McALESTER, Okla. -- History buffs in this city forever linked to its founder, J. J. McAlester, and "True Grit" movie lore, were recently reminded of its importance to the country's national defense for the past 73 years.
Brian Lott, chief of staff at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, here, addressed members of the Pittsburg County Genealogical and Historical Society about the installation's history following their regular monthly meeting.
He chronicled everything from the local task force lobbying for one of three inland depots the Navy was planning to build after the start of World War II, through the large-scale construction across 45,000 acres, and up to its present day as a storage, bomb- and warhead-loading facility.
The $53 million contract let to Brown and Bellows Construction Company from Houston called for 707 magazines, 70 storage buildings, two large-caliber loading plants, two medium-caliber loading plants, and a two-line bomb and mine-filling plant, said Lott. Work began Aug. 15, 1942 and was completed in nine months, three months ahead of schedule.
A McAlester newspaper article published on March 13, 1943, according to Lott, said in part, "'No words can accurately describe the huge project. It must be seen to be believed…'"
The population of McAlester at the time was only 12,000, and during the height of construction, 20,000 workers were employed, which created a commotion and a housing shortage.
"I can attest to the fact that when the bullet plant came to McAlester, it was a true boom town because of all the constructions workers," added Tom Crowl, a PCGHS member who at the time was 11 years old.
"Every street was crowded, grocery stores were as busy as they could be and people were converting their garages into living space for workers, which is why they took the top floors of the hardware store and put 38 apartments in it," Crowl said about the Diamond Hardware Store owned by his grandfather, Smith Crowl.
Before the community heard it was getting one of the Navy ammunition depots, it received word that a German POW camp was coming to town.
"We felt like we were getting the shaft because Muskogee got Camp Gruber and Paris, Texas, got Camp Maxey, and we're not getting anything but a POW camp," Crowl said.
But on May 20, 1943, the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, McAlester, was commissioned and by the following September, 5-inch/38-caliber Navy gun ammunition was rolling off the production line. Lott said it remained at full capacity until the end of WWII.
Following the war, USNAD personnel that once topped 8,600 plummeted to about 1,000, said Lott. But when the Korean War began, the Navy brought former employees back at a rate of up to 150 a day, and the workforce began renovating rounds from the WWII stockpile.
While supporting the war effort, employees also found time to give back to the community. On Dec. 21, 1951, they held their first Christmas party, complete with gifts, for 121 underprivileged children from the surrounding area.
"That is one of the best things we've done and it continues today," Lott said.
As the war raged on, another $20 million was pumped into construction at USNAD, increasing the storage capacity to more than 2,200 storage igloos. The Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953 and by the end of the decade, employment dropped to an all-time low of 632, Lott said.
Bomb production became an even more prominent part of USNAD's business during the Vietnam War years. Then on Oct. 1, 1977, the facility was transferred to the Army under the Single Manager for Conventional Munition, and was renamed McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
Since that time, MCAAP continued to build on its reputation as a bomb manufacturer. In later years, it transitioned to a new plastic-bonded explosive and insensitive munitions. These days the plant also produces increasingly smarter munitions like the Excalibur and Sensor Fuzed Weapon, which it loads for Raytheon Company and Textron Defense, respectively.
In fiscal year 2004, the Army Working Capital Fund organization reached a financial milestone when it generated $228.4 million in revenue, an unprecedented high since the Vietnam War.
"We're as busy as ever today, Lott said. "We continue to expand our base into smarter munitions and our workload projection for the next five years and beyond looks very good."
Before concluding the presentation, he also talked about MCAAP's award-winning natural resource conservation program and fielded a myriad of questions from the audience.
"I appreciate the chance to come tell you a little about what we do," he said in closing. "We are passionate about our work and I'm proud to tell people about it. Too often the locals don't know what we do. We're not nearly as secretive about it as we used to be. 'Loose lips sink ships' was the belief in years past."
The base's history resonated with Carol Scott, a McAlester native and president of the PCGHS.
"I've lived here all my life and you don't know what [the base] looks like if you don't work there. It was very interesting," she said.
The PCGHS is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1979 as a volunteer group to collect and share genealogical and historical information of Pittsburg County and to help interested people develop genealogical skills.
MCAAP is one of 16 installations of the Joint Munitions Command and one of 23 organic industrial base facilities under the U.S. Army Materiel Command.