ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – If you go to just about any U.S. Army installation in the world, you will notice that they are gated communities with only a few access points to enter the post. These access points are staffed by guards who check your military identification card or, if you don’t have one, check
Throughout its history Rock Island Arsenal has alternated between being an open post where the public could come on to the installation at will, and a closed post where a guard, either military or Civilian, controlled who can get on the installation.
As part of the 160th anniversary of the installation, which will be celebrated here on May 21, we are going back in time to see how the Arsenal was guarded during World War II.
Rock Island was established as a military site in 1816 when Fort Armstrong was built on the island. It did not become an arsenal, however, until 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln, recognizing the need for more weapons to be built for the Union Army, decreed that Rock Island would be the site of an arsenal to make, maintain, repair, store and issue arms and ammunition.
Beginning in 1880, RIA expanded its role, and began to manufacture military equipment and ordinance; a job that it continues to do to this day.
After the end of World War I, as the U.S. drew down its military, it also scaled back its manufacturing production. Since the nation was no longer at war, the arsenal was guarded by Civilian men, known as “Arsenal Guards,” most of whom were World War I or Spanish-American War veterans.
By 1936, however, the winds of war were once again beginning to blow, and the precarious peace forged by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was threatened.
Germany, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, began to ramp up its military capability with the reintroduction of the draft and the building of an air force. In Spain, a civil war had broken out, and Japan was preparing to invade China.
In response to the growing threat abroad, the arsenal began to ramp up production of military vehicles and weapons. Production of war materials would increase over the next five years, and by March 1941, the arsenal’s military production reached full capacity.
With the Arsenal operating at wartime production, the installation commander, Brig. Gen. Norman F. Ramsey, recognized the growing threat of sabotage or attack to the island and took steps to neutralize it.
On July 2, 1941, the 225th Military Police Company was stood up to augment the Cvilian guards on the installation, which consisted of 90 men, all of whom were above the maximum draft age of 45.
Their job was to “protect the Arsenal from any sabotage or tampering which might result in the delay of the manufacture of war materials,” wrote Lt. Robert Weldon in an article about the MPs that ran in the May 1942 edition of The Rock Island Arsenal Record, a monthly magazine produced by the Arsenal.
The MP company initially consisted of 19 noncommissioned officers. However, it grew rapidly with two officers, Capt. Lester J. King and Lt. Robert Weldon, joining the NCOs by the end of July. In November 1941, 57 newly trained MPs arrived to assist the unit in guarding the power dam on Sylvan Island.
With the U.S. entrance into the war on Dec. 8, 1941, the 225th continued to expand. By the end of the year, 38 more Soldiers arrived. In early 1942, two other officers, Capt. Howard G. Hawkins and Lt. Royce E. Petit, would round out the company, which now consisted of 109 enlisted men and four officers.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and other military bases located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, there was concern that other bases in the country might be attacked or subject to sabotage – especially one that produced war material.
However, the people living in the “Tri-Cities”, as the Quad Cities was known then, knew the arsenal was safe -- thanks to the foresight of Ramsey.
“We can't do anything to guard the arsenal we are not already doing,” said Ramsey in an article that ran in the Davenport Democrat on Dec. 9, 1941. “A large force of soldiers and civilian police are guarding the Arsenal, and for many months no one but employees have been permitted within the seven fenced areas of the reservation.”
One of the first tasks the MPs undertook after the declaration of war was to clear out the “hobo jungles” that had been built on nearby Sylvan Island and on the Illinois side of Government Bridge. The dwellings were cleared out and burned at the request of Moline Mayor Henry Arp, who considered the hobos a threat to the arsenal and the community.
After clearing out the hobo jungles, the MPs continued to guard the power plant and also augmented the Arsenal Guards in protecting the installation.
Unlike today, where guards primarily staff entry and exit points on the post, during World War II Arsenal Guards and MPs guarded and patrolled buildings where war materials were being made, as well as the Moline and Davenport gates.
To ensure that the guards were walking their posts, call boxes were located throughout the shops and warehouses. As the guards made their rounds they would call into the post police station where it was noted for record.
Even though RIA was a prime target for sabotage, as it produced huge quantities of all types of artillery and small arms equipment, to include rocket launchers, .30-caliber machine guns and engines for tanks, there were no reports of sabotage or attack thanks to the efforts of the Arsenal Guards and the 225th MP Company.
Editor’s note: Information for this article was found in archived copies of the Rock Island Arsenal.