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Kentucky families moved for WWII camp hope for settlement after 60-year land battle

    MORGANFIELD, Ky. — When they were told to get off their western Kentucky farmland in 1941 to make room for a sprawling World War II training camp, hundreds of families were given as little as two weeks to get everything out.
    Over the years, they say, they were cheated out of an agreement to buy back their land after the war and denied a stake in a government windfall: the discovery of massive deposits of gas and oil.
    Now, those same families and their heirs are battling the U.S. government for what they say is their fair share of more than $30 million in profits. A judge’s preliminary ruling in their favor raised the prospect of a settlement two years ago, but even a famed mediator — former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — was unable to resolve the conflict.
    ‘‘They don’t get around to paying you quickly when they owe you money,’’ said 83-year-old William Griggs, who had just graduated from high school in May 1942, when his grandfather and other small farmers were told to move off their land.
    ‘‘Everybody was disappointed,’’ he said. ‘‘But we were patriotic.’’
    Interviews with residents, historical documents and court records tell the story behind what attorneys say may be the nation’s last remaining land dispute from World War II, a huge expanse of farmland that became Camp Breckinridge.
    The camp, spanning 36,000 acres across Union, Henderson and Webster counties, was one of a handful of inland camps built to train soldiers far from the threat of coastal attacks.
    More than 1,000 people were forced off the land, either through negotiated sales or through condemnation proceedings. Their 522 properties ranged in size from 50 acres to 250 acres.
    Beginning in 1941, families were told to sell or move all their livestock, furniture and crops.
    ‘‘They came down kind of like a whirlwind in 1941,’’ Steven Pitt, a Louisville attorney representing the former landowners, said in an interview. ‘‘A lot of them left crops in the field. It was basically, you’ve got to leave.’’
    The landowners received payouts totaling $3.1 million, and many believed they would be able to buy back the land once the military no longer needed it.
    Griggs said the government sent people out to his house with a deadline for them to move and promised that the land would be returned at the end of the war, but offered nothing in writing.
    ‘‘It was a shame, seeing these farmers with tears streaming down their cheeks, selling everything they owned,’’ said Griggs, one of the few original residents still alive.
    Heirs of others are among those pursuing the case against the government, which is fighting the claim. Griggs and the others hope to receive some compensation, as well as an admission that the government reneged on its word.
    Carl Culver recounted in a deposition how he helped his two elderly aunts move off their farm in 1941.
    ‘‘They were very sad, and they told me the government agent was there, and he was going to take their farms,’’ Culver said in a deposition in 2004.
    The camp trained about 40,000 soldiers at a time, with plans to remain open for five years. Future baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson and future Sen. Bob Dole were among Breckinridge’s trainees.
    The camp also housed nearly 3,000 German prisoners of war. Once it closed, the land sat unused for about 15 years until 1965, when the government put it up for public sale.
    ‘‘They broke it up into such large tracts, no one could afford it,’’ said Griggs, who helped construct some of the 1,600 buildings that would become Camp Breckinridge. ‘‘If you had a 200-acre farm back then, you had a large farm.’’
    Beneath the land were oil, gas and coal, previously unknown to the original owners. The first oil lease, sold in 1957, produced more than 611,000 barrels over seven years. Large companies later bought the mineral rights to the land for $35 million, over the objections of some of the former landowners.
    The military opened about a dozen other camps around the same time as Camp Breckinridge. Some, such as Fort Campbell, on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, and Fort Rucker in Alabama, eventually became full-time military posts.
    Others, such as Camp Livingston in central Louisiana, shut down at the end of the war. The grounds where Camp Livingston once stood are now part of the Kisatchie National Forest.
    The former landowners pursued a lawsuit in the late 1960s, but a judge dismissed it. After years of failed efforts, congressional action in 1993 allowed the plaintiffs a hearing in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The special court hears a variety of monetary claims against the United States, usually involving contracts.
    Judge Susan Braden in 2005 issued a preliminary ruling for the former landowners, awarding them $32.5 million — roughly the profits that the government made from selling the mineral rights to the land. In an effort to end the long-running case, she told both sides to negotiate a settlement.
    But mediation overseen by O’Connor broke down in May, with attorneys for the landowners’ families and the government asking Braden to issue a final ruling. Justice Department lawyers have declined to comment on the case, but in court filings they have argued that the families’ case has not made a valid legal claim for compensation.
    There are only a few of the original buildings from the military post still standing — an officers club with murals painted by a German prisoner of war that now hosts a museum and a few VIP houses. Most of those pursuing the case are the children, grandchildren or other relatives of the original landowners.
    ‘‘Some of them have been waiting for 60 years,’’ Pitt said.
    Griggs said he’s ‘‘keeping the faith’’ that the suit will end soon.
    ‘‘They drove us out a long time ago,’’ Griggs said. ‘‘I hope we get something one of these days.’’

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