Following World War II, the engineer training role at Fort Belvoir waxed and waned according to wartime needs. In 1945, both the Engineer Replacement Training Center and the Engineer Officer Candidate School were phased out; however, both programs were reactivated in the 1950s during the Korean Conflict, and again in the 1960s with the Vietnam build-up. Both conflicts required a reassessment of the installation's training function and methods, and a revamping of its physical plant.
For example, by 1950, many World War II temporary barracks had been adapted for other uses. When new enlistees and draftees arrived on the post, they had to be housed in six-man tents while the barracks buildings were reconverted back to their original function. The types of training offered also reflected shifts in warfare technology and philosophy; a Close Combat Range was installed on the peninsula south of the village of Accotink, and on North Post, a Chemical/Biological/Radiological School was instituted.
In general, emphasis at Fort Belvoir in the 1950s began shifting from training to research and development. Throughout the decade, the Engineer Research and Development Laboratories (ERDL) were involved in experimentation with a wide range of technical military applications. The laboratories developed and tested new techniques for electrical power generation; camouflage and deception; methods of handling materials and fuel; bridging, and mine detection. They experimented with portable map copying machines, fungicides for use in tropical environments, and heavy earth-moving equipment. The Castle reported on ERDL’s development of pre-fabricated buildings for use in Arctic environments, and the subsequent testing of these structures in Greenland and Canada. During the 1960s, the primary focus of research at Fort Belvoir shifted to the development of Army vehicles.
Perhaps no structure on the post illustrated more graphically Fort Belvoir’s research and development phase than the SM-1 (Stationary, Medium Power, First Prototype) Nuclear Plant. This facility was developed to generate electricity for commercial use, and to cut back the Department of Defense’s dependency on fossil fuels. The SM-1 Plant, which represented the first national nuclear training facility for military personnel, became operational in 1957 and remained in operation until its de-commissioning in 1973.
The innovative initiatives pursued at Fort Belvoir during the post-war period were also illustrated in its residential architecture. In 1948, the well-known architectural firm of Albert Kahn & Associates designed the Thermo-Con House. This house form was intended to provide a prototype for low-cost, mass-produced housing. The construction of the house employed an innovative technique that used chemically-treated concrete that rose from its foundation like bread rising in a pan. Another major residential project during the 1970s was the McRee Barracks, a complex of mid-rise buildings constructed in 1975 to house 1,200 single enlisted Soldiers.
Fort Belvoir’s mission expanded in other directions between 1950 and 1980. The post began playing host to a variety of organizations, including the DeWitt Army Hospital, the Defense Systems Management College (DSMC), and the Defense Mapping School (DMS). The DeWitt Hospital, constructed in 1957, provided regional healthcare services. DSMC, founded in 1971, was a graduate-level institution that offered advanced courses of study in weapon systems acquisition management for both military personnel and civilians. DMS, a component of the Defense Mapping Agency (now the National Geospatial-Intelligence School), was established in 1972 to provide instruction in tactical mapping, land geodetic surveys, and cartographic drafting.
Fort Belvoir’s educational role also expanded in new directions. Every summer from the 1950s through the 1970s, the post hosted a group of United States Military Academy (USMA) cadets for a week-long training visit. The course was designed to emphasize military engineering as a field of specialization for career development. Fort Belvoir’s USMA Preparatory School also provided a yearlong course of academic study to prepare selected enlisted personnel for entry into West Point; until it moved to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
Fort Belvoir personnel also became intimately involved with two of the most poignant events of the post-war years. In 1963, engineers from Belvoir surveyed the first temporary John F. Kennedy gravesite, and designed a prototype eternal flame—all in less than a week. Lt. Gen.Walter K. Wilson recalled the events of that weekend. “. . . they decided suddenly. . . [that] they were going to bury him in Arlington. That really put us in the middle of things. We had to get over there and locate the grave, work with the cemetery staff, survey the plot, and recommend its location.” After the President’s widow requested the installation of an eternal flame, recalled Wilson: “We all got together on the floor of an Engineer School building. . . where we laid out different things that might work. We designed it right on the floor there, the concept of what would be the eternal flame.”
In 1982, divers from the installation’s 86th Diving Detachment assisted local disaster management agencies in recovering victims and debris from the frozen Potomac River following the disastrous crash of an Air Florida Boeing 737 jet in the midst of a heavy January snowstorm. The post’s 11th Engineer Battalion installed float bridging out to the wreck site. Map personnel from the 30th Engineer Battalion also surveyed the wreck site and produced a series of maps that identified each fragment of baggage or equipment on the river bottom.
Fort Belvoir remained the home of the Engineer School and Center until 1988. Due to a shortage of land for training at Belvoir, the Engineer School relocated to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, thus ending the 70-year association between the Engineer School and Belvoir.
Although its role as an engineer training center diminished after the move in 1989, Fort Belvoir continued to fulfill an important and valuable role. The 8,600-acre post was one of the larger installations in the Military District of Washington (MDW), which also included Fort McNair, Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and Fort Hamilton. The post’s mission was to provide essential administrative and basic operations support to its tenant organizations. Fort Belvoir housed tenants from all armed forces, as well as such Department of Defense agencies as the Army Management Staff College and the Defense Acquisition University. To carry out this mission effectively, Fort Belvoir evolved from a traditional military installation to a more broadly based community. It functioned in many ways like a small city, with its own ordinances, land use plan, building codes, utilities, public parks, and academic institutions.