if her dad got her the job, or if he had any connection to it. She met and married my dad, who was on leave in Springfield, from duty in the Army Air Corps. I just would like to know how this all ties together, if it does. My mother was 100, looking forward to her 101st birthday. I wish I could ask her about all this. One day…

  4. Jason says:

    Any idea if the record of the “dancing partners” for the YMCA dance in 1942 is available? Any photos of the event?

    • editor says:

      Jason: Sorry, nothing in the newspapers on either count. It’s a longshot, but you could see if the YMCA kept any such records.
      Thanks for reading.

  5. Marcel Blaauw says:

    Dear editor,
    Being a ( Dutch) collector of US army vehicles of WWII I am now restoring an original Studebaker M29C “ weasel”. This weasel has been produced mid june 1945. War in Europe had ended already. However, it was not in the Pacific. After sanding my Weasel some data came up. Under the hood the data said: Lincoln Ordnance Depot and underneath some numbers. It was an amazing discovery! I am very curious if there is proof ( like photographs) of the fact that the LOD stored more ( surplus) vehicles…
    I can’t find anything on the Internet..

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