Guarding Conway: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

The Arkansas Army National Guard has been a part of Conway for nearly a century. Many Faulkner County residents have served in the Conway unit and even more have been touched by its presence in the community.

The Conway unit was organized and federally recognized on April 21, 1921 as the Headquarters Company, 5th Regiment of Infantry. In October, 1921 it was re-designated as Headquarters Company, 153rd Infantry and in December, 1923 was again re-designated as Company G, 153rd Infantry.

For most of its history, the Conway unit’s headquarters was on Caldwell Street where the Central Fire Station is today. The unit was briefly stationed across the street before it moved to the southwest corner of Caldwell and Locust in 1929. The original armory building was built in the mid-1930s by the WPA. In 1949 the south and second-story southwest sections were added.

The usual length of enlistment in the 1920s was three years but a number of men who enlisted in 1927 were still in when the company was activated to go to Alaska as World War II began. The unit was inducted into federal service on December 23, 1940 in Conway and inactivated June 30, 1944 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

Heber L. McAlister, president of Arkansas State Teachers College (now UCA), resigned his post to lead the Conway Guard unit and the rest of Arkansas’ 153rd Infantry. He rose from the rank of colonel to brigadier general during the war. After the war, he remained with the National Guard. McAlister Hall at UCA is named for him.

Drills were held weekly. Before World War II, the basic weapon was the 1903 Springfield rifle. By the 1950s, the basic weapon was the M1 automatic rifle. The unit also drilled one weekend either at Camp Robinson or at someone’s farm. In the summer, the men would travel to Fort Polk, Louisiana for a two-week summer camp. During the time of passenger train service, a train picked up the men and carried them south. Later, they traveled in a truck convoy.

After World War II, young men were still required to register for the draft and were obligated for eight years of service. That included two years of active service, two years of active reserve and four years of inactive reserve. Voluntarily joining a military branch was another option because it typically obligated the men for only three or four years. Some local men, like my father, opted to go for six months of Army training and then reported to the Conway National Guard unit. This took two years off their commitment.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Arkansas National Guard supplemented the income of many local men and was an integral part of the community. During many of those years, Santa would visit at the armory at Christmas. Toys and candy were given to all Conway children under the age of 10.

In September, 1957, Gov. Faubus called Conway guardsmen to Little Rock Central High when violence was expected due to the integration of the school. Guardsmen traveled there by truck convoy daily. Most served only a couple of days but the unit was activated for a month.

The Conway unit moved to a new armory in the Industrial Park in 1982 and the old armory became the McGee Center, a city recreation center. This new Selby/Ross Arkansas National Guard Armory was named after SFC Thomas N. Selby and SSG Larry J. Ross. SFC Selby was a veteran guardsman who died in 1976. He had served for many years in the cooks unit. SSG Ross had served in the Guard since 1965.

SSG Ross was commanding a tank in a war games scenario at Ft. Chaffee in 1981 when the tank rolled after it got to the top of an incline. He was outside the tank directing the driver and was thrown and crushed by the tank. He tried to shove his fellow guardsman back into the tank before it rolled. For this self-sacrifice, he posthumously received the Soldier’s Metal.

The National Guard has been a fixture in Conway for nearly a century. The armory, which was downtown for 53 years, holds a special place in the memory of many.