Skip to comments.Tour of duty ends for Camp Roberts' aging barracks
Posted on 01/22/2012 12:57:42 PM PST by concentric circles
More than 650 1940s-era buildings once noisy and alive with the comings and goings of U.S. troops will be demolished beginning this summer in a $20 million project that will clear away years of now-silent history
Brig. Gen. Keith Jones gazed through the worn windows on row after row of battered and broken World War II-era barracks left standing at Camp Roberts and recalled their better days.
You were glad to have a roof over your head and shade from the sun, he said.
For years, motorists on Highway 101 have seen the jarringly empty ghost town on the camps west side and wondered what the buildings were and why theyre still around.
Decades ago, the post was alive with 50,000 incoming soldiers preparing for war. But this summer, 658 of those old buildings will be torn down in a three-year process to finally clear the camp just north of San Miguel of structures that have not been used in more than 30 years.
The $20 million project will go ahead after the California National Guard, which runs the camp, found a way to demolish the barracks and other structures while reducing costs associated with storing the old boards, beams and rafters permeated with hazardous lead paint. Its solution: build its own hazardous waste landfill. Under construction since 2009, its expected to be ready in March.
If the buildings were to collapse, they could compromise the soil should the camp get the opportunity to build new structures. About 160 acres will go back to native landscape.
But even though the buildings will soon be gone, the memory of what once was will live on.
Theres a lot of history, Jones said. An old facility like this touched a lot of souls. Wartime construction
The buildings at Camp Roberts housed Americas soldiers after the boom of wartime construction that started in 1940 and finished in 1941.
The units were built hastily bringing thousands of jobs to the area and followed the standard construction style as other posts took shape across the country.
A total of 741 buildings went up at Camp Roberts. They were simple buildings built to last five years but some remained in use until the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Army turned some buildings of this type into a museum at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to meet historical preservation requirements so their replicas across the country could be taken down. Although plain, the buildings represented better craftsmanship than modern buildings, some say.
There were no nail guns back in those days, Jones said, pointing to rows of nails visible along the wood siding and pointing to the perfect symmetry. I used to look at these when I was a private. Jones arrived at Camp Roberts in 1971, when the National Guard took over the 42,000-acre camp.
The craftsmanship required what an extraordinary workforce, he added.
Each of the hundreds of two-story barracks buildings housed 80 soldiers and were accompanied by mess halls, chapels, supply rooms and administration offices.
They were just wooden buildings. You scrubbed the floors and dusted down the walls, said John Harris, 80, of Bradley.
He came to Camp Roberts as a colonel in 1950 when the post was reactivated for the Korean War. Harris slept away from the privates barracks in a different set of buildings that offered him an individual room rather than the two rows of double stacked bunks most men got.
The privates barracks also had a ground-floor latrine with toilets and showers, all in one open room.
I dont know why they called us privates; there was no privacy, said Phil Dirkx, a Paso Robles resident and Tribune columnist who trained troops at Camp Roberts in 1952 and 1953 as a lieutenant.
Although the barracks were basic, Dirkx said he appreciated small luxuries such as the gas furnaces. At Fort Dix in New Jersey, Dirkx recalled its messy coal furnaces.
Smoke would blow into the barracks and we would wake up with black noses, he said with a laugh.
In general, Army barracks were used to instill discipline.
The bed had to be made just so, Dirkx said. You learned how to make hospital corners. They supposedly threw a dime or quarter on the bed and it better bounce. Those blankets better be tight.
Eventually, Camp Roberts no longer had the troop population to support its original buildout. Many buildings fell into disrepair. One brigade of buildings was torn down on the camps east side in the 1970s while its buildings to the west were condemned.
Harris remembered moving to the east side shortly after arriving at the camp.
We ran off the jack rabbits and rattlesnakes and settled in, he said.
Buildings on the north end were demolished in the 1990s. Others were kept for todays troops. Buildings left without care on the west side now stand wearily amidst blocks of dusty streets, barred from access. White paint peels from dark walls. Insides were gutted for usable materials.
Quite a haunting scene, Jones said.
Black-and-white photographs from the camps early years show men in crisp uniforms seated on benches inside a mess hall, ready for a meal. Rows of wooden tables were draped in cloth under bright bare-bulb lights overhead.
On a recent afternoon, a similar setting was transformed by the penalties of time. The few tables that remained in one mess hall stood cracked and slumped into flooring that lay in torn pieces. Tidy plaid curtains no longer hung from the windows, whose panes were missing or broken into shards. Hunks of ceiling were gone, the buildings dusty wooden rafters exposed through gaping holes.
The problem is the government didnt maintain those structures and couldnt afford to, said retired Army Reserve Col. Kerry Diminyatz, chief of facilities operations and maintenance at the California National Guard.
Today, about half a dozen have caved in. The structures were initially boarded up, but moisture got trapped inside and caused more wood damage. The coverings were removed in the 1980s.
Harris said he visited Camp Roberts recently and was mostly unfazed by seeing the old buildings again.
I dont get funny feelings, he said. Its just another Army camp.
Officials had originally planned to demolish 160 of the old buildings in 2005 and reuse the wood, which was kiln dried, rather than air dried, making it more solid than most wood used in construction today.
But the original craftsmen used gasoline, the product available at the time, to thin the lead-based paint on the boards. The process drew the lead so deep into the wood, it made them unusable under todays state lead standards.
Its really sad because if youre any kind of woodworker, the lumber used in these old buildings is just beautiful, Jones said.
The camp conducted a field test in 2005 where crews tried to strip the paint from the boards using a machine. They hoped that the wood could be reused and the hazardous paint chips could be combined with other materials to make electronic equipment.
But Diminyatz said the test failed because it was too costly and labor intensive. And, once the lead was removed, the wood was so whittled down it became unusable. The plans were scrapped and most buildings remained.
Other supplies and materials have been removed over the years for reuse. Metal ductwork was salvaged. And padded chairs and a metal wash bin have also been re-purposed from an old mess hall into a new laundry room, for example. Plans also call for the concrete foundations to be taken out for use on roads.
Theres no way to recycle the window glass because its encased or broken, so that will go to the landfill, too, Diminyatz said.
Without the landfill, the demolition project would require about 900 truckloads of debris to be transported to the nearest commercial landfill in Kettleman City, costing taxpayers more, officials say.
Storing the waste on-site reduces an approximately $50 million to $60 million project to about $20 million, Diminyatz said.
The demolition, which includes the cost of the landfill, is being funded by National Guard federal maintenance dollars. The Army hadnt made the old buildings a priority because it placed supplies and equipment for soldiers ahead of demolition spending, Diminyatz said.
About $5 million has been allocated for the first phase of demolition.
The camp is also getting $12 million to further modernize the roughly 106 original barracks kept for current use, giving the camp 4,200 usable beds for troops. The post has additional housing for other purposes.
In 2010, the camp housed that many troops at its peak, readying them for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Other troops remain on reserve to train for natural disasters and other missions.
The usable buildings received new aluminum siding in the 1980s, changing their face from the WWII-era look of white and green to a mustard color.
They are the same old buildings but with just a different skin and a different surface, Jones said. The efforts are part of an ongoing project to bring the camp up to date. Fourteen barracks are receiving upgrades, and an additional six barracks are slated to undergo fixes in the spring.
Among the changes are adding electrical outlets so soldiers can charge cellphones and laptops. The old barracks only had four electrical units, two upstairs and two downstairs to power a floor buffer.
Times certainly are changing, Jones said.
Company mess at basic training graduation.
Artillery drill, watch those short rounds : )
These look just like the barracks that were at Camp Atterbury (Ind). When they wanted them removed they allowed anyone who wanted, to come and dismantle them for the materials contained therein free.
Thanks for posting. My Dad was in the CA NG in the early to mid-60’s and spent a couple weeks each summer at Camp Roberts. However, I never saw any pictures of the place until today.
Oh I forgot, That was the late 70s- 80s timeframe
These are the same as every WW2 barracks design. I’ve been in that type of building in the 70s and 80s at Ft. Riley KS, Ft. Chaffee AR, Ft. Hood TX and Ft. Sill OK. I stayed in one of the last surviving examples of this at Ft. Sill with a group of Boy Scouts doing a post tour in the 90s.
I was tempted to post photos of the tarantulas and rattlesnakes but figured the thread is already a little image heavy for dial up readers.
That must have been before environmentalists sold the idea that a chip of lead based paint could cause wide spread disease, plague and famine.
The same generic design of all the WWII era barracks. My days of Basic Training at Folk Polk, North Fort, memories were spent sleeping in one just like it. Late 1971 to early 1972. Drafty and leaked.
I was housed in one of their single story barracks in the mid 90’s for my USAR unit’s mission change. I was a 39T/29J being re-trained to 63W. I stayed in the 2 story version for basic at Ft. Jackson in 89 and then a few times at Ft. Custer. I hated those old barracks, but did appreciate their history. I often wondered about the soldiers that preceeded me...these barracks sheltered many who gave the ultimate sacrifice!
Brings back memories of Ft Cambell basic days way back in 68
Also air at Ft Gordon,then on to Ft Bragg where I spent about a
Yr being a fireman there....firing coal furnaces in the barracks an
Motor pool px’s,s etc
I was always scared of fire in those barracks,
They still were better than those hooches
I preferred the old wooden barracks as shown in your top picture, ( that picture reminds me of basic at Ft. Polk), at jump school I liked the intimacy and the history in the wooden barracks, and was disappointed when during our last week, we were sent over to some new concrete barracks.
Anyone out here in Internet land ever spend time at Ray Barracks in Germany, just outside Friedburg?
If so, ping me. I have a video you like to see.
That night, some enterprenuer who hated to see all that fine ammo go to waste, dug down and salvaged a few boxes.
The powers that be were outraged, so they dug out the ammo, dug a *much* deeper hole, and made sure it was all buried very deeply, so as to prevent salvagers from accessing it.
I have no idea how much was buried, but I would easily believe that it was in the millions of rounds.
LOL!! Welcome to the Army!
I was there at Camp Roberts in 1951 for basic training and leadership school, then shipped off for OCS followed by a lovely flight to Tokyo and cruise to Puson the day after landing..
My Father was stationed at Camp Roberts during WW2. At one point he was assigned to ride “troop trains” up and down the West Coast. These “troop trains” were almost empty, but made to appear to the Japanese there were a lot more troops than there actually were, on the west coast.
We used to call it ‘Camp Bob’. I was there for an FTX in 1981 and later as a guest of a CANG mechanised infantry company that a friend of mine commanded.
Roberts is a dreary looking place, but there is seemingly always something going on there, judging by the constantly changing stack of rail cars loaded with equipment. If they close Roberts, that action has to go somewhere, and will probably cost more.
Something about this smells funny.
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