By Heidi Bunch with Gene Hughes
On Sept. 15, 1930 at 2:30 p.m. Commander Richard F. Bernard of the United States Navy, formally took over the command of the Naval Ammunition Depot, which had been under active construction for 21 months.
Next Tuesday, the Depot will celebrate their 85th Anniversary of formal commissioning of the Hawthorne Ammunition Depot.
Under the command of the US Navy until 1977, the depot is now under the command of Lt. Col. Gregory Gibbons of the US Army and is under contract with SOC, LLC.
The depot was created from a 1926 disastrous blast that virtually wiped out an ammunition depot at Lake Denmark, New Jersey.
Walker Lake was first chosen when citizens in Tonopah offered their suggestions that Hawthorne be considered.
C.C. “Good Roads” Boak first tossed out the idea of having the depot built in Sodaville, south of Mina, where there was “ample land and water and protected by high mountains to the east and west”.
It was James M. Fenwich who thought it might be in the best interest to locate the depot at Hawthorne and store the dangerous explosives under the waters of Walker Lake. (That same thought was advanced again in 1981 in the arguments over deployment of the MX Missile).
US Senator Tasker L. Oddie quickly warmed up to the Hawthorne movement and as a member of the Naval Affairs Committee, did not hesitate in a bit of log rolling and arm twisting as the Navy proceeded to consider potential sites in the West for a new ammunition depot.
Competition came from California congressmen but Oddie prevailed and on July 24, 1928 a groundbreaking ceremony with admirals and state officials participating, the establishment of the US Naval Ammunition Depot in Hawthorne, Nevada was celebrated.
Contracts were made for railroad and road construction and a frame office headquarters along with a corrugated iron garage building, located at what is now considered “main gate”.
In 1929 construction would begin on 17 buildings and quarters for officers and civilian employees, all in the industrial area with 84 igloo type explosive magazines, two detonator magazines being constructed along with a boiler house, utility buildings in the magazine area, which would be the beginning of 120 structures in all.
Other contracts would continue to be awarded until Sept. 15, 1930 when the Navy officially “moved in” and formally commissioned the depot.
With the commissioning came 48 Marines to guard the depot, many directly from Nicaragua where they had been chasing the rebel leader Sandino.
When the Marines arrived, the ordnance was closely behind, with the first shipments of ammunition being delivered from Mare Island, Calif., where it had been stored at Benicia Arsenal. Much had been stowed in the magazines since the end of World War I.
Civilians began employment at the depot. 60 individuals would maintain the depot, but President Franklin Roosevelt took office and the number was cut to 48.
The mine filling plants would not see any activity until Sept. 1935 when employees were to “rework” mines, depth charges and some bombs which had been in storage for 15 years or more. When the project was completed, the depot went into mothball status until the outbreak of war in Europe. Congress then placed Hawthorne Naval Ammunition Depot on active duty status.
World War II brought more than 13,000 people to Hawthorne and as quickly as the war ended, many moved from the small town as rapidly as they had arrived.
The story would be repeated, on smaller but not less hectic scale, during the Korean conflict and Vietnam.
On Oct. 1, 1977, the depot would no longer be under the control of the U.S. Navy as the U.S. Army took control of the plant.
Hardly had the Army adjusted to the assignment of operating a one-time naval ammunition depot when the powers to be in Washington, D.C. determined that a contract system would be more “cost effective”. The change came on Dec. 1, 1980. From that day forward, it would remain as such.
The first contractor was Day & Zimmerman/Basil Corporation Joint Venture. Today it is under the direction of SOC, LLC.
The depot has housed the Air Force Detachment, trained troops for all types of warfare, used Walker Lake for detonation of ordnance and has even contracted with private firms such as the now defunct High Desert Special Operations enter and School which specialized in the training used to fight terrorism throughout the world.
Many resident once called the vacant land between Hawthorne and the depot, home when the housing area of Babbitt was constructed. Many adults who were raised as children in that area fondly recall their times in Babbitt and often say, “We are so glad we were raised in Babbitt.”
The depot is not without it’s times of sorrow. Early newspapers account of lonely soldiers who succumbed to the vast loneliness of the high mountain desert, ordnance blast took out prominent family members, having the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Depot named on the Base Realignment and Closure list and recently, seven US Marines were killed in a training exercise. But through each event, community members have banned together.
Hawthorne remains a “military town” with a community relationship with the depot. The Americanism can be seen not only during the Armed Forces Day celebration each May, but also at Veterans Memorial Park which houses the names of those lost in war and at home and the military displays at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum.
May the history of the depot continue to be written. Happy 85th Anniversary.