Fort Holabird in Baltimore was once used as an Armed Forces Examining & Entrance Station for local draftees. In October 1965, during the Vietnam War, I was sent to Fort Holabird for my pre-induction physical for the Army. As things turned out, the Army was not meant to be as I flunked my pre-induction physical. I was sent to wait out the remainder of the day before being taken back to my local selective service board and returning home to Southern Maryland. In the meantime, I noticed a curious statue in front of the Army Counter Intelligence Corps building: a sphinx. What happened to the sphinx when the Army’s CIC Group was transferred to Fort Huachuca in Arizona?
— Larry Milstead, Annapolis
The sphinx went along for the ride, though presumably in a truck and not by padding along on its lion paws.
You will recall that the sphinx — a mythical creature dating to ancient Egypt that was also common in Greek mythology — had the body of a lion and the head of a human. Some versions sported an eagle’s wings and/or a serpent’s tale.
The sphinx is an enduring symbol for Army intelligence, said Army historian Michael E. Bigelow.
“You’ll find it on many of the intelligence unit insignia and flags,” he wrote in an email to Answer Man.
Why would the sphinx appeal to the men and women who work to understand an inscrutable enemy? Because the sphinx is associated with wisdom and mystery. It was an enigmatic figure, most famously in the story of Thebes. In legend, the sphinx laid siege to the Greek city, demanding that travelers solve this riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?
Anyone who answered incorrectly was devoured by the monster.
Only crafty Oedipus got it right. The answer is man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright as a young man, and leans on a cane in old age. Even so, things didn’t work out so well for Oedipus in the end.
In 1924, the War Department announced an insignia for officers of the military intelligence reserve corps: a shield with 13 stripes radiating from a circle, at the center of which is the figure of a sphinx.
“The sphinx is the symbol of knowledge and strength, and the 13 stripes add a patriotic meaning to the device,” wrote the Boston Herald.
Many a draftee passed through Fort Holabird, which was in southeast Baltimore, adjacent to Dundalk, Md. Established in 1917, it was named after Brig. Gen. Samuel S. Holabird, the Army’s quartermaster general from 1883 to 1890. It is known to many veterans as the training and testing ground for military transport vehicles, including the Jeep.
A more secretive part of the installation did another kind of training. A 1957 Associated Press story about Fort Holabird began: “A golden sphinx … stands guard at the entrance of an inconspicuous building tucked away in a corner of this tiny military post.”
The sphinx, the story continued, symbolized “the silence and knowledge taught the trainees who enter the building — which houses the Army Intelligence School.” Students there took classes on “detecting espionage, sabotage, treason, sedition, disaffection and other subversive activities.”
It’s unclear where the five-foot, pot metal sphinx statue came from. It seems unlikely that it was made specifically for Army use. Before it was at Holabird, it was at Fort Meade, supposedly pulled from a salvage area near the fort, Bigelow said.
Throughout the 1960s, Fort Holabird served as the hub for numerous intelligence organizations, not just the school but also the U.S. Army Intelligence Command. For all those years, the sphinx stood guard.
In 1971, the Pentagon moved the school to Fort Huachuca, an installation in Sierra Vista, Ariz., 15 miles north of the Mexican border. The sphinx was briefly relocated to Fort Meade before heading west. Today it sits outside the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence. The setting is not quite Egypt — that’s where you’ll find the biggest sphinx of all, the Great Sphinx of Giza — but the sphinx must have welcomed the desert setting after 20 years in the Mid-Atlantic.
After Fort Holabird closed in 1973, the property was transferred to the City of Baltimore. Today, the site houses an industrial park.
The mythical sphinx continues its association with Army intelligence-gatherers. In 2018, the Military Intelligence Corps Association established the Order of the Sphinx, an award recognizing civilians who have contributed to the great cause of solving riddles and unraveling mysteries.