One of the things I love most about living in Northern Arizona is that I am always discovering aspects of its history that completely thrill me. One of my best sources for new discoveries continues to be my local librarian, Cheryl Yeatts. Cheryl works tirelessly to bring our community some really incredible and informative programs. The latest one she organized took a lot of extra effort and several months to arrange because it involved getting permission from the Arizona National Guard for a tour of Camp Navajo (a World War II era ordnance depot that is now run by the Arizona National Guard). The facility is located just ten miles west of Flagstaff in the small town of Bellemont, right alongside Route 66. The town is surrounded by ponderosa pines, with the San Francisco peaks towering over it. The tour was led by Dr. John Westerlund, author of the book, Arizona’s War Town: Flagstaff, Navajo Ordnance Depot, and World War II. The book has won numerous awards for its role in preserving Southwest culture. I read the book just before going on the tour and found it to be both illuminating and inspiring. I was sorry when I came to the end of the book, but consoled myself that I had the tour to look forward to and a chance to learn even more about what Flagstaff was like during World War II directly from Dr. Westerlund.
John Westerlund has lived a life that is itself the stuff of stories. He was a career army officer, retiring as a lieutenant colonel after twenty six years of service. His tours of duty included Vietnam and three tours in Europe. His final tour of duty brought him from the Ecole Superieure de Guerre, the French army war college, to Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Arizona. There, as a professor of military science, he was charged with overseeing the ROTC program. Immediately following his retirement from the army, John began a doctoral program at NAU focused on the history of the American West. When searching for a subject for his doctoral thesis, he began investigating the history surrounding the old ordnance depot just outside of Flagstaff. What he discovered was a gold mine; an incredible story that told of what happened to Flagstaff when it suddenly became a boomtown during World War II. The book begins with Dr. Westerlund deftly setting the stage, giving the reader the context needed to envision how very different cultures would need to come together to achieve a nearly impossible goal.
The Navajo Ordnance Depot was commissioned just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The War Department chose Bellemont, because of its proximity to Flagstaff, and also because of its easy access off Route 66, its proximity to water, and because it was right along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail lines, which provided direct access to the Port of Los Angeles. The War Department believed they had discovered a perfect setting for their needs, but they were not the first ones to realize there was something special about this area. The large clearing in the ponderosa pines, with a spring fed directly from the volcanic peaks of the San Francisco Mountains, had a history for attracting early pioneers and Indian Fighters with the First California Volunteer Infantry Regiment. But long before the white men discovered this area, these peaks, were sacred to the Native Americans of the region. For the Hopi, whose presence in the area dates back 12,000 years, the tallest mountain among these peaks, Mount Humphreys, is the place where the supernatural Kachina people live. For the Navajo, Mount Humphreys is one of their four sacred mountains. It is their Sacred Mountain of the West, defining the western most boundary of their homeland. With the United States’ entry into World War II, these mountains did what they have done often over the centuries; they offered a sheltered place for people to come together. In 1942, against this sacred backdrop, there began an undertaking of vast proportions.
The Navajo Ordnance Depot was to be a key storage facility for the Port of Los Angeles, and as such, became the major supplier of weapons for the entire Pacific theater. At the time the depot was being built, no one in the military was certain if the Japanese were planning an attack on California, so placing the ordnance depot six hundred miles east, in a fairly isolated mountainous terrain, seemed prudent. Flagstaff was excited to be the recipient of this huge government contract, but they were soon to discover that there were many challenges ahead. Almost overnight, Flagstaff’s population jumped from five thousand to twenty thousand, as construction workers and their families poured into town. It had been hard for the army to find enough people to work in such a remote location, and so they had turned to the Navajo and the Hopi to help make up the needed work force. They had a timeframe of only seven months in which to build a base of operations that included a depot of 800 bunkers (each the size of a two thousand square foot home). Equally as difficult was finding the means to house and feed such a dramatic influx of workers and their families. The fact that it was completed on time and without any loss of life was nothing short of miraculous. Once the depot was completed, the facility still required more than two thousand full time employees in order to keep up with the tons and tons of munitions pouring in and shipping out of the depot regularly. For most of the war years, the depot struggled to even get above 1,500 employees.
In his book, Dr. Westerlund carefully explores how several thousand Navajo and Hopi came to be a part of this project. It probably should have been a harder sell than it was, for there were still Navajo alive who remembered the “Long Walk” and the subsequent harsh years of incarceration at Fort Sumner. And, in even more recent tribal memory was the U.S. Government’s forced livestock reductions during the 1930’s. These reductions ended up destroying the main source of Navajo currency (sheep and goats) leaving much of the Navajo nation impoverished. But, while the Navajo had many reasons to be disenchanted with Washington, they instead took a firm stand against America’s enemies. Even before Pearl Harbor, the Navajo had come to clearly understand the German threat. Germany had been unable to break a secret code in World War I that had been based on the Choctaw language. In the build-up to World War II, the Germans tried to avert a similar scenario by sending anthropologists out amongst the Native American tribes to learn their languages. The Germans also mounted a Fascist propaganda campaign designed to turn the hearts and minds of Native Americans away from the United States government. Not only did they fail to prevent another unbreakable code from emerging (a code developed in WW II based on the Navajo language remained unbreakable), but their propaganda campaign also failed dismally. The Navajo council disdainful of the racial overtones apparent in Nazi propaganda submitted a resolution to the U.S. government pledging their loyalty to “the system which recognizes minority rights…” The Navajo clearly took this pledge very seriously, and evidence of this was very apparent at the ordnance depot. During war bond drives, the generosity of the Navajo was legendary. Many often spent their entire paychecks on bonds, setting an example of patriotism that inspired all base personnel to dig deeper into their own pockets. As the war progressed, the munitions flowing in and out of the depot increased dramatically. Work shifts often ran fourteen hours or longer, but the Native American laborers never complained. Instead, they tirelessly lifted and sorted tons of munitions by hand each day. They became an example of dedication, efficiency, and courageous spirit.
The stories about the Native Americans at the depot are not the only ones Dr. Westerlund describes in his book, although for me, they were the most inspiring. A close second were the stories he told about the Austrian prisoners of war who were interred at the depot to help with the labor shortages. Their arrival riled up the town folk, but the army was in need of the extra manpower, so despite many vociferous town hall meetings, the POW’s stayed. Dr. Westerlund delves into the experience of these POW’s. He talks about their reaction to the beauty of the mountains, and the relationships that formed between the POWs and the Native Americans. Many of these men missed their families, and the time spent at Indian Village, also located within the confines of the depot, allowed the men to feel part of a family again.
Dr. Westerlund’s book is a five star must read. It moved me deeply to read about how in the worst of times it was possible to build something more than weapons; it was possible to build bridges of understanding and community. Working through cultural differences was not just necessary for the day to day functioning of the Navajo Ordnance depot, it was a key element in making the depot the highest performing in the entire country. It was an impressive accomplishment. Daily, they all worked together to make nearly impossible goals in order to keep the troops in the Pacific theater well supplied. While Dr. Westerlund’s book is focused heavily on life at the depot, it is also the story of Flagstaff itself, chronicling its transformation from a sleepy, prewar mountain town to a vibrant boom town. The depot’s presence brought a lot of growth to Flagstaff, both economic and social, and helped shape the town you find today at the base of that sacred mountain.
The tour conducted by Dr. Westerlund was wonderful as well. There were about twenty five of us, some from Sedona, some from Flagstaff, all of us united by a keen interest in the history of this region. It is something that I wish everyone could see, but the only reason we were allowed into Camp Navajo was because of Cheryl’s perseverance and Dr. Westerlund’s status as retired military and a noted local historian. As I mentioned earlier, this is now an active Arizona National Guard base, and it isn’t open to the public, and certainly isn’t set up for tours. There isn’t a visitor center, so there are no restrooms, no snack bar, and sadly, no gift shop (I was not able to buy a t-shirt proclaiming that I was blown away by Camp Navajo). As I walked the grounds of the old ordnance depot, I felt the history of the place surround me, especially because of what I’d read before the tour. There was very little left to see from the World War II era. Some things remained, such as the original army headquarters and the chapel. The underground bunkers all remain, although being covered in earth they are harder to detect and we were only allowed to view them from a distance. The bunkers still serve a purpose; they are now rented out to commercial interests. The department of defense rents many of them, storing some interesting items, such as the motors to the now disassembled ICBM missiles.
As you walk the grounds, you can still see the old foundations of the Indian Village. There is a board with pictures on the site describing some of the history about Indian Village, but none of the buildings still stand; you won’t find the trading post nor a single hogan. The site of the old POW camp is even more spartan. The barracks are long gone; only remnants of their foundations poke up through the weeds. There are no plaques demarking any historical significance to this place, but there is one artifact that has survived; an alter built by the prisoners that they had used for their outdoor chapel. It stands alone in a field, facing out toward the mountain, bearing testament to the fact that these men had been here. From the way the alter is placed, it is clear these men had felt the majestic pull of Mount Humphreys. From Dr. Westerlund’s interviews, we were made aware that these former POW’s had realized they were part of something unusual. They had formed strong bonds with both the people and the land. They had worked hard within this very diverse community of Americans to help bring an end to the war, and many of them had been sad to leave. For many of them, life in the POW camp had been much better than what awaited them at home; which had been nothing less than the complete destruction of their former lives.
Before I end this post, I would like to mention one of the women I met on this tour. Her name is Marilyn Hammarstrom, a Flagstaff resident, and also director of the Fort Tuthill Military Museum. Marilyn caught my interest because I heard her talking about the museum’s recent expansion. Fort Tuthill, now a county park, sits just a few miles south of Flagstaff. It was built in 1929 and was the summer training facility for the Arizona National Guard. The fort had a reputation as one of the finest National Guard training facilities in the United States. The museum’s focus is to cover more than 100 years of Arizona military history. Beginning with the history of the first volunteers who came to Northern Arizona in 1865, a mixed militia that included Hispanics as well as Pima and Maricopa Indians; and continuing with General Tuthill’s long career with the National Guard; beginning in 1917, presiding over the formation of Arizona’s first infantry, (the 158th Infantry regiment) and lasting all the way to 1951. He is often referred to as the father of the Arizona National Guard. The museum also showcases the history of the Arizona National guard all the way through the war in Afghanistan. For Marilyn, her involvement with the museum began at the urging of her grandson. They had both gone to hear the National Guard Army Band play its traditional 4th of July concert at Fort Tuthill County Park. At the end of the concert the National Guardsmen announced that they were looking for volunteers to help with the museum. Her grandson told her quite plainly that she simply had to do it. I am hoping to go see the museum before it closes for the winter in October. Whether it’s this fall, or when it re-opens next spring, I will be sure to share the experience in my blog. In the meantime, if you are intrigued, here is the museum’s website: http://www.forttuthill.org/intro.html
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Westerlund or his book here is his Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Arizonas-War-Town-Flagstaff-Ordnance/dp/0816524157/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505447928&sr=1-1&keywords=Arizona+War+town%3A+Flagstaff%2C+Navajo+Depot
Dr. Westerlund has recently written an article for the autumn issue of The Journal of Arizona History on the 1887 murder of six year old Johnny Elden. Cheryl has arranged for Dr. Westerlund to return to Sedona to speak about this story as part of the Arizona Humanities program. The talk is scheduled for Wednesday, January 10 at 1:30 p.m. at the Church of the Nazarene, 55 Rojo Drive in VOC. The presentation will be entitled Flagstaff Pioneer John Elden: Murder, Mystery, Myth and History. It will focus on Johnny’s murder, one of the most infamous in Territorial history. Today, the boy’s body rests in a lonely, rock-covered grave at the base of the mountain named for his father. A Forest Service interpretive panel nearby describes the awful crime. The murder has been part of Flagstaff’s lore for more than a century. Dr. Westerlund examines the life of pioneer John Elden and the murder of his son, attempting to separate myth from history. In Dr. Westerlund’s talk, he will explore the question, did it really happen? I’ve already got it in my calendar. Maybe I’ll see you there J
Fascinating entry, Ilana. I love it when little historical secrets find their way into public awareness. I’m especially impressed by the Navajo commitment to the work they did there. It just goes to show how our imperfect culture still has so much to learn from Native American culture. Sadly, though, I won’t hold my breath waiting for such enlightenment. Our imperfect culture seems to be sliding more deeply into imperfection. But I digress. Thank you for a wonderful post.
I’m glad you liked the post. And don’t lose heart just yet. Humanity may yet rise to the occasion 🙂
Thank you for your excellent post Ilana. You captured the important history of our tour. It was a pleasure to meet you and I hope to see you soon.
Well thank you, John, for the excellent book, the wonderful tour, and for saving a piece of history that reminds us it is possible to overcome some pretty big divides in pursuit of lofty goals.