A conversation 34 years ago convinced Morton Hurston Jr. there is buried treasure in Central Louisiana, and he thinks he’s found it. One thing stands in the way of him finding out for sure: government permission.
Under the yellow clay soil of the Kisatchie National Forest, Hurston said he believes, is all manner of World War II equipment — tanks, half-track vehicles, trucks, jeeps and even P-40 fighter planes packed in their original shipping crates.
Hurston, of Baton Rouge, calls this a virtual gold mine of a time capsule, a potential source of exhibits for museums and other military displays. The P-40s, packed in corrosion preventative, might be in mint condition.
“There are only six P-40s flying in the world,” he said. “This could be a very significant historic site.”
Hurston believes the equipment was buried in 1943 at Camp Claiborne, an Army facility north of Forest Hill in Rapides Parish used during World War II, mostly for basic training and artillery practice. Camp Claiborne closed in 1948 and, except for signs on La. 112, little of it remains today.
In 1981, Hurston, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and then an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s reserve deputy, met Jackie Peters, then a full-time deputy. Peters told him that his brother’s father-in-law, Sam Rathburn, of Baker, had described how he was a heavy equipment operator who helped dig three long trenches. A railroad spur was built, and the equipment was brought to the site, driven into the trenches, then covered with the soil, forming three berms.
Neither Hurston nor Peters, who also has tried to investigate the site, has found any paperwork acknowledging the equipment burial. Peters said he thinks the equipment, which was no longer state-of-the-art, had been sold to China, but it couldn’t be delivered because Japanese forces had cut off land access to that country. So, it was buried to prevent sabotage and, it seems, forgotten.
But not by Peters or Hurston.
When Peters was in the Navy Reserves in the 1980s, he knew men in an antisubmarine squadron who had an aerial magnetometer. He asked them if they could explore the area.
“They flew over and did a magnetometer sweep,” Peters said. “They said there was so much junk down there, ‘we couldn’t tell what was down there. It just blew us off the screen.’”
Peters also enlisted the help of helicopter pilot Reggie Fontenot, who approached Forest Service officials in Louisiana roughly 10 years ago about conducting an exploratory dig.
“They flatly said no, no way,” Fontenot said. “These are people that I knew and worked with, and they said they weren’t even going to entertain the thought of a request on it. … They said they didn’t see it as in the interest of the federal government.”
Unbeknownst to Peters, Hurston also has visited the site several times, and, in the past two years, he intensified his efforts. Remembering what Peters had told him about the site’s location, Hurston found three long, elevated areas on a topographical map and discovered berms, or small hills, overgrown with pine trees and bushes.
In 2014, Hurston spoke to U.S. Forest Service archeologist Velicia Bergstrom, who said she had never heard of such a site. Hurston hired a Houston firm, Ground Penetrating Radar Systems, to see if the berms covered anything unusual. Because he had to clear brush for the electromagnetic imaging equipment to work, there was time to survey only 100 feet of one berm. The equipment detected five objects at least the size of an automobile, Hurston said. Surveys of the ground adjacent to the berm turned up nothing.
So, Hurston said, something is definitely down there.
“We think that many items could be restorable because the compacted clay, according to my geologist friends and according to the … archaeologists, compacted clay forms like an impermeable membrane,” he said. “It can encase like concrete to prevent air and water intrusion that causes oxidation. Specifically, we believe that if, in fact, those aircraft are there … that they can be in good condition for restoration.”
Hurston wants to do a more detailed electromagnetic survey and, if that shows promise, do an exploratory dig to determine exactly what is buried. To break ground, he needs Forest Service permission. That’s where things have stalled.
He has gone up the Forest Service hierarchy through to Michael Kaczor, federal preservation officer in Washington, D.C., who referred him to Jim Caldwell, public affairs officer for Kisatchie National Forest. They spoke last week, and Caldwell directed him to District Ranger Lisa Lewis.
“I think it’s very interesting what might be out there,” Caldwell said. “The more knowledge we can gather, the better. If there’s really something out there, wouldn’t it be something if we had a hand in getting it to a museum so everybody could see it?”
That’s what Hurston wants.
“That is our (the public’s) stuff,” he said. “The Forest Service does not own that. They manage the surface area of the forest. That’s their job: to keep that managed. They don’t own that stuff.”