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Table Rock of ages

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By Mark Freeman

Mail Tribune

SAMS VALLEY — Within the shadows of Upper Table Rock lies a Stonehenge of large concrete boxes around which a shroud of scared urgency hangs in the air like the strings of barbed wire that were here nearly eight decades ago.

Men bound for war crawling hastily under barbed wire toward concrete pillboxes as live ammunition rang over their heads, intent to scare them within an inch of experiencing now what lie in their futures.

“In my mind I see all these men lined up here, and their leader saying, ‘OK, boys, let’s take that bunker,’” said Jennifer Sigler, a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist.

The bunkers, still pockmarked with bullet holes, along with some strands of barbed wire, remain to tell the story of historic Camp White.

Tales of war during a guided walk through the pillboxes is certainly different than a wildflower hike at the Table Rocks. But that’s exactly what Sigler and fellow archaeologist Lisa Rice will detail when they lead a bushwhacking hike to the pillboxes May 11 as part of the annual spring hike series at the Table Rocks organized by BLM and The Nature Conservancy.

The free hike series includes various hikes to the top of both Lower and Upper Table Rock, with topics ranging from wildflowers to geology to Native Americans and even star gazing.

But “Camp White: The Alcatraz of Boot Camps” is the only off-trail hike that doesn’t land atop one of the Rogue Valley’s signature mesas.

Instead, Sigler will lead participants into a reset of Table Rocks history, one not normally associated with happy hikes.

“It’s amazing,” says Jeanne Klein, who oversees recreation in BLM’s Medford District office. “It’s such an interesting piece of our history.”

Camp White sprang up in the Agate Desert in early 1941 as a training ground for soldiers bound for World War II.

Up to 40,000 troops trained at the camp, which included 1,300 buildings and 43,000 acres of firing ranges over nearly 50,000 acres of land, including portions of Upper Table Rock, according to the Table Rocks 2012 management plan.

In its heyday, the camp’s population was nearly 40,000, making it the second-largest city in Oregon at the time, according to BLM.

Artifacts and some of the buildings are preserved at the Department of Veterans‘ Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics, formerly the domiciliary.

But the concrete bunkers continue to draw the fascination of the public.

Thirty-two of the 20-square-foot bunkers were scattered around the range so infantry could practice storming defensives lines with live ammunition. They were built to simulate Nazi pillboxes on German-controlled European beaches such as Normandy, the plan states.

Troops practiced both managing and capturing the pillboxes, according to the plan. Tanks also fired on the pillboxes, and men inside were “given the task of repelling their attack,” the plan states.

Some of the bunkers located at the camp’s artillery range took fire from short-barreled 105 mm and 155 mm howitzers and even flame throwers, the plan states.

According to military officials quoted by Ashland historian George Kramer in a 1992 report, “Realistic training means that a man who may soon face death in combat comes as close to it as he dares in training so that he may know what death looks like, how it sounds, how it smells.”

About half the pillboxes are on private land off Antioch Road, where motorists pass by regularly.

“When you drive by, it doesn’t look like much of anything,” Klein says. “But when you’re out here walking around, it’s amazing.”

About half of the pillboxes are on 817 acres of BLM land the agency acquired from the Nature Conservancy with federal Land and Water Conservation funds. BLM and the Nature Conservancy co-manage the collective Table Rocks holdings.

The pillboxes on public land are behind a barbed wire fence, which has kept them largely safe from vandalism.

“They’re all pretty similar, but all just a bit different,” says Sigler, in her third year of leading this hike.

At the time they were used, the shells occasionally hammered so loudly into the bunkers that they scared nearby cattle, Sigler says.

After the camp disbanded post-war and most of the ranges were sold off, stories of leftover ordinance were ordinary.

“There are a lot of apocryphal stories of people discing their fields and finding unexploded shells,” Sigler says. “You still hear them.”

Also still present around the pillboxes are old legacy oaks that were present when Camp White was in its lead-flying heyday.

“How many of these trees are still full of ammunition?” Sigler says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jennifer Sigler, BLM archeologists, walks by a Camp White Pillbox near Upper Table Rock on Wednesday. Sigler will lead a hike near the Table Rocks area as part of the spring Table Rock hike series.