Fort Des Moines is a National Historic Landmark—1 of only 2 in Polk County. It began as a cavalry post in 1901. 16 years later the Fort hosted a unique event—the training of black officers in the segregated U.S. Army during World War I. A second “first” occurred here during World War II when the Army broke gender barriers and allowed women to join the army as non-combat personnel. They became known as the Women’s Army Corps (WACs).
Both of these wartime experiments generated intense public scrutiny as the black officer candidates and women soldiers worked hard to convince many skeptics. The black officers acquitted themselves professionally and served their country with distinction. During World War II national attention was directed to Fort Des Moines beginning in July, 1942 when the first women arrived for officer training. At the time, 17 year-old Des Moines native Cloris Leachman, a future Academy Award winner, appeared in a promotional movie about the WACs that was filmed in Des Moines.
Fort Des Moines also served other more traditional functions. In addition to initially serving as a cavalry training base, it hosted infantry and artillery units until 1940. It also housed a large hospital beginning in 1918 and housed Iowa’s headquarters for the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) on base during the 1930’s. In 1946 the base was the center for veterans housing in Des Moines. Since 1949 the U.S. Army Reserves still occupy a portion of the original base.