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Ongoing WWII battle pits U.S. against farm families

June 17, 2007|From the Associated Press

MORGANFIELD, KY. — When hundreds of families were told to get off their western Kentucky farmland beginning in 1941 to make room for a sprawling World War II training camp, they 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 were denied a stake in a federal windfall: the discovery of huge deposits of gas and oil.

Now those families and their heirs are battling the government for a 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 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 of their land.

"Everybody was disappointed," he said. "But we were patriotic."

The dispute over the expanse of farmland that became Camp Breckinridge may be the final one of its type remaining from World War II.

The inland camp, spanning 36,000 acres across Union, Henderson and Webster counties, was one of a handful 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 to 250 acres.

Families were told to sell or move all of their livestock, furniture and crops.

"They came down kind of like a whirlwind in 1941," said attorney M. Stephen Pitt of Louisville, who is representing the former landowners. "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 living.

Griggs and the others hope to receive some compensation, as well as an admission that the government reneged on its word.

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 Ft. Campbell, on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, and Ft. Rucker in Alabama, eventually became full-time military posts. Others shut down at the end of the war.

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 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 have not made a valid legal claim for compensation.

Most of the plaintiffs 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 was "keeping the faith" that the suit would 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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