“The man who invented the obstacle course”

That’s the title of an interesting article over at Defense Media Network.  It points out, correctly, that the obstacle course or assault course was actually a well-established concept in foreign armies, but was introduced to the US armed forces early in World War II.  Here’s an excerpt.

When World War II started in Europe in September 1939, the United States was the 17th largest military power. Its army, containing just 190,000 troops, was effectively a constabulary force. By February 1941, all that had changed. Thanks to the recently passed conscription law, the number of recruits had ballooned almost ten-fold, with millions more to come. The American military had experienced such crash-program increases before, in the Civil War and World War I. And as before, the draftees entering service were raw material. Before they could be shipped out to the new and expanding training centers being prepared for them, they had to be shaped up. While all base and camp commanders had that problem, it was particularly acute for Lt. Col. William M. Hoge.

. . .

Hoge’s most vexing problem [at Fort Belvoir] was how to provide proper military outdoor physical exercise training. Because he was located on a peninsula, he couldn’t expand. Space was at a premium.

It was while trying to figure out a solution one day to the physical fitness problem that he recalled one of his subordinates, Paul W. Thompson, had spent a year in Germany as an attaché. Calling Thompson into his office, Hoge asked him, “What in the hell do the Germans do to get exercise for their men? They have much less area than we have.” Thompson told him about specially designed fields filled with a variety of trenches and constructions that the men had to overcome through climbing, crawling, swinging, hopping, and jumping.

Hoge brought in the officer responsible for physical training and the three drew up a blueprint for the Army’s first obstacle course. In an interview conducted years later, Hoge recalled, “It wasn’t as big as a city block from beginning to end, but you did all these things in a short space. You’d run, climb walls, jump over ditches, crawl through pipes, walk on logs over running streams. I don’t know what all we didn’t try. We put everything we could in that space.”

. . .

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall soon heard about Hoge’s creation and came down to see it for himself. Impressed, he promptly ordered every base and camp to build them.

There’s more at the link, including many photographs.

I have bitter, twisted memories of obstacle courses.  The worst is when I spent several months at a particular establishment where weekly run-throughs, carrying telephone poles, truck tires, duffel bags (colloquially known as balsaks) filled with sand, and sundry other impedimenta were part of the routine.  I ended up spending a full forty days in hospital as a result of an infection.  Needless to say, after so long in bed I lost a lot of my physical conditioning.  Not only did that base deny me the sick leave the hospital had ordered, but I was made to participate in a fitness contest over the obstacle course that very weekend.  Teams were penalized for every time one of their members couldn’t complete an evolution, or get over an obstacle in the specified time, or anything like that.  Thanks to my weakened condition, I amassed over thirty penalty points for my team – some of whom had placed bets on the result, and beat me up that night for ‘making them lose’.

(I filed charges over that, including over the [illegal] denial of my hospital-authorized sick leave.  I was threatened with all sorts of dire consequences for daring to ‘buck the system’, but I had the documentation to prove my case.  In the end I was transferred to a much nicer unit, the charges were allowed to lapse, and those responsible for the screw-up received ‘administrative reprimands’, whatever that meant . . . not a lot, I suspect.  The staff at that base looked after its own.)

Anyway, I was interested to read how the obstacle course came to the US Army.  I wonder how many veterans have longed to pee on General Hoge’s grave because of that?



  1. I was never in the military so cannot comment on the obstacle course. But I have to admit I've gained a new perspective the past couple of days on physical conditioning.

    I'm a CAD user, sitting at a computer most of the day while composing construction documents for buildings. Except for typing and moving the mouse, minimal physical effort (your brain gets a good workout).

    Well, one of those scheduling glitches occured where we don't have much to draw on until our projects catch up. So rather than being idle, we are working on cleaning up our project files in the back. We are legally bound to keep these documents for 7 years in case a problem or question crops up.

    Well darn, moving these drawings (24×36 sheets) can get pretty hard when those sets are over 100 sheets. Making sure they are in order, rolling them up and putting them into proper sequence for easy retrieval puts a hurting on someone who isn't used to moving around a lot. My hips are sore from climbing up and down the ladder, and shoulders / back are killing me.

    Stay in shape – you never know when you will really need it. I'm pretty sure that is why the obstacle course is designed, carrying awkward loads over terrain which will change and gives you the opportunity to learn how to efficiently carry it over such.

  2. They're called "confidence courses" these days. They're just as bad as those old obstacle courses.

    The US Army and Marines also uses a type of course ripped off form the SS. It consists of a series of problems that the entire team has to get through together. I can't remember what they called it, but I saw it in OCS 30 years ago.

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