NEOSHO — If there is one Army character known around the world, it is Beetle Bailey, the comic strip soldier who managed to avoid work almost as often as he found trouble.
The comic strip debuted with King Features in 1950, and in those postwar years struck a chord with readers. At the time of Mort Walker's death, Beetle Bailey was one of the longest-running comic strips. The character and Camp Swampy, the Army post where Beetle has served for decades, is a part of Missouri history.
To understand the connection, a little history lesson is necessary.
Some of the earliest settlers who came to this corner of the state built their lives and livelihoods on land south of Neosho. Their fertile farms and abundant orchards provided a living as they raised both crops and children.
All of that changed in 1941, when the Army decided to build a new post in the area, drawn by the access to abundant water, the Kansas City Southern and Frisco railroads and two major highways — Highway 71 running north and south and Highway 60 traveling east and west.
Those families were displaced and ground was broken for Camp Crowder on Aug. 30, 1941.
Construction moved at a rapid pace and what was once farmland was transformed into a city more than eight times larger than Neosho.
The first troops arrived on Dec. 2, 1941 — less than a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II.
The camp was named for Missouri-born General Enoch Crowder, who is best known for organizing the draft during World War I. He was also the judge advocate general of the Army from 1911 until 1923. The camp eventually was renamed Fort Crowder and existed from 1941 until 1958.
It often rains in the Ozarks. When it did, things became soggy at Camp Crowder, so much so that the men stationed on post called it "Camp Swampy." That name might have been long forgotten except for the imagination and talent of one soldier stationed there for a short time — Mort Walker.
Walker, a native of El Dorado, Kansas, was drafted into the Army in 1943 and served four years. After he returned to civilian life, he finished his interrupted college education at the University of Missouri.
Before the strip, Beetle first appeared in a one-time cameo as a college student, but Walker soon made him Private Beetle Bailey. The strip launched in 1950. Eventually, through King Features Syndicate, it ran in 1,800 newspapers in more than 50 countries with a readership of 200 million daily.
Walker died in 2018, but Beetle Bailey continues.
In Neosho, a community college, Crowder College, exists on part of what was the Army base. There is still a Missouri National Guard post adjacent to the campus where soldiers still train. A number of the local industries are located nearby in the Crowder Industrial Park.
In its heyday, the real Camp Swampy's population hit 40,000, dwarfing Neosho's 1940 population of just over 5,000.
To gauge how large Camp Crowder was, there were 17 post exchanges, five theaters showing first-run movies, 16 chapels and chaplains, the largest laundry facility in the Army, three service clubs, a post office, a weekly newspaper, radio broadcasts and a fieldhouse that could seat 5,000.
A small museum on the Crowder campus today holds memorabilia from the Army years.
As the nation observes Veterans Day and honors those who have served in the armed forces, it's interesting to note that Beetle Bailey hailed from Missouri and that Camp Swampy was, once upon a time, a real place in Neosho, Missouri.