Wartime history uncovered by Lake Michigan waves.

March 18, 2021

Wartime history uncovered by Lake Michigan waves.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

Around the County is a presentation of Peterson Farms, Inc., www.petersonfarmsinc.com.

CLAYBANKS TOWNSHIP — Jesse Cisneros of Stony Lake made a unique discovery while on a recent walk along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Cisneros discovered the foundation of a building that was part of Camp Claybanks which had been buried under a dune for 63 years until the waves washed it out.

Cisneros has lived in the Stony Lake area most of his life and has served as the Claybanks Township Park manager for the last several years. The historic cinder block foundation, which measures approximately 10 by 10 feet, is located on the north end of the beach.

“I knew it was there,” he said, “but I thought the Army had torn it out. When I saw it, I knew exactly what it was. This thing was totally covered up — people were walking over it.”

Camp Claybanks was a US Army training installation base, said Cisneros who is a US Navy veteran. “I’ve always been fascinated by that Army camp.”

Camp Claybanks opened in 1953, just as the Korean War was ending. Cisneros was just a baby back then and doesn’t remember the camp first-hand, but he has heard many stories about it. Cisneros’ late friend, John Royalty, who lived in the Stony Lake area, was stationed at the camp. They frequently talked about his days there. He said that John and his wife Carol met when John was stationed at the shoreline camp.

Camp Claybanks was situated just south of Claybanks Township Park on both sides of Scenic Drive. Concrete walls on the east side of Scenic Drive still stand and are visible from the road.

The camp was used for training Army soldiers and reservists to shoot anti-aircraft missiles, using remote control airplanes as targets.

“The former Camp Claybanks Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Firing Range was established on March 1, 1953,” according to the US Army Corps. of Engineers Louisville District website. “It was solely used by the Fifth US Army units between 1953 and 1958 for training in anti-aircraft artillery firing at aerial targets over Lake Michigan, using .50 caliber, 40mm, 90mm and 120mm anti-aircraft weapons. 

The 438.43-acre training site extended along the east shore of Lake Michigan in Claybanks Township, Oceana County, Michigan. The Department of Defense also obtained permits from the State of Michigan for restricted water space danger zone in Lake Michigan for firing over the water. 

“The camp, located 20 miles north of Muskegon, trained 1,200 active duty personnel during its five years in operation. It also provided training for 2,800 reservists and guardsmen from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. The camp was operated by five officers and 90 enlisted men. 

On February 3, 1958, Camp Claybanks was placed in an excess status and is currently used as residential and recreational property.

On June 19, 1992, a landowner of a portion of the former camp contacted the Detroit District, US Army Corps of Engineers. This landowner and other landowners reported that they found both expended and live belts of .50 caliber ammunition, and at least one unidentified projectile, presumably a mortar round. This suggested that the former use of the site as an AAA firing range may still have the presence of ordnance or explosive waste hazards. A site investigation consisting of ordnance sweeps to verify and quantify the presence of ordnance was recommended in June 1993.

In May 1996, the Detroit District conducted a site visit and recommended hazardous, toxic, or radiological waste (HTRW) testing for possible lead contamination in the soil and groundwater. The site visit confirmed the possibility of contamination and identified specific debris used by the Department of Defense.

“This area is under the Formerly Used Defense Site Program and is currently managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District in Louisville, Kentucky.”

Cisneros’ grandparents, Robert and Tressa Simmons, who lived close to the camp.

The base had a launch pad for planes that flew out over Lake Michigan. Soldiers fired range missiles at the planes that would fall to the bottom of Lake Michigan when struck. “It was a big, ol’ round cement launch pad, and they launched drones that would fly out over the lake. They pulled a target past that, and they would shoot at them.”

“You could almost see the army camp from my Grandma and Grandpa’s house,” Cisneros said. “My grandma complained about the dishes rattling.” Windows in some nearby homes shattered because of the cannons firing, he said.

Although some were annoyed by the camp, others were captivated. Cisneros said his aunts would hide in the cornfields trying to get a look at the soldiers, hoping to possibly meet a handsome one.

The portion of the camp Cisneros discovered was used as an observation post.

“I’ve talked to a soldier who manned this post,” said Cisneros. “Soldiers would stand on this post and be safe from the artillery.”

Cisneros said he notified Claybanks Township officials about the discovery, and they will decide what to do with it.

Camp Claybanks is not the location’s only claim to fame, however. The Daisy Day,  a 103-foot wooden, steam-powered, bulk freighter sank there in Lake Michigan Oct. 11, 1891. It was discovered just off the beach in 2004. “It sank on my birthday — Oct. 11,” said Cisneros. 

“The first thing I get asked when campers come in here are: ‘Where is the army camp and where was the boat?’”

While campers bask in the beautiful scenery at the Claybanks Township Park, they can also enjoy a mesmerizing history lesson.

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Cement walls that were part of Camp Claybanks are visible from Scenic Drive south of Claybanks Township Park.

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