There are Tater Hills in other places. Vermont even has a Tater Hill Golf Course. There is a plant preserve by that name in North Carolina, where certain species are protected. However, in western Arkansas, if you say the name, you are talking about the one on Fort Chaffee.
One website calls it “a bare, monumental hill,” and that pretty well sums it up. It stands in stark relief against the horizon as a reminder of the live ammo training exercises that are conducted within the confines of a portion of Fort Chaffee. Considering the more-or-less random nature of the bombardments it has endured over the decades, it has an amazingly smooth, conical form. Obviously that area of the Fort is strictly off limits.
Fort Chaffee (originally Camp Chaffee) was born in 1941 as the Army ramped up their capability with the approach of World War II. In 1997 the command of the Fort was transferred from the Army to the National Guard. I do not know for what portion of those 78 years Tater Hill marked the boundary of live firing exercises, but I assume it was at least for most of my 65 years.
As a young boy, the “thump” of the artillery drills at Chaffee was a constant part of our summers. Each day when the first booms were heard, we would glance at the sky to make sure it was Chaffee and not a thunderstorm in the distance.
When we saw the convoys on the highways headed toward the base, we knew that the booming of the guns would not be far behind. Those convoys were great fun for young boys. We spent a good bit of time playing “army” in the yard and pasture during the summertime, and getting to see real, live Army men up close was a thrill. Back in my childhood, with World War II only a few years removed, the Germans were still the “enemy of choice.” The booming of guns in the background definitely added a touch of reality to our juvenile fantasies about the Battle of the Bulge or some such conflict.
If we felt a “thump” in Booneville, I can just imagine how the folks in Charleston would describe the concussions of the big guns. BAROOOM! When the windows start rattling, I would imagine that military exercises begin to lose some of their charm for local residents. Add the fear of an unlikely errant shot to the irritation of the concussions, and I can see how the exercises would easily move into the Not Funny category.
Dr. Charles Miesner grew up along Highway 217 not far from Tater Hill. He remembers hearing the guns firing and seeing the impacts on the target. He recalled a time when a college friend visited his house. “He thought he had walked into a war zone,” he said. It is easy to see why he might have felt that way.
Several years back I was able to watch a demonstration for the public of the big guns at Chaffee. To say it was impressive would be a considerable understatement. “Overwhelming” might be a better description. However, once I got accustomed to the noise and concussions, I must admit that it gave me a nice, secure feeling to know that those big barrels were between us and our enemies.
Thinking about all this brings to mind one of the things that I dearly wish I could have seen, but never will. The battleship Iowa could launch a broadside of nine 16” shells weighing over a ton each at targets over twenty miles away. However, all four of the Iowa-class battlewagons are now part of maritime museums, so that opportunity has passed. I will just have to be content to listen to Fort Chaffee in the distance.