Fort Custer was named after General George Armstrong Custer, a native of the state of Michigan.
The original Camp Custer was built in 1917 on 130 parcels of land, mainly small farms leased to the government by the local chamber of commerce as part of the military mobilization for World War I. After a two-year grace period, the Army was allowed to buy it for about $98 an acre. Construction of the camp started in July 1917 and within five months 2,000 buildings were ready to accommodate some 36,000 men. During World War I, some 90,000 troops passed through Camp Custer. Following the Armistice of 1918, the camp became a demobilization base for over 100,000 men. Some of the troops passed through here twice, going to war and upon returning home.
On May 10, 1923, an executive order transferred 675 acres to the Veterans Bureau, predecessor organization to the Veterans Administration, for the construction of Battle Creek Veterans Hospital, which was completed in 1924. At one time, the staff and patients from the hospital farmed about 200 acres of the site. It was considered good therapy for patients and helped the hospital to be reasonably self-sufficient. During these early years, many pine trees were planted in the northeast corner of the cemetery, which today presents an attractive cathedral-like feature.
The establishment of Fort Custer Post Cemetery took place on Sept. 18, 1943, with the first interment. Under Army rules, officers and enlisted men were segregated, even after death. As a result, Section A of the post cemetery filled with enlisted servicemen, while Section O was reserved for officers.
During World War II, the fort was expanded to over 14,000 acres. In addition to its use as a training base, more than 5,000 German prisoners of war were held there. Finding able farm labor during the war became a problem as more Americans were drafted into the military or worked in the factories producing war materials. Putting Fort Custer’s POWs to work seemed an efficient solution to the labor shortage. The last German prisoners repatriated to their homeland and departed Fort Custer in 1946. They left behind 26 comrades buried in the old post cemetery. Sixteen of the German POWs were killed in an accident when their truck collided with a train as they were returning to the fort from a work detail on a sugar beet farm near Blissfield, Mich. The other 10 died from natural causes. Germans sent there for detention were retrained for jobs and shipped to other U.S. installations as duty workers.
As early as the 1960s, local politicians and veterans organizations advocated the establishment of a national cemetery at Fort Custer. The National Cemeteries Act of 1973, signed by President Richard Nixon, transferred the cemeteries from the Department of the Army to what became the National Cemetery System (NCS), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In addition, the act directed VA to develop a plan to provide burial space to all veterans who desired interment in a national cemetery. After much study, the NCS adopted what became the regional concept. It mandated the designation or construction of one large national cemetery in each of the 10 Standard Federal Regions. A policy was also established that new cemeteries would be created only on land already owned by the federal government.
The Fort Custer site, located midway between Chicago and Detroit, was the VA’s choice for the Region V national cemetery. Toward this goal, Congress created Fort Custer National Cemetery in September 1981. The cemetery received 566 acres from the Fort Custer Military Reservation and 203 acres from the VA Medical Center. The first burial took place on June 1, 1982. At the same time, approximately 2,600 gravesites were available in the post cemetery, which made it possible for veterans to be buried there while the new facility was being developed. On Memorial Day 1982, more than 33 years after the first resolution had been introduced in Congress, impressive ceremonies marked the official opening of the cemetery.
Expansion of the cemetery, Phase II Gravesite Expansion and Development, began in June 1997 and was complete in October 1998. These 60 additional acres will provide 10,000 gravesites and additional roadways.
Monuments and Memorials
Fort Custer features a memorial pathway lined with a variety of memorials that honor America’s veterans, donated by various organizations. As of 2007, there were 31 memorials at Fort Custer National Cemetery-most commemorating military organizations and veterans' groups.
The Memorial Carillon was dedicated September 22, 1985, donated by the American Veterans (AMVETS) service organization. In addition to the main carillon, each committal shelter is equipped with a carillon system that allows the cemetery to play songs and tapes for services. The carillon is part of the AMVETS international carillon program to provide living memorials in honor of American veterans.
The Avenue of Flags memorial project, an undertaking of the Fort Custer Advisory Committee, was dedicated May 26, 1986. The project was funded by private contributions received from individuals and veteran service organizations. The Avenue of Flags is composed of 152 flagpoles located along the main road, and an additional 50 flagpoles arranged in a semi-circle at the head of the thoroughfare. The Avenue of Flags is displayed from Easter through Veterans Day each year, weather permitting. The 50 flags, which represent each state, are flown on special occasions such as Memorial Day.