Fort Lewis: Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/02/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9028

The Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot served the United States Army between 1942 and 1963 as a primary vehicle-, arms-, and missile-repair facility. This depot provided ordnance equipment to the Pacific area and Alaska in World War II. During the war nearly half the depot workers were women, most employed in mechanical work for the first time. These women workers, WOWs (Women Ordnance Workers), made a substantial contribution to the war effort.  Following World War II, depot activities declined, but picked up during the Korean War and the Cold War. As weapons changed, the depot mission responded, in the 1950s assuming missile-repair duties. The facility, located at the northeast corner of the Fort Lewis Military Reservation and known today as the Fort Lewis Logistics Center, continues to serve as an important hub for deployment, repair, and salvage activities.

From Motor Base to Ordnance Depot

The Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot was roughly rectangular in shape and covered some 600 acres of former prairie land on Fort Lewis. The depot had a linear layout to facilitate the movement of machines and personnel, and employed the use of assembly line methods of work organization.  Originally, the main vehicle entrance into the depot was located on the Pacific Highway, State Route 99, and marked by a decorative stone arch. Interstate 5, completed in 1957, forced closure of the gate and required a new main gate on the depot’s northeast corner.  The original gate now stands unused, an iconic symbol on Interstate 5, recalling the depot’s history.  

In October 1941, the United States Army announced the construction of the Fort Lewis Motor Base, a vehicle repair facility. To be operated by the 1st Battalion, 58th Quartermaster Regiment, the base would rebuild army trucks. A small shop accommodated engine rebuilding, machine shop, welding, and finishing rooms. Additional space was devoted to warehousing parts. This repair station cost $1.2 million, funded under the 1939 protective mobilization plan, that included expanded industrial production of weapons and vehicles, repair facilities, and increased troop strength. American isolationist sentiment prevented full-scale mobilization until after the German invasion of Poland and finally the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. 

Following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the nation moved from protective mobilization to war mobilization. Additional construction in January-February 1942 added buildings. The new construction included two shops, 17 barracks, four mess halls, four recreation buildings, administrative buildings, and a chapel. On April 20, 1942, this expanded installation was named the Fort Lewis Quartermaster Motor Base.  Colonel Marmion Mills (1890-1964), who had served as a 41st Division staff officer in World War I and before returning to the army, a Seattle transit authority officer, assumed command on May 6, 1942, and found little repair work underway. Soon, trucks arrived for rebuilding and at the end of 90 days, a work force of 48 had rebuilt 12 engines, and repaired 16 trucks.

In August 1942 the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps turned over vehicle responsibilities to the Ordnance Corps, and with this transfer, the facility obtained a new name, the Fort Lewis Ordnance Base. Also, during 1942 the facility grew, adding warehouses, shops, and storage areas. On December 26, 1942, the facility was named after the mountain that could be seen from here, becoming the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot (MROD).

The Demands of War

War demands increased the need for ordnance equipment and repair requiring new arsenals and depots. As part of this buildup, the army would construct nine vehicle depots, one in each military district in the continental United States. These vehicle depots would provide supply and repair services to the army units within each military district.  The Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot served Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. Heavy demands from Alaska with combat and highway construction in extreme climate and terrain challenged MROD.  Also, in late 1942 the depot assumed the enormous Pacific Theater of Operations ordnance responsibility.

The Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot’s location contributed to its effectiveness. In close proximity to McChord Army Air Field, the Northern Pacific Railroad line, and State Highway 99 (a major West Coast north-south route), vehicles could be readily transported to their destinations. A spur line connected the depot to Northern Pacific lines alongside Highway 99. Additionally, the depot often used the Port of Tacoma, 13 miles to the north, and the Navy Piers in Seattle. These ports provided shipping to Alaska and to Central Pacific battlefields. 

Women Ordnance Workers (WOW)

By early 1943, the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot buzzed with activity, servicing 1,000 vehicles a month. The MROD adopted assembly line production techniques, moving vehicles from station to station with a rebuilt truck emerging from the shop. For example, the engine-rebuild shop had engines first going through a cleaning vat and then onto a conveyor belt. As it moved along workers at specific stations removed components such as carburetors and distributors (assembly line workers called these parts “jewelry”). At the end of the line emerged an engine block that received another cleaning and onto another conveyor belt to receive new or reconditioned "jewelry." Trucks were overhauled in a similar assembly line fashion, moving through the Automotive Shop where 600 workers rebuilt them.

During the war MROD assumed another new mission, the repair of small arms damaged in combat. The weapons repair section followed an assembly line strategy and quickly restored weapons that were shipped to front line units. A box and crate shop became a critical supporting activity. This shop constructed boxes and crates to ship vehicles, parts, and small arms.

In 1941 the Clover Park School District (Lakewood) had responded to growth in military and industrial families with a new organization combining five elementary districts and the high school into one district. The District School Superintendent, A.G. Hudtloff (1895-1968), sought and obtained federal funding for a number of projects. Two schools were expanded a shop building added to the Clover Park High School. This shop building opened in 1942 as part of the national defense education program.

Military students could take metal and wood working, blueprint reading, machine drawing, and pre-aviation courses in this high school shop. Also, soldiers had the opportunity to take day or night classes to earn a high school diploma.

Superintendent Hudtloff paid attention when, in September 1942, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950) called for doubling the number of women war workers. Hudtloff surveying the local war production facilities and recognized the need for qualified women workers at MROD.  In discussions with the depot, he proposed a women’s mechanics training program, teaching women vehicle repair skills.  This would be a dramatic shift as women represented only 1 percent of the nation’s mechanics. The field had a strong gender bias and also it was heavy, dirty work.  However, women wanted to make a contribution to winning the war, and achieve economic gain.  They would do “men’s jobs” so the men could fight.

Women Mechanics Build Engines

Hudtloff obtained federal funds to construct a mechanics training center at the Clover Park High School campus. It would be one of the first in the country to train women mechanics with its graduates filling MROD positions. It welcomed its first class of 21 women on February 16, 1943. Future classes, held day and night, would have 30 students in each class.  At the opening dedication school superintendent Hudtloff spoke of the training as combining public spirit and skill in helping solve a serious strategic labor problem. 

These students would attend an eight-week course learning assembly line techniques, vehicle preparation, preventive maintenance, and parts ordering and storage. Students received four dollars a day during the course. At the end of the course the final tests included taking a basket filled with engine parts and putting together the engine. Once the engine was assembled, an instructor handed a key to the student to start it and if it ran she had a job on the higher paying assembly line, earning $1.50 per hour (at the time a high salary). Other graduates worked in the warehouses, and filled office positions. Only about 1 percent of the students failed to graduate.

The women workers in ordnance depots were called WOWs, or Women Ordnance Workers. The Army Ordnance Corps had 85,000 WOWs, and to recognize their unique status, issued special WOW red bandanas for wear at work.  The women took pride in their special status and many found pleasure in understanding the mysteries of mechanics. Women represented 44 percent of the MROD work force.

Overcoming Social Attitudes

In a recent interview on home-front war experiences, Doris Hastings Bier recalled with satisfaction her MROD employment and Clover Park training. She spoke with pride at passing the final test and working on the assembly line. Another vivid memory Bier had was the hostility of some men towards working women working. Women such as Doris Bier had to overcome the social attitudes that a women’s place was in the home.  To help the women workers MROD had a Coordinator for Female Workers, who counseled those with disputes, experienced work place harassment, or needed some help.

A recreation program was established to enhance morale and relieve stress.  WOWs had picnics, dances, and team sports.  The depot discovered that most women had too many activities, such as homemaking and volunteer services, to participate in the team sports.  

War-Time Housing

The depot became a source of good jobs for civilians living in Tacoma and other local communities. New residents arrived to find work here and in other war industries. This added to the local housing crunch. To ease the housing shortage for MROD employees a 364-unit Federal Housing Project went up in 1943 in nearby American Lake Gardens. The $800,000 project included 300 family houses, 64 apartments, and a community center.

Located near the depot, the American Lake Gardens housing reduced the commute time for workers living there. Colonel Mills and his staff sought other ways to ease workers burdens. A large cafeteria on the depot served inexpensive meals. To create a sense of community, Colonel Mills hired Howard Wood, a Tacoma Times columnist, to start a base newspaper named the Red Ball (for the official Ordnance insignia, a blazing red ball). The semi-monthly newspaper covered depot sports, local interest stories, and how the base supported the war effort. The depot teams did very well in post competition. The 1943 football team, the Mountaineers, won the Fort Lewis crown before a crowd of 5,000 at the post stadium. In the 1950s the paper was renamed the MRODIAN.

The wartime workload exceeded MROD’s capacity. Four thousand vehicles sat in open storage awaiting repair in January 1944. This despite the depot record of 500 vehicles repaired each month with the 11 hour workdays, seven days a week. The production in 1943 had been impressive with more than 14,000 vehicles overhauled, almost as many engines rebuilt, tires salvaged, and a huge quantity of ordnance material shipped out. Additional workers were trained and hired during 1944, raising the employee total to 2,500.

Italians and German POWs

In June 1944 an Italian Service Unit (ISU) arrived providing unskilled labor. The ISUs comprised non-fascists, who signed an allegiance to the United States. They wore U.S. uniforms with the U.S. crest buttons removed.  To distinguish the ISUs they had a cap and shoulder patches reading “Italy” in the Italian national colors. Each ISU company numbered about 100 commanded by American and Italian officers. Two companies served at MROD. The ISU soldiers had freedoms not experienced by POWs. They could visit nearby communities, eat in the American PX, and do work that was prohibited to POWs.  Both companies worked in the supply areas and engineer tasks on post. They lived in barracks in the MROD camp area.

The depot also employed German POWs from the Fort Lewis prisoner-of-war camps. They helped in the shops, the fire department, and wood salvage yard. The POWs contributed greatly to the salvage success, with the depot recovering 707 tons of metal, tires, wood, and paper sold to civilian firms in eight months of 1944. At one point, fights broke out between the ISU units and German POWs. Colonel Mills ordered that the two groups not come into contact with each other.

MROD reached its stride during 1944, overhauling more than 1,000 vehicles a month. The engine-rebuilding assembly line rebuilt that number of engines as well. New duties were taken on, to include small arms repair and optics. By February 1945 the depot workforce had stabilized at 2,300 employees. There were 190 buildings, and 225 acres of open outside storage.  During the year vehicles begin to be returned from Alaska and the Pacific for rebuilding.

The End of the War

This kept the installation busy into November when a slowdown came. MROD dropped to 1,100 employees that month.  A large number of the WOW workers left, having made a significant contribution. Very few could take their acquired skills to civilian employers as, after the war, gender bias returned.  By 1960 the number of female mechanics returned to its very low prewar level. WOW became an undervalued effort, today largely forgotten. 

In 1945 MROD workers wanted an impressive arch or gate similar to Fort Lewis's historic stone and timber gate. This structure would be a permanent monument to the facilities contribution to the World War II victory. Captain Samuel S. Lynch directed an engineer training group in its construction, started on January 26, 1945. The arch had two native stone pillars with a cross member displaying the name Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot. Using only salvaged materials, at no cost, they had it completed in three weeks. U.S. Army engineers built it, not Italian or German Prisoners of War as is often claimed.  Today this structure is the visual symbol of the former MROD, seen by thousands as they drive Interstate 5 through the Tillicum area.

In December 1945 Colonel Mills retired and became a transportation consultant. He kept a connection with Seattle while working as a mass transportation expert in San Francisco and locally. One of Mills's transportation proposals laid out plans for more effective Puget Sound crossings.

The Korean and Cold War at the Depot

Colonel Ray O. Welch (1907-1967), who had served in Okinawa, took over the depot.  During his tenure the depot reclaimed excess material from the Pacific and disposed of vehicles. A large work force of 1,600 civilians and 16 military personnel remained at the depot.

On February 23, 1949, MROD workers watched in shock as a burning F-82 jet fighter crashed into a truck storage area. Fortunately, there were no losses on the ground, but the crew, Captain Donald L. Church and Staff Sergeant Walter E. Ferguson, died.  An engine failure caused this McChord AFB, 318th Fighter Squadron jet to crash.

The Cold War, with American readiness requirements, kept MROD open and active. This tension and continuing military strength required ordnance depot maintenance of newer weapons systems.  Also, the Cold War period had its “hot” war events.  The United States went to war in Korea and Vietnam to counter communist expansion, with ordnance repair and supply critical. 

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) promptly responded, sending American forces to support the South Korean defenders. On July 8, 1950, the MROD received orders to provide the 2nd Infantry Division with the arms, vehicles, and armor for the division’s mobilization and shipment to Korea. Going on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule the depot had the “Second to None” Division equipped when it shipped out in August.

The Korean War brought new expansion. Once the 2nd Infantry Division had shipped out, the depot went to two eight-hour shifts. World War II vehicles were returned from Alaska for repairs and shipment to Korea. Armor and artillery weapons also were rehabilitated and placed on ships for movement to Korea. The small-arms-repair functions rose dramatically. In July MROD had 1,500 workers, but sought another 500 employees. To better fulfill its Korean War demands $3 million in new construction funds became available.

Community and Cold War in the 1950s

In April 1951, Colonel Welch turned over the first shovel of soil at the site of a new two-story headquarters building at the main gate.  John Tobin an MROD industrial engineer, worked with the Portland, Oregon, architects, Weber, Taylor and Associates to design the International Style building.  Additional construction included four warehouses including a very large dehumidified building, providing optimal weapons storage conditions.  Colonel Frederick G. Crabb Jr. (1904-1981), with years of ordnance- and vehicle-maintenance experience including the World War II North African and Sicilian campaigns, replaced Welch and served until 1955. Colonel Champlin Buck  (1909-1989) commanded from 1955 to November 1958.  During Colonel Buck’s tenure the depot averaged 2,500 employees. MROD warehouses held 142,000 separate items at a value of $300 million. 

Despite heavy work demands the depot commanders recognized the importance of community relations. MROD participated in community events, held open houses during World War II, and in the 1950s had floats in the Tacoma Armed Forces Day parades. The May 1953 open-house events included a display of the Explorer I satellite missile. Once Nike maintenance came to the depot, these missiles were displayed.  The MROD earned a number of awards for community service and good practices, including a December 1952 Presidential Award for its employment of 500 handicapped employees. 

In 1956 the depot repaired fewer than 100 Nike missiles; in 1957 it was up to 350 and continued to grow. As missile demands increased, conventional arms repair decreased. This required maintenance personnel retraining. Helmer Stubbs (1905-1995), Chief of the Maintenance Division, established a local training program and also sent maintenance workers to army missile schools. For the workers, the new technology demands forced them to learn new technologies, but also they received higher pay.  Colonel Franklin Kemble Jr. (1912-1985) arrived in August 1960 from the Seneca Ordnance Depot as commander. Colonel Kemble retired in April 1962 and Colonel W. C. Wine (1919-1997), who had served in Germany, replaced him. Colonel Wine would be the last MROD commander. With retirement he moved to Auburn Washington, and taught at Green River Community College.

The 1960s: The Community Fights Closure

In early 1961 the Department of Defense announced plans to close the depot and transfer its functions to the Tooele Depot, Utah. Washington state politicians battled to save the installation and its jobs. Tacoma groups lobbied and provided a May 1961 position paper to the Washington congressional delegation.  This paper attempted to refute Department of Defense reasons to close the facility, including the claim that it had no land for missile testing.  The report argued that adjacent Fort Lewis ranges could be used for missile testing.  Additionally, MROD missile expansion would be cheaper than at Tooele, and that MROD was closer to Alaska, a major ordnance customer.

The Department of Defense held firm, so other efforts were tried to block the closure. In early July MROD employees doing business locally passed out cards indicating that the sale was money the businessman would lose when the 14 million dollar payroll goes to Utah. All the attempts to keep MROD open failed and the facility begin to reduce its functions.

From Ordnance Depot to Logistics Center

On July 26, 1962 the depot was renamed the Mount Rainier Army Depot to reflect this drawdown.  The remaining activities moved from ordnance material repair to more limited communications systems renovation. The installation assisted workers in finding new jobs and employees left for other depots or government employment in the Puget Sound area. The number of employees dropped from 1,904 in 1960 to 950 in December 1962.

Major Donald H. McKibber, who followed Colonel Wine, served from June 1962 to July 1963 and prepared Mount Rainier Army Depot for its ultimate transformation from an independent depot to a support facility subsumed within the larger Fort Lewis military installation.  On August 12, 1963, an official message transferred the Mount Rainier Army Depot  grounds and buildings to Fort Lewis. The post held a contest to rename it. The winning entry came from Anne Marie Gordon who suggested “Fort Lewis Logistics Center.”  On August 29, 1963 the new name became official.  Since 1963 the Logistics Center has and continues to repair and salvage equipment, and support deployments.  

The Logistics Center Today

The Logistics Center today has multiple purposes: warehousing; combat deployment facilities; limited repair activities; administrative offices for the Directorate of Logistics; offices and warehouse space for the Army and Air Force Exchange Services (AAFES); and a home for tenants including the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO). However, where the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot functioned as a self-contained unit complete with barracks and mess halls, a chapel, Post Exchange, and other support facilities, the Logistics Center now depends on the larger Fort Lewis for those support services.

The vast majority of the original World War II temporary wood structures were demolished after the transformation to the Fort Lewis Logistics Center. Modernization has removed warehouses, shops, barracks, and other buildings. This demolition has left only 33 of the 190 original buildings. New construction has included a Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office complex, the construction of new deployment facilities, and the reconfiguration of the rail yard.


Sources: Julie McDonald Zander, Life on the Home Front (Winlock, Washington: Chapters of Life Memory Books, 2005); Derek Manning and Duane Colt Denfeld, Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot: National Register of Historic Places Inventory and Evaluation (Fort Lewis: Cultural Resources Program, 2008); “Mt. Rainier Depot Keeps Soldiers Armed”, The Tacoma Sunday Ledger News Tribune,  September 23, 1951, p. 3.; “Col. Crabb Shifts Ordnance Staff From Guns, Now Obsolete to Intricacies of Missiles,” The Tacoma Sunday News Tribune, July 12, 1959, p. A-8.; “Col. Wine Loved His Country,” July 2, 1997, accessed March 30, 2009 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com).    

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