Twenty-three days...a point in time

By John B. SnyderFebruary 28, 2011

WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- There are points in everyone's life that are so significant that they truly define who they are and what they represent. They may be the events that you most remember such as your wedding, children's births, military enlistment date, or the day you retire. You know them well because they are sewn into the fabric of your existence so strongly that no matter how tattered the fabric may become the threads remain. It is true with the Arsenal, too.

Just as one reflects on their lifetime, one may reflect on the Arsenal's history and find points of definition that are so significant that they provide more than simple clarity as to the character of the Arsenal, they also help to define the essence of its workforce.

Some may say it was the Arsenal's acceptance of new technology in the early 1820s that helped save the Arsenal from closure after the Great Panic of 1819 and the severe recession that followed. This high-tech development, called the Erie Canal, revolutionized not only the power generation of Arsenal manufacturing, it also sped up the delivery of military hardware to the nation's troops.

A point in time.

Others may point to 1887 as the point in time that truly defines the Arsenal's character. After the Civil War, the Arsenal's main mission was for storage and not production. Austerity measures were so severe after the war that Arsenal leadership had workers break open ammunition so that the powder could be sold, and brass melted to be used in manufacturing. The Arsenal was on the brink of closure.

But in 1887, a board of ordnance officers selected the Watervliet Arsenal as the Army's first gun factory. The Arsenal was selected because it was deemed safe from hostile fleets, the Erie Canal provided available power, and there were a significant number of skilled workers available in the area. With this selection, the Arsenal quickly transformed itself from a manufacturer of saddles and gun carriages to a manufacturer of large caliber guns.

A point in time.

Former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw once defined Americans during World War II as the Greatest Generation in American history. The Arsenal flourished as part of this generation and so, there may be some who call this a significant point in the Arsenal's history.

When Col. Richard H. Somers took command of the Arsenal in 1938, there were only 350 employees at the Arsenal. By the end of 1942, there were more than 9,000 workers at the Arsenal.

These 9,000 - which included more than 1,900 women who performed such jobs as machine operators and quality control inspectors - produced between December 1941 and June 1944, 23,183 cannons with an on-time delivery rate average of 99.96 percent.

A point in time.

In 1985, the Director of Operations by the name of Fred Clas retired. Clas had led Arsenal production for 22 years and there may not have ever been a more ardent supporter to the Arsenal. After Clas retired, there were some who wondered how the Arsenal might survive without Clas' experience and his relationships that he had developed through the years.

By August 1990, some of those concerns became reality when the first wave of a reduction-in-force notices hit the workforce.

About that same time, Saddam Hussein attacked across the Iraqi border and seized Kuwait. Although Arsenal Commander Col. Michael J. Neuman did not know at that time if the US would go to war, he did know that given the potential for war the Arsenal could not reduce its workforce. He cancelled the RIF.

In early 1991, as it appeared more and more everyday that the US would soon be in combat, a renewed sense of spirit permeated the Arsenal, from the tool room to the mail room. Everyone was onboard ready to support the troops.

Aerial bombing of Iraq began on Jan. 17, 1991, but after thousands of tons of ordnance had been dropped, there was one target that was still relatively untouched - Iraqi Command & Control bunkers.

Not that the coalition forces hadn't tried, but the 2,000 pound bombs were simply bouncing off of the bunkers and a bunker buster bomb, using current weapon options at the time, was still about 20 weeks from development.

Then a call came into the Arsenal on Jan. 25, 1991 from Lockheed Missile and Space Co.

The Arsenal was known for its expertise in machining barrels and that is what a former Army officer who was working for Lockheed at the time had in mind when he suggested to the Air Force that they use stockpiled 8-inch howitzer barrels as the bomb casings to deliver a 5,000 pound bunker buster bomb.

Arsenal planners and machinists worked around the clock, seven days a week shortening the gun barrels and boring the barrels to a 13-inch diameter. The first two bombs were delivered on February 17.

The first test bomb was dropped on the 24th of February by an F-111 at the Tonopah test range in Nevada. The bomb buried itself more than 100 feet deep. The Air Force did not bother to recover it.

On February 27th, the Arsenal's bunker buster bomb was uploaded on an F-111 and flown to Taji Airbase, about 15 miles northwest of Baghdad. The Taji command and control bunker had been bombed at least three previous times, but to no avail.

The F-111 dropped the bunker buster bomb and guided it to an air shaft on top of the command and control bunker. The bomb sliced through the 20-foot thick reinforced walls to devastating consequence. The bunker was destroyed.

These 23 days, from time of request to delivery, speak volumes about the history, capability, and the heart of the Watervliet Arsenal's workforce.

A point in time.

History will be kind to today's generation of Arsenal employees who remain fully committed to our nation's warfighters on this 20th anniversary of the bunker buster bomb. What is not yet clear is what will be their "point in time."

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