Remembering the Marine Barracks
KLAMATH FALLS — It’s a very small park, but one rich with history.
When it was created in 1994 atop Old Fort Road four miles from downtown Klamath Falls, the original Marine Barracks Memorial Park was one of Oregon’s smallest parks, spanning a 75-by-100-foot area.
In 2019 the park was relocated a short distance to its current location and its name changed to the North Ridge Marine Corps Memorial. The past and present parks remember the World War II years when 800 acres were used as the Klamath Falls Marine Barracks, a treatment and recuperation center for thousands of Marines and Navy personnel suffering from such mosquito-borne tropical diseases as filariasis, malaria and elephantiasis.
Decades later, it was determined the area, now part of the North Ridge Estates housing subdivision, was contaminated by asbestos. Declared a Superfund cleanup site by the Environmental Protection Agency, hazardous wastes were removed 2016 to 2018. The new park features panels remembering the barracks history and also includes information boards about the Superfund cleanup.
Although relocated and slightly enlarged, the park’s primary mission remains — to preserve memories from its years, 1944 to 1946, as the World War II Klamath Falls Marine Barracks.
The location of the barracks, at an elevation of 4,805 feet, and the region’s dry climate were factors that helped thousands regain their health. Most stayed about three months before returning to combat and other war duties. The complex housed 5,000 people. Its 80 buildings included Navy Medical Corps facilities, living areas for medics and nurses, along with a mess hall, gymnasium, swimming pool, auditorium, laundry, maintenance garage, sewage treatment plant, fire house, warehouse, jail, library, power plants, quarters for married and bachelor officers and 30 barracks.
As one of the panels at the former park site noted, “It served its purpose for thousands of Marines and went happily out of business. For most Marines who were treated, the barracks was place that will always be remembered for the personal wars that were conquered here.” Those words were provided by Thelma Johnson, who, like several women in the community, married a Marine who had been sent to the barracks.
Among the Marines stationed at the barracks was Mitchell Page, a Marine colonel who served as provost marshal. Page, the main speaker at the 1994 Marine Barracks Park dedication, was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, and Purple Heart for his actions at Guadalcanal in 1942.
The first Marines arrived at the barracks in April 1944 and the last were discharged in March 1946. Within a year of its opening, treatments proved that malaria and filariasis, then believed to be incurable, could be successfully treated.
As told in the Shaw Historical Library's 2003 Journal, “Service & Sacrifice,” the idea for creating the barracks evolved in the South Pacific when Marine Major Gen. A.A. Vandergrift saw troops suffering from tropical diseases. “Our sickness remains a major problem as we have some four thousand sick, three thousand of which are malarial,” he wrote. “Day by day I watched my Marines deteriorate in the flesh.” Vandergrift urged Army Gen. Douglas McArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific, to establish a camp for ailing Marines.
During talks in Klamath Falls, then a city of about 30,000, Marine Col. Bernard Dubel, the base's commanding officer, emphasized the barracks was not a hospital or convalescent center. “They are not patients, but regular fighting Marines. Many of these boys after they are here a while will want to go back to duty and help finish the fight.”
The treatment, which focused on eating large healthful meals, exercise and continuing a Marine lifestyle, proved successful. Importantly, too, the psychological fears of sterility evaporated when married Marines and their wives had birth rates double the national average.
“The single men were not long in appreciating the point,” Albert Maisel wrote after visiting the post. “The marriage registry in Klamath Falls has become a crowded book.”
After the war the property was sold to the Oregon Emergency Board, which used the buildings to create the Oregon Vocational School in 1947. A year later the school was renamed Oregon Technical Institute. When a new campus was dedicated in 1964 at what is now Oregon Institute of Technology, the former barracks was abandoned. By 1970, most of the old barracks’ buildings were razed.
In 1981, the Klamath Falls-based Crater Lake Detachment of the Marine Corps League sponsored a Marines Barracks Reunion, which led to follow-up reunions in 1984, 1988, 1994 and 1996.
The Klamath Falls Marine Barracks Memorial Park may be the region’s smallest park, but it commemorates a big, often forgotten and little remembered story. There might not be a lot to see, but there’s a lot to learn.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.