Building the Arsenal of Democracy

Published July 15, 2015

30th Infantry, Fort Crook, Nebraska, 1905. Houses for officer's quarters~ Offutt Air Force Base Photo. Graphic restoration by Al Barrus

Omaha District's military assignments predated the attack on Pearl Harbor. Until 1940, the Construction Division of the Quartermaster Corps had carried out all military construction. This mission expanded dramatically in the late 1930's and severely strained the resources of the Quartermasters. In the fall of 1940, General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army, transferred airfield construction to the Corps of Engineers. Although the change significantly reduced the workload of the overburdened Quartermaster Corps, it also created an anomalous situation in which the Quartermasters still handled two-thirds of military construction and the Engineers managed the rest. Congress consolidated all of the work in the hands of the Engineers just before the United States entered the war. The Army had a new construction agent.

Some risk attended the transfer because many of the projects were in advanced stages of construction. The change took place gradually. The District's first military construction assignment, Lowry Field` in Denver, came during December of 1940. By 30 March 1941, the Engineers had assumed responsibility for 81 Army Air Forces projects. Quartermaster Corps personnel worked effectively to make the transition, and many of them transferred to the Corps of Engineers as it moved into a totally new field of construction work.

On the administrative level, a rapid succession of Omaha District Engineers presided over a burgeoning staff and a rapidly increasing wartime workload. On 15 February 1942, Swenholt was relieved by Colonel Lewis A. Pick. Then came Major E. W. Niles, who was in turn relieved by Colonel Ole G. Hoaas on 24 February 1942. On 17 September 1943, Lieutenant Colonel Delbert B. Freeman assumed direction of the District and continued as District Engineer into 1947.

Lowry AFB World War II buildings. Chapel is in background.
In addition to gaining experience in airbase construction at Lowry Field, District personnel learned of industrial construction when they constructed a bomber plant in Omaha for the Glenn L. Martin Company. The project served as a school that taught new construction techniques. Approval for the plant came in January of 1941. Ground breaking for the Fort Crook Bomber Assembly Plant, the official name, took place 2 months later.

The Fort Crook Plant was one of four assembly facilities to which the automobile manufacturers of the Nation sent parts to be made into combat aircraft. The other facilities were built at Kansas City, Kansas, for North American Aviation; Fort Worth, Texas, for the Consolidated Aircraft Company; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the Douglas Aircraft Company. The Omaha plant initially built the B-26 medium bomber.

The plant duplicated Martin 's Baltimore facility, designed by Albert Kahn Associates of Chicago. A three-firm joint venture contracted to build the factory. The consortium, which operated on a cost-plus-fixed-fee contract, included the Peter Kiewit and Sons and George W. Condon Companies of Omaha and the Woods Brothers Construction Company of Lincoln, Nebraska. District employees who had little heavy construction experience were augmented by personnel from other Districts and began to move 5 million cubic yards of soil to lay the plant's runways.

The main assembly building was 600 by 900 feet with a full basement and two stories. The plant included two 150- by 400-foot modification hangars, a powerplant, several small buildings, and parking ways were provided, each with 24-inch base layers compacted by runway tractors and sheepsfoot rollers. The center 150 feet received an asphalt covering and the aprons and taxiways received a concrete surface. The building was so large that it needed a transverse expansion joint to compensate for temperature differentials. Seventy giant floodlights illuminated exterior areas, and 11,550

Fort Crook Bomber Assembly Plant for Glenn L. Martin Company, Offut Air Base

At the start of the war, the Army Air Forces assumed that sod fields would accommodate any of its aircraft except the heaviest bombers. Aircraft such as the heavy B-17C and huge XB-19 rolled down existing runways and caused cracks, bends, and furrows. Stunned civilian designers, Army Air Forces officers, and Engineers watched as the great aircraft plowed up runways and left them close to useless.

The growing bomber fleet required hundreds of runways. The Corps, fliers, and civilian engineers set out to learn how to pave them. Experience in building in a variety of soils with diverse drainage conditions came from failures and success at dozens of fields. In Montana, for example, some of the lessons came from working in the winter. Frozen base course material was placed to support the runways. With the spring thaws, the ground and the base course melted and the runways sagged, heaved, and disintegrated. The experience clarified the necessity for the understanding of climate, foundation material, artificial surfaces and their bearing capacities, and the complexities of soil drainage.

In the course of building Army Air Forces bases, the Omaha Engineers developed an expedient process for surfacing runways. Over reinforced concrete, they used a mixture of soil and cement. First they dumped and spread as much as 9 inches of borrow pit material. Then they dumped sacks of cement at intervals, mixed the materials, added water, and turned the mixture. Rolling and curing completed the process. This method produced as much as 10,000 square yards of 7-inch wearing surface per day.

All of the training facilities were rushed to completion, as evidenced by the tar paper shacks that passed for bachelor officers' quarters at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, airbase. Nevertheless, runways, lighting systems, and utilities at the airbases received careful attention so that training could proceed safely.

1918 aircraft at Fort Crook, Omaha.

Most of the District's airbases, including those at Bruning, Fairmont, and Harvard, Nebraska, trained heavy bomber crews. Responsibility for the training fields passed from the Kansas City District to Omaha on 27 January 1943, and the District completed them the following June. The Omaha District constructed additional heavy bomber training bases at Ainsworth, Kearney, Grand Island, and McCook, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; and Mitchell, South Dakota. Both Grand Island and McCook started as satellite bases with minimum facilities where fledgling aviators could practice takeoffs and landings. The facilities subsequently evolved into fully operational bases. The District built more satellite fields at Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Watertown, South Dakota.

Not all of the bases trained heavy bomber crews. At the District's training field at Pierre, fighter pilots learned the maneuvers necessary to survive encounters with enemy aircraft. At Alliance, Nebraska, the Army Air Forces trained paratroopers and glider
pilots. Many graduates of Alliance swooped noiselessly behind the German seacoast fortifications in the predawn hours of D-Day, 6 June 1944.

The Army Air Forces also worked through the Omaha District to build an unusual airfield at Scribner, Nebraska. Omaha carried out an experiment in concealment there. Paint and texturing were utilized in an attempt to make the base resemble a typical series of Nebraska farms. Frame and chicken wire structures covered with chicken feathers gave the appearance of rolling land. A painter, armed with a spray gun and wearing snowshoes, walked over the structures and painted them. The camouflage is said to have worked so well that it even deceived some Army Air Forces generals who flew over the base.

Fort Crook Bomber Assembly Plant initialily built the B-26 medium bomber.

The District, lauded for its work, anxiously wished to turn the project over to the Army Air Forces. With summer turning to fall, it became evident that the camouflage would have to change with the season. The District wanted to get the Scribner field off its
hands quickly. The chameleon-like airfield demanded literally truckloads of paint to change its color, and the District did not relish making the expensive seasonal changes.

The District also improved eight civilian airports. These were located at Bismarck, North Dakota; Grand Island and North Platte, Nebraska; Laramie, Wyoming; Pierre, South Dakota; and Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Rochester, Minnesota. The work involved grading and paving runways, building hangars, laying out lighting systems, improving utilities, and installing drainage systems so that the Air Transport Command and newly developing heavy civilian aircraft could utilize the fields.

At Lincoln, the District built a mechanics' school for Army Air Forces maintenance personnel, and at Sioux Falls it created an entire technical school for ground personnel. On the Rapid City airbase, two simulated trainer buildings were built along with a bombardment training building, a target range, gasoline storage facilities, and an extensive lighting system for night flying. This experience, gained as the construction agent for the Army Air Forces, put the District in good stead in future years.

The matter at hand was not planning for the future. Instead, there was the war that had started with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Wilfred G. Hill, an employee of the Construction Division of the Quartermaster Corps came to Jackson Street on 16 December 1941 when 10 partially built Quartermaster projects were turned over to Omaha for completion. The men and women of the Quartermaster Corps helped the District build several training bases for Army ground forces. Hill worked in the Architectural Design Section, and his initial work involved the construction of barracks. In most instances, the barracks were designed for a useful life of 3 years. Architects were sorely needed, so Hill and his colleagues sometimes worked 72-hour weeks.

The Omaha District began or built training facilities for Army ground forces at seven installations. The principal work included construction of reception centers for new inductees at Camp Dodge, Kansas, and Fort Logan, Colorado, and a technical school at Fort Logan. Camp Carson, Colorado, began as an infantry training facility, later became Fort Carson, and grew to be one of the Army's major posts. Camp Hale, isolated high in the Colorado Rockies, was used to train ski troops. The work at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, involved the renovation and reconditioning of existing buildings and the erection of an industrial storage facility for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. At Fort Francis E. Warren, Wyoming, the District built warehouses, a dental clinic, and a motor repair shop.

Heavy B-17C bombers cracked the runways. US Air

The Omaha Engineers also built the language school at Camp Savage, Minnesota, where many American soldiers received their first introduction to Japanese culture. District forces built nine school buildings, barracks, messhalls, recreation facilities, housing for civilian instructors, and a whole utilities infrastructure. Graduates of the school became the backbone of the Nation's intelligence effort in the Pacific theater.

World War II was not fought by men alone. Many young women also joined the military. With the Army's 7th Service Command, the Omaha District helped make Fort Des Moines, Iowa, the major facility for the Women's Army Corps. The Des Moines garrison was composed of only a few hundred soldiers at the outbreak of the war. By June of 1943, the population grew to 12,000, mostly women at the fort for training. To facilitate the rapid expansion of this mile-square post, the District leased and converted three hotels into barracks in downtown Des Moines. For additional instruction space, Omaha modified the Orensky Building on the Drake University campus and refurbished the women's gymnasium. After the war, Hill had to make adjustments and recommend payment to the hotel owners for the wear and tear on the buildings during their heavy wartime use.

While facilities for training were important, one of this country's greatest contributions to the Allied victory rested in the ability to retool industrial facilities and create new factories. The Omaha Engineers constructed some of the plants; the output literally overwhelmed the enemy. The District assisted the Brown and Bigelow Company, which built a plant that manufactured fuses for explosives. The National Can Company used its experience with tin containers to make shell casings in a District-constructed plant. The District also built the Como Forging Plant for 155-millimeter shell casings and rehabilitated two buildings at the Quad Cities Tank Arsenal for the manufacture of tanks. In St. Paul, the District converted a set of buildings into a propeller manufacturing plant with a capacity of 10,000 blades a month. Farther west, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the District 's Cheyenne Modification Center refit and modified aircraft for the Army Air Forces.

Omaha District employees worked at other manufacturing or river tasks to aid the war effort. The river was kept clear in front of the Peterson and Haecher Company's shipbuilding ways in Blair, Nebraska. District employees improved the Omaha Steel Company's waterfront facilities for the United States Navy, which employed Omaha Steel to build landing craft. The peripatetic Hill was loaned to another District to work on war projects in St. Louis. Arthur Cognard, one of Captain Young's original Omaha District staff, inspected bulldozer blades fabricated by Omaha Steel, as well as water purification units built by another supplier.

Large military and industrial construction projects were not the only wartime projects that absorbed the District's energies. Late in 1940, the District found itself with a mission to procure supplies for the military. At that time, the District purchased 200 flatbed machinery trailers, which were manufactured in the Omaha area. Before the war was over the District bought a host of products for the fighting forces. The items included brooms, sandbags, electrical transmission equipment, oil heaters, snow fences , and dragline buckets.

Damaged runways

District employees had little experience in the construction of ordnance manufacturing facilities when war broke out. They did have one project underway, the Nebraska Ordnance Plant in Fremont. The site was chosen from among 2,000 possible locations across the country. Fremont was far enough inland to be out of the range of enemy bombers and safe from any invading force.

The essential features of the Nebraska Ordnance Plant were four bomb manufacturing lines, a booster line, and an ammonium nitrate production facility. The plant could manufacture 90-pound fragmentation bombs for use against infantry or 4,000-pound blockbusters for the British. Over 2.8 million bombs were assembled at Fremont during the war with 8,000 individuals employed at the peak of operations. The plant, managed by the Nebraska Defense Corporation, a subsidiary of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, achieved full production on 18 March 1943 after Omaha District personnel helped start the lines one by one. In addition to construction of the main plant and its complex utilities systems, District personnel built 15 staff houses, dormitories for 600 men and women, 54 warehouses, and 219 magazines with an enclosed area of some 233,066 square feet.

The Omaha District completed another ordnance plant located in Iowa. The Des Moines Ordnance Plant was transferred to the Omaha District from the Rock Island District when construction was only one fourth completed.

In March 1942, the District broke ground for the Cornhusker Ordnance Plant at Grand Island. The factory started production the following November. The rapid creation of such a complex facility demonstrated the hectic pace of wartime construction and illustrated some of the methods used to meet the war's demanding schedules. The Ordnance Corps of the Army furnished standardized plans used at other facilities. Such uniform plans were used in the District's war work wherever possible. Standardization eliminated many potential problems but required adaptation of the plans to individual sites. The Corn husker factory had the standard four loading lines, booster line, and ammonium nitrate line for production of 105-millimeter ammunition and bombs. The complex sprawled over 12,788 acres, with 15 staff houses, 5 dormitories that contained 440 rooms, and 6 barracks for 240 people. An eight-bed hospital, 2 recreation rooms, and 10 cafeterias were available for the workers.

Camp Hale, Colorado. Old World War II Army Ski Camp. U.S. Army Photo

District personnel also built machine, carpenter, and maintenance shops; four motor vehicle sheds; and a laundry to service the giant plant. To store the deadly products, 41 warehouses that enclosed one half million square feet of space and 219 magazines that covered 280,800 square feet were built. The Q.O. Ordnance Company, a subsidiary of the Quaker Oats Company, managed the factory. Because the Nebraska and Cornhusker Ordnance Plants were located nearby, the Sioux Ordnance Depot was begun by the District on 15 March 1942 and completed the following December. The depot covered 20,000 acres and became one of the largest ammunition support depots for the Pacific theater. The 33 warehouses covered 2 million square feet; 815 magazines enclosed 1.7 million square feet.

The District built the Sioux Depot from the ground up. The depot managed the continuous flow of packaged explosives from the ordnance plants to the training camps and the frontlines. Facilities for 51 officers and 1,314 enlisted men included a 54-bed hospital, a movie theater, a library, and a sports complex for off-duty use.

Adjustments of construction responsibilities meant facilities were sometimes started by one agency but completed by another. The Iowa Ordnance Plant was transferred to Omaha District jurisdiction by the Quartermaster Corps when almost complete. Located at Burlington, the facility manufactured bombs up to 6,000 pounds and artillery projectiles of various sizes. The Denver Ordnance Plant, which manufactured small arms ammunition, was transferred to the newly formed Denver District in May of 1942. The St. Paul District transferred its Twin Cities Ordnance Plant to Omaha jurisdiction along with its Gopher Ordnance Plant at Rosemount, Minnesota. The Gopher factory manufactured black powder and renovated defective powders under the management of the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company.

The St. Paul District's construction of the Gopher plant came to a virtual standstill in the summer of 1942 when the heaviest recorded rainfall in the area inundated Rosemount. The plant was slowly completed and put in a standby status. The Omaha District then received orders to double the plant's capacity. After a flurry of construction, the greatly increased plant opened and production began on 7 July 1944.

The Omaha District also did construction work at two major Army medical centers. These projects at Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver and Schick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa, originated the same way. The Army wanted to establish a tuberculosis hospital in the cool, dry, invigorating climate of Denver. The Denver Chamber of Commerce learned about this and bought 599 acres of land and leased it to the Army for a dollar a year as the site for the hospital. In 1942, the Clinton Chamber of Commerce purchased 12 acres of land and donated it and a 38-acre park as the site for Schick.

The Quartermasters started the 608-bed main hospital at Fitzsimons in 1937. They completed it just prior to the transfer of construction responsibilities to the Engineers. On 17 December 1941, the first patients were admitted. Omaha started wartime expansion, but the new Denver District took over in May 1942. Fitzsimons General Hospital was later assigned back to the Omaha District.

One of the larger prisoner-of-war camps for Axis prisoners.

The medical center at Clinton was designed and built by the Rock Island District, which completed the 1,000-bed facility in December of 1942. Responsibility for Schick was then transferred to the Omaha District on 31 March 1943. Omaha received
orders to begin construction of a 516-bed addition, which was completed in less than 4 months.

The District performed much of its construction mission for the 7th Service Command. This organization supervised many of the Army's housekeeping chores in an eight-state area that included Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, the Dakotas, Wyoming,
and Nebraska. As the representative of the user commands of the Army, the Service Command worked with the various Corps of Engineers Districts and Divisions within the region and provided standardized plans for various facilities.

One aspect of this cooperation came about as victory in battle led to the capture of enemy soldiers. The Omaha District built prisoner-of-war camps at Algona, Clarinda, and Indianola, Iowa; Atlanta, Scottsbluff, and Fort Robinson, Nebraska; and Douglas, Wyoming. These camps were built from standard plans approved and modified by the Adju-tant General 's Office. The surrender of large numbers of enemy soldiers coincided with the development of labor shortages in the United States. The District built facilities to house prisoners where they would be most useful. At Algona, for example, 65 percent of the prisoners worked in food canning plants, 15 percent cut timber in the north woods, and 10 percent worked on farms.

The Algona camp, set on 200 acres of farmland, consisted of 200 standard dimension buildings. The main camp housed 121 captured officers and 3,222 enlisted men. Algona had a 2,000-volume library and a 328-seat post theater which doubled as a church. The prisoners were also furnished a soccer field.

The 3,000-prisoner Clarinda camp alleviated industrial and agricultural manpower shortages. The camp was activated on 24 January 1944 and had 12 branch camps. The branch camp at Independence, Missouri, supported agriculture; at Wadsworth, Kansas, War Department construction; at Hannibal, Missouri , industry; at Wapello, Iowa, both industry and agriculture; and at Lexington and Chesterfield, Missouri, Corps of Engineers river work.

The Atlanta camp housed 3,000 enlisted prisoners and 71 officers. It had a 113-bed hospital, an indoor theater, and a soccer field. As with many installations the Omaha District built, there was no public transportation to the facility. Only a Government-owned busline served the camp.

Memo for the President.

New evidence of the onward march of Allied arms came to Clarinda in February 1945. At that time, almost all of the 3,000 German prisoners there were moved elsewhere. A small contingent stayed and did repair and maintenance chores before it too was removed. The first Japanese prisoners entered Clarinda on February 4. The Japanese were intensely hated by the American public. At first, they were not sent out of the camp to labor at essential tasks. However, as victory came nearer, the policy was reversed.

By that time, the District had come a long way in military construction. The initial lack of experience, supplies, and skilled labor had often caused problems. At first, architect Hill did not fully understand the wide variety of builders' hardware. To master it, he searched for information and knowledge on the subject. The best he could do was to enroll in the Stanley Hardware Company's correspondence course for its salesmen. The course proved helpful but Hill augmented his knowledge with conversations with local hardware store owners. Once he knew the most efficient uses of the metal fittings and the best methods for their installation , he could arrive at more realistic estimates of project costs and recommend the best pieces of hardware.

The District also began to use continuous progress charts during the war. With these, Omaha and its contractors monitored daily construction progress, set practical goals to speed construction, and watched costs. The District could tell a contractor that he should have a given number of foundations, walls, or roofs completed in a week based on the charts and goals. With such methods, the District managed schedules that often called for the completion of complexes with over 100 buildings in 3 or 4 months.

The war caused several Government agencies to locate or expand in Omaha, and the District was given the responsibility to house them. In 1942, the Missouri River Division relocated from Kansas City to Omaha and needed quarters. The 5th (V) Army Corps also came to town, ousting the Internal Revenue Service from its offices in the Federal Building at 15th and Dodge Streets. The District arranged to remodel portions of the Masonic Temple and to move the Internal Revenue Service into the building.

The District's headquarters building at 1709 Jackson became inadequate with the influx of new employees who joined the District to help in the war effort. The old first-floor pressroom of the Omaha Bee News was remodeled to provide space for some of the employees. Rooms were also leased next door to the Farm Credit Building and on the second and third stories of the bus depot at 16th and Jackson Streets. The need to rapidly increase the work force resulted in hasty assignments of space. New employees were scattered throughout the building, separate from their sections and branches, and a normal workflow was impossible. Hill formulated a plan that brought the components of the District together in a workable spatial arrangement.

While tending to its own work, the District sent the 332nd Engineer General Service Regiment to build and fight its way across Europe. Colonel Swenholt was relieved as Omaha District Engineer and ordered to form the regiment, which consisted mainly of civilian engineers and construction workers from within the District's boundaries. Swenholt commanded the regiment from early 1942 until late 1943. The 332nd spent the war in Europe building a number of facilities for the Army.

Despite the emphasis on military construction, work on the 6-foot channel proceeded during 1942 at the rapid rate established during the late thirties. Captain Niles, who had been Swenholt's executive assistant, became a major and District Engineer in 1942. He reported that the reach from Kansas City to Rulo was 94 percent complete; the reach from Rulo to Omaha, 98 percent; and the reach from Omaha to Sioux City, 75 percent.

1944 - B-20 shown on a Nebraska airfield. the Enola Gay was a modified B-29. National Archives Photo

The Federal Barge Line's vessels were sent from the river for use elsewhere, and the War Production Board curtailed work on the 6-foot channel. In 1944, only five lumber mattresses with a total length of 7,283 feet were woven and a single l,306-foot length of bank was reveted. A 945-foot revetment was placed in 1945. Prisoners of war helped maintain the work, which nonetheless deteriorated after the drought at last broke.

In 1942, the District transferred much of its military construction work to the new Denver District, which encompassed the watershed of the South Platte River above its junction with the Cache la Poudre River as well as the Arkansas River above La Junta, Colorado. Along with the military work went the Cherry Creek flood control project, on which only planning had been done.

Colonel Carl H. Jabelonsky was the Denver District Engineer from the time the District was founded until 30 September 1943. On that date, Lieutenant Colonel S. R. Hamner assumed the position of District Engineer. He had the responsibility for the completion of a large number of military construction projects begun by the Omaha District, among them Buckley and Lowry Fields and the Cheyenne and Laramie Airports. Training facilities at Camps Carson and Hale and Fort Francis E. Warren were also assumed by Hamner. The induction center and technical school at Fort Logan were completed by the Denver District and ongoing projects at Fitzsimons General Hospital added to the District's workload. Hamner's District also took over construction of the Denver Ordnance Plant and built the Douglas prisoner-of-war camp.