Reno’s WWII Military Operation…


Often a chance comment mushrooms into what will probably be a couple of columns over the next few weeks, and I think that’s what might have happened here. In a recent gathering of geezers one participant mentioned the Quonset huts that arrived on Mary S. Doten Elementary School’s playground in our 1946 kindergarten year, with the speculation that they came from the Sierra Ordnance Depot. “That’s a long haul from Herlong,” another commented. “No, they came from the Sierra Ordnance Depot on East Second Street,” I said; another geezer uttered “Baloney,” or something akin to that, and we were off and running. Or writing. Tentatively, for as we’ll see, the thing is hard to research – it was a military installation during wartime and they didn’t exactly conduct press tours.

            The facility was usually called the Sierra Ordnance Depot but was more accurately the Army Ordnance Service Command shop. To get us started, travel in your mind’s eye out East Second Street to Kirman Avenue. At Kirman a substantial fence topped by barbed wire extended south to the Washoe Med grounds and eastward to Gould Street. Behind that fence the Army did something to military cars and trucks, that something that continues to elude me.

            In the Sept. 25, 1945 Nevada State Journal, we learn that the facility, which employed 250 civilian workers and processed over 4,000 vehicles in the preceding two years, would close in the next 45 days and the remaining workers would be offered jobs at the sister facility in Herlong. The Reno facility was built by the CCC in 1939, turned over to the Army quartermaster corps in 1942 and in turn to the ordnance department. At the time of this 1945 news story it had 24 buildings, 415,000 feet of storage space, accommodations to service 800 vehicles at once, and a cafeteria called the “Ptomaine Tavern.” The news story is cryptic as to what exactly was done at this facility, be it rehabbing of vehicles that had already been to war and returned, or upgrades to newly delivered vehicles? And what were the vehicles? My childhood twin buddies Don and Dan Stockwell, who are about as well-placed as anybody now living to recall the facility due to the fact that their dad John was a supervisor there, recalled seeing all manner of vehicles within there, from passenger staff sedans to Ford and Willys Jeeps, Dodge Power Wagon ambulances and deuces, half-tracks, six-by-sixes and tracked howitzers and tanks. I’ve written in years past of five Studebaker-built amphibians – Jeep-sized little jobs from this depot – that were tested on Virginia Lake. And how did all these 4,000 vehicles get to this Reno depot? There was no railhead shown on contemporary maps.

            This dearth of information makes for an interesting column challenge. I credit Phil Earl for the Journal clip cited above, the only one we could find. Nor could I find photos of the depot, even aerials, or scenes in the background of neighboring Washoe Med’s [now Renown] collection. The Sanborn map, usually a boon to these foraging expeditions, depicts a few random depot buildings but no facility name nor a railroad siding, nor does it include two major structures that many of us remember, the freight terminals later utilized by Western Gillette and Ringsby Truck Lines until well into the 1980s.Still there is the large Quonset hut on the south side of East Second Street at the intersection of Giroux Street in the 1600 block, home to Reno Furniture’s warehouse in the years after the war, now maintained, I think, as a warehouse/shop for the Cal-Neva. I was grousing around the Nevada Historical Society more than my usual, until Mike Maher, the NHS’ dauntless senior librarian added a forgotten dimension: wartime security. The press just left the depot alone.

            The facility’s wartime environment was discontinued very shortly after the end of the war. The fence was dismantled, and we can remember its smaller Quonset huts and barracks-type structures being relocated to some schools as classrooms, or rebuilt into storage and play areas in the city parks. Three Quonsets went out East Fourth Street to be joined together as the Penny Saver Market, later (Mayor Len) Harris’ meat market where my old RHS buddy John Stralla worked as a youth, and now Twin City Surplus. One barracks went up Ralston Street to become the Darrell Dunkle American Legion hall, another was converted to a lonely writer’s garret (mine) at the dead west end of Knight Road, and enough others wound up around town to form a whole new column here some Sunday. The City of Reno and Washoe County, and the Forest Service and BLM conducted field operations in the smaller buildings that remained on East Second Street for many years to follow. And if you drive around there, you’ll still see a few recognizable G.I. structures.

            The federal government had, maybe has, a corridor up by the University of Nevada (note the Bureau of Mines building and the old Hartman Hall military building.) The buildings – basically barracks – once on Highland Avenue between Evans and Valley Roads were in reality the housing units for the Reno Sierra Ordnance Depot, before they became a unit of the Reno Housing Authority and Dick Taylor Park after World War II.

            This column is a work-in-progress and remains open for reader input as to the operation of the Army’s East Second Street facility. I’ll drop a few names of key employees contained in the old Journal newsclip: Jack Erwin at 331 Locust Street, Howard Cairns at 631 Thoma, Darrell Johnson at 304 Roberts, Forest Gibson at 321 Locust Street, William Gotelli at 342 Vine Street, and George Meyers and Greeley Bonham of Sparks. I’d love to hear from these guys or their families with any recollections (my phone is FA2-5017 ) [I didn’t And the number in 2017 is 560-1626]. In the next few Sundays we’ll memorialize this somewhat occluded element of our city’s contribution to the war effort into the Great Pantheon of Reno and Sparks’ Heritage.

Have a good week; no, the Ptomaine Tavern will not be included in a future “Faded Menus” column, happy St. Paddy’s Day and God bless America!

The sequel to that column:

When last we met I wrote of the U.S. Army’s WWII vehicle maintenance facility on East Second Street, east of Kirman Way. I quoted a verified release that the facility encompassed 24 buildings of various sizes, most of which were hauled off to other parts of town. It could accommodate 800 vehicles in storage, and processed 4,000 military vehicles in the latter part of that war. I speculated what I’ve since confirmed, that the Highland Park housing complex was originally associated with this Army base. I mentioned that more incisive research became sketchy, owing possibly to wartime security clamped on the place.

            Then I committed the well-accepted Breckenridge research method, which is to plead “help!” I think in italics – primarily “what in the world, sitting in the middle of Reno, Nevada, did they do with all those vehicles 200 miles away from a military port of debarkation?” I left out what I’ve learned in writing columns for a while, that there is a narrow window of time, somewhere in the 65-year-ago range, wherein readers were then old enough to recognize an event or landmark when it occurred, and in 2008 remain capable of reliably recalling it.

            A few readers wondered if I was mixing my meds – “800 Army trucks stored down by Washoe Med?” “24 buildings?” “275 civilian workers processing 4,000 trucks?” The responses were few, but I hit pay dirt with a few readers. Charlotte Barr, née Anderson grew up in the area and recalls that on the southwest corner of Kirman and East Second Street then remained the County Poor Farm, confirmed by the Sanborn Fire Map (I had incorrectly placed the main gate to the Army facility on that corner.) And Charlotte downsized the facility a bit from what I wrote; in truth it was bounded on the east by Lewis and Gould Streets but didn’t extend quite to Kirman – an area undefined in Sanborn, again, possibly for wartime security reasons.

            And what did they do there? A couple of reliable responses here; one from David Cairns and the other from Don Stockwell, both the sons of a couple of the facility’s supervisors and childhood neighbors in the post-war years on Thoma Street. While they contacted me separately, they shared a common recollection of their fathers bringing a tank home for lunch – David’s father Howard driving with his head sticking out of the tank, and Don’s dad John training the turret at the neighbors as they passed by. David recalls the function of the facility as salvaging pieces and parts from vehicles that had been off to war – curiously neither he, nor anyone else can recall how all the salvage vehicles got to Reno, or how the detritus left Reno, or for that matter why a salvaged half-track would be hauled 220 miles from Fort Mason or Treasure Island in the Bay Area for processing. Chalk one up to the oxymoron of military intelligence. The tanks, by the way, were smaller training tanks, powered by a seven-cylinder radial aircraft engine. I asked David if they were therefore noisy, and he replied “Huh?” A half-dozen tanks remaining after the war were convoyed across the desert to the facility’s sister Sierra Ordnance Depot in Herlong, truly a sight – and sound – to behold.

            Where did the buildings go when the base closed in November of 1945? It’s moments like this when I really miss my ol’ buddy Romolo Bevelaqua who passed away a few years ago, who relocated many structures around Reno and Sparks for six decades (Rom was recognized in 2002 by the City of Reno Historical Resources Commission for his invaluable help with these matters.) While compiling a complete enumeration would be a daunting pile of work with little to go on, some are fairly obvious. Faithful reader Don Fowler reminds us of three military buildings under the Spaghetti Bowl, one now occupied by a tire shop and another by a longtime warehouse for Harolds Club. The RGJ’s intrepid Marilyn Newton took a good shot of the Quonset at 1600 East Second for our recent article (some may remember the service station that adjoined it on two-lane Second Street.)

            We mentioned the Army’s Hartman Hall, the Bureau of Mines and the Naval Reserve buildings at the University of Nevada in conjunction with the federal government’s presence in Reno. My U of N contemporary Dennis Reith wrote that he lived in Hartman Hall – quieter than Lincoln Hall, which is important to a guy from Pahrump – and speculated that in today’s collegiate America you didn’t want to even know how many guys at Hartman had a .22 rifle in 1959, for plinking jackrabbits in the boondocks a short walk north of the campus.

            And I’ll probably hear about that. John Gomes, U of N mining alum and now a docent at the Nevada Historical Society recalls a couple of ROTC barracks at the Highland Park army housing complex. They were named by the students who occupied them, McDougal Hall and Bourbon Hall, and later became part of the Reno Housing Authority (research of that authority in the early post-war years is a challenge.) The final Army vehicle maintenance facility note, for now: One cryptic newsclip mentions that the federal presence at the University campus was an outgrowth of the campus’ proximity to the Western Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific), and its ready access to the Sierra Army Depot in Herlong.

                        There – I kept my word. Have a good week; try not to make a run at the first sunburn of 2008 as this day progresses, and God bless America!

 © RGJ a long time ago

Contact Karl Breckenridge at