Joe Cavaretta / AP
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Three weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-Los Angeles Times national correspondent Tom Gorman visited the small town of Hawthorne to profile the home of what was said to be the largest ammunition and ordnance repository in the world.
On Monday, an explosion during a live-fire training exercise there killed eight Marines, bringing the Hawthorne Army Depot back into a spotlight it prefers to deflect.
The Sun is reprinting the 2001 article for those who are not familiar with the facility and the community that claims it with pride.
HAWTHORNE — The security guard , the shop owner and especially the fellow perched at the bar at the dimly lit Joe’s Tavern all make the point that you don’t want to snoop too much around here.
Cory Rivero, 34, patrols the Hawthorne Army Depot, which surrounds the town and which the government boasts is the largest ammunition storage facility in the world. He won’t discuss his job but makes it clear he’s no checkers-playing midnight watchman.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security around the depot has never been tighter, and the private contractor who runs it is hiring more guards, perhaps as many as 80, like Rivero to protect its 80-mile perimeter.
That’s good news for clothing store owner Jo Gomez, 76, who won’t disclose how many brown denim slacks she has sold to newly hired guards because it just might breach national security.
“Oh, I don’t think I should tell you because you might figure out how many guards they’ve hired,” she said, “and I don’t think that sort of information should be known.”
And the fellow at Joe’s Tavern? He quietly called the police because a stranger at the other end of the bar was asking a few too many questions about the ammunition depot.
In Hawthorne, just about everyone is protective of the Army as it stores bullets, bombs and missiles for combat. In turn, the Army is once again giving this town, 130 miles southeast of Reno, an economic boost.
“To hire 80 people, that’s a dramatic number these days,” said Ron Wolven, executive director of Hawthorne’s economic development office. “We’ve been suffering, and now we’re making a comeback.”
Along the town’s single-stoplight, mile-long main drag, the only presence of military muscle is an old Navy antiaircraft battery displayed at the community park.
Hawthorne’s businesses — in a hodgepodge of brick, cinder block, stucco and wooden storefronts — include a variety store (the nearest Wal-Mart is 70 miles away, in Fallon), a bait shop, an antiques store, a dog groomer, a propane dealer and several small motels. The El Capitan casino anchors the town, Maggie’s Family Restaurant is the favorite eatery, and the grandest building is the World War II USO entertainment center, serving today as the town’s economic development office.
A couple of blocks off the main street, gracious stone-and-brick ranch homes framed by trees and lush yards struggle to preserve their value against dilapidated, boarded-up homes on dirt lots.
The weekly newspaper’s front page promotes the Christmas parade and the big fishing derby up at Walker Lake and notes, critically, that someone snapped a flowering pear tree, recently planted in front of the Rolling Pin Donut Shop.
The heritage of most of Nevada’s weathered pioneer towns is seen in the tailing of old mines. In contrast, Hawthorne’s landmarks are the 3,000 storage buildings and half-buried ammo bunkers spread over 230 square miles, looking like row crops in an otherwise flat, featureless valley.
The depot is one of seven in the nation storing everything from .22-caliber revolver bullets to 5,000-pound bombs. As front-line munitions are depleted on the Afghanistan war front, officials here await word to load up trucks and trains to send ordnance overseas.
Townsfolk are careful not to say that war is good for Hawthorne, but its fortunes rise and fall with military actions around the globe.
“Any time there’s been a flare-up, it’s helped,” said Gomez. “That’s what’s kept Hawthorne going.”
During World War II, about 10,000 people — half military, half civilian — worked at the depot, swelling the town’s size and stoking its economy.
Business spiked during the Gulf War, when the depot sent out 70,000 tons of ordnance — 40 percent of all the explosives dropped during Desert Storm.
Since then, Hawthorne has been struggling. Because of military downsizing, the depot laid off about 100 people two years ago. Still, the depot, with its 450 or more civilian employees, remains the biggest employer in town.
About 75 percent of the town’s 4,000 residents have worked at the depot or are dependents. Retirees often stay to fish for cutthroat trout at Walker Lake or hunt deer, sage hen and other game in the Wassuk mountain range that rises dramatically from the town’s north side.
Hawthorne has big plans: a proposed 18-hole golf course development and expanded recreation vehicle facilities for vacationers traveling along U.S. 95 between Las Vegas and Reno.
With the town’s unemployment rate about 11 percent, the talk now is about the depot hiring 40 to 80 more guards — a figure that the Army and the private contractor, Day & Zimmerman Hawthorne Corp., will neither confirm nor deny.
Buoyed by depot hirings, planning has started for the town’s Armed Forces Day celebration in May.
“We think we’re the only community in the United States that actually celebrates it,” said Tony Hughes, 64, who, along with brothers Frank, 66, and Ted, 61, own the Mineral County Independent-News.
They tell proudly of how the newspaper photographed each of the more than 300 Desert Storm veterans from Mineral County who, upon their return, retrieved the yellow ribbons that had been tied to the town’s biggest tree in their honor.
“You won’t find a more patriotic town than Hawthorne,” said Tony Hughes. “Armed Forces Day is bigger here than even July 4th and Christmas.”
These days, the military is as much to be protected from outsiders as it is a protector.
“It’s a place like Hawthorne where terrorists could really make a statement — that they got to a military ammo depot — but we’re not going to let that happen,” said Sgt. Joe Ingram, who is one of two Army personnel at the site. “Our security force has grown to meet the requirements we now face.”
Find the original posting of the story by clicking here.
Tom Gorman is now executive editor of the Sun. Copyright, 2001, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.