By Kevin Jackson, AMCMay 10, 2018
McALESTER ARMY AMMUNITION PLANT, Okla. -- McAlester commemorated its 71st Armed Forces Day by celebrating the 75th anniversary of the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant during its annual luncheon, here, on May 4.
Reconnecting with the ammunition facility's origins, Rear Adm. (ret.) John Cotton, one of the last Navy medical officers to serve on what was then the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, McAlester, was invited back as the luncheon's guest speaker.
Cotton served on USNAD McAlester from 1969 to 1971 before separating from the Navy. He remained in the community where he continued to practice medicine and affiliated with the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1972 as a medical officer. He served until his retirement as rear admiral, upper half, in 2002.
Cotton joked that he was "honored" to accept the invitation to speak after another could not be found.
"Navy medicine would never decline a distress call from anybody, even the Army," he said to laughter.
He noted reviewing the 75 years of USNAD McAlester and McAlester Army Ammunition Plant history caused him to pause.
"It dawned on me that my life span and my life story and the story of this facility have run parallel and at time intersected in some critical junctures in my career and life. So that is how I want to present it to you, to tell this story, our story," he said.
Cotton was born in 1941 -- three months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor -- in the small town of Magnolia, Ark., which he later learned was a headquarters of the McAlester Fuel Company owned by the Puterbaugh family of McAlester.
He said the Navy announced in June 1942 its plans to build one of three inland depots in McAlester, the contract was let the following month, construction began in August and the facility was commissioned in May 1943.
"So just think about that timeline," he said rhetorically. "We would still be fussing over the environmental [impact if it was today]."
Cotton said 5-, 6-, 8- and 14-inch projectiles, 20mm, 40mm, .50 caliber, bombs of all sizes, mines and torpedo warheads began rolling off the production lines to support the Navy's war efforts.
"I find it absolutely mind-boggling that we could muster the technology at the facilities to do that in such a short time," he said.
Then, on Dec. 5, 1944, he said "… something went terribly wrong …" in an ammunition storage magazine and 11 men lost their lives in the worst explosive accident in facility's history. Those men and 16 others assigned to the ammunition facility who lost their lives in the line of duty were memorialized on the Missing Man Table directly in front of him as he spoke.
Cotton said that as millions of men answered the call to arms during World War II, women who had been primarily homemakers went to work in ammunitions productions facilities like USNAD McAlester.
"They did every conceivable job that a man could do and they did it with ease. It changed the workplace forever," he said.
McAlester again intersected Cotton's life in 1965 when he joined the Navy. He was standing in line with 300 draftees at the Armed Forces Examination Center in Little Rock when he said a Navy corpsman called his name and quickly rushed him through the processing stations.
He reported to USNAD McAlester in 1969 and while attending the Grand Avenue Methodist Church one Sunday he noticed someone sitting across from him who looked familiar. He learned it was retired Navy Chief Joe Prather, who, four years before, rushed him through the Armed Forces Examination Center.
"We had been best of friends for the rest of his life," he said. "I had the privilege of taking care of him while I was working [as a physician] and then later on I had the privilege of taking care of him when he was a hospice patient."
Cotton also mentioned a Marine from USNAD McAlester who he had lost contact with, but knew remained in the area, until many years later when his name appeared on a hospice patient care list, where he volunteered.
"So I invited myself to go out to his house, called on him and he was just thrilled that the admiral came out to his house to call on him. He asked me to be a pall bearer at his funeral, which I did," he said somberly.
Cotton said Jan. 25, 1971, is a day "I remember like it was yesterday." While attending ground school for flight in McAlester with Lt. Roger Johnson, another medical officer, he received a beep.
"I got a beep, found a phone, called out here and the only message was 'come quickly. Come to the dispensary. There has been an accident,'" he said.
Arriving at the dispensary, he learned of an explosion in the 20mm demilitarization facility. Cotton said his medical team worked through the night providing triage on-site, then at the dispensary before finally sending stabilized patients to McAlester General Hospital. He said the three civilian deaths were the last in an explosive accident on the installation.
Six years after he left USNAD McAlester and separated from the Navy, the facility was turned over to the U.S. Army, which had been assigned the responsibility of managing all conventional munitions by the Defense Department.
"I arrived here just after the 25th anniversary, I was detained elsewhere on the 50th anniversary, but I'm proud to be here with you today to celebrate our 75th anniversary," Cotton said to the 150 people in attendance.
"My crystal ball doesn't work any better than yours, but I think it's pretty safe to say that [McAlester Army Ammunition Plant] will be answering our nation's call for a long time into the future, doing what it's always done: producing the right ammunition and putting it in the right place at the right time," he said.
McAlester Army Ammunition Plant is one of 17 installations of the Joint Munitions Command and one of 23 organic industrial base facilities under the U.S. Army Materiel Command.