The Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot
"Boarding Navy Bus to go to Work, U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, Hastings Nebraska", (Photo courtesy of The National Archives. Circa 1944.)
The War Effort at Home
During World War II, the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot
(NAD), located 150 miles west of Omaha, played a central role in the nation’s
war effort. At the confluence of three railroads and two transcontinental
highways and with a vast amount of open space—though land did have to be claimed
under eminent domain and two hundred buildings were moved—the area served as a
nearly ideal location for a massive ammunition depot. It was one of the largest
of its kind in the country and the only one the government intended to make
permanent. Covering seventy-five square miles, construction of the depot
continued throughout World War II, and at its high point, the Hastings Naval
Ammunition Depot supplied 40 percent of the U.S. Navy’s ammunition and was
reputedly on a German list of top-ten facilities to be destroyed in an attack
on America. It stood among the three army ammunition depots in Nebraska,
including the Martin Bomber Plant, which constructed the Enola Gay, the plane
that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Prior to the war, Adams County, in which Hastings is
situated, was depopulating, with 40 percent unemployment in the depths of the
Great Depression. Residents met the announcement of a $45 million ammunition
depot with enthusiasm. However, while the depot would easily solve the twin
problems of unemployment and population loss in the area, it would create new
problems, at least in the eyes of long-time residents, including higher rents,
unfamiliar newcomers, a shortage of services, a larger and more diverse
population in a small and homogenous community, and a higher crime rate.
Life on the base usually consisted of work, work, and more
work. At its peak capacity, the depot employed more than 10,000 workers: 2,000
military personnel; 6,700 civilian production workers; and 2,000 civilian
construction workers. The changing racial makeup of employees began with the
hiring of one hundred Sioux and Chippewas in construction. After that, four
hundred black sailors were brought to the depot at the end of 1942. African
Americans were then hired in construction and production, and Mexican Americans
were as well.
Eventually, sixteen hundred sailors, including many black
sailors, ages eighteen to twenty-five, were brought in from the Chicago/Great
Lakes region. Because of racial segregation in the armed forces, black sailors
were not allowed on ships and so could only be sent to assignments on land,
including places like the Hastings Ammunition Depot, where they worked in the
Negro Ordnance Battalion. This would change following World War II, with
President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948 establishing racial equality,
at least on paper, in the armed services.
In their free time, Hastings offered black soldiers and civilian
workers few entertainment options. As a result, black troops looked toward
North Omaha when they wanted to relax and have fun and had to load into “cattle
trucks” on Friday to travel for recreation. Emma Hart, a Native of North Omaha
remembers the soldiers well. “I used to live down by the train station during
World War II,” she said. “I could sit on my front porch and watch the soldiers
coming off the train. One time my girlfriend, who had a lot more courage, went
up and started talking to them.”
Eventually, separate recreation facilities were created for
African Americans in the Hastings area. These included the Cabin in the Sky
Café, the Apex Tavern, and Jamie’s Tamalie Café and Recreation Parlor. However,
facilities located in town for racial minorities created great anxiety among
the town’s white leaders, and eventually, an agreement was made between the
mayor and the navy officers that no more than 150 black sailors would be
allowed in town at a time, they would have to remain on First Street, and they
would be heavily patrolled.
Segregation also existed in housing. Those African Americans
living on the naval base resided in separate barracks from their white
counterparts. Efforts to segregate in the town of Hastings were not as
successful. Though whites tried to frame the issue as one of black people
deserving a community of their own in arguing for segregation, they failed in
their efforts, and housing for African Americans was built in northwest and
southeast Hastings next to white residential areas anyway. At the same time,
there was class discrimination among whites, as those whites who lived in the
town derided those whites living in trailer camps at the depot.
Although they resided in different cities, a new community
formed between blacks in both Hastings and North Omaha. While nearly two
thousand blacks would live and work at Hastings during wartime years, many had
moved to Hastings only to work in the plant during the war. After World War II
ended, many blacks returned to North Omaha, bringing with them the black men
stationed at the NAD. This contributed to a new wave of black migration and
community growth in the city. Hastings, for its part, returned to a city that
was roughly the same size if one assumed a proportional increase over time
rather than the wartime boom in population that occurred. It again became
racially homogenous and dependent on agriculture.
This photograph shows African American enlisted men helping
create ammunition at the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot. The largest
ammunition depot in the nation was southwest of Hastings, Nebraska; 40 percent of
the ammunition used in World War II was created here. The depot “manufactured
and stored bombs, rockets, mines, 40-millimeter shells and six-inch shells”
(NebraskaStudies.org). The War Department chose Hastings as the location for
the $45 million facility because it was half way between America’s West and
East Coasts. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives. For more information,
“You know, after the war, I worked on the farm until I got
enough saved up to quit farming, and I moved to Omaha, Nebraska. I got a job as
a server at the Blackstone Hotel. Here, I am eating my lunch in the basement
because that is where blacks had to eat. From the basement, we could hear Fats
Domino performing up on stage. This is the late ’40s now. Fats Domino could
perform for those people, but he still had to eat in the basement. But I did
get to meet Fats Domino.”
—Bennie Jones (Alabama native stationed at the Hastings munitions
plant during WWII)
As the largest provider of ammunition for the navy during
World War II, the Hastings ammunition plant brought a boom to the small city of
Hastings. Hastings was one of many cities, including several in Nebraska, which
experienced a wartime increase, as military branches established ammunition
plants across the nation, many of which were located in rural communities. Its
placement in a relatively isolated area was necessary because working with
volatile munitions meant dangerous accidents, which sometimes
disproportionately affected African American workers.
An article about an explosion at the depot from the Omaha World-Herald from January of 1944
says that three sailors from the Negro Ordnance Battalion were killed: Adolph
Johnson from Indiana and Jessie C. Wilson and J. C. Miles from Louisiana.
Another explosion in September of that year killed two black sailors and one
coast guardsman, presumably white because he is not identified as “Negro.” The
worst accident was in April 1944, when 100,000 pounds of high explosive
accidentally detonated, killing eight and injuring thirty-five people. It shook
buildings in Lincoln, one hundred miles away, and could be felt as far away as
Concordia, Kansas, 125 miles away.
Included in Hastings’s boom were many African Americans who
came for the wartime jobs. African Americans were newly provided the
opportunity for employment in the defense industry following Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s prohibition of racial discrimination in Executive Order 8802 (1941).
Unfamiliar and uneasy with the racial diversity that came
with the incoming “outside” workers, the overwhelmingly white Hastings residents
did not want to accommodate blacks in their living and entertainment spaces. Blacks
were resented and discriminated against not only because of race but also, like
the influx of white workers, as newcomers, who were blamed for creating a
shortage of services, increasing rents, rising crime, heavy traffic, and more. Many
black workers and black soldiers stationed at the plant would travel to Omaha,
already home to a significant African American population and vibrant black
culture. Hastings residents also established separate living and entertainment
facilities for the black and Native American workers.
Following the war, most blacks moved from Hastings to other
cities, including Omaha. The Hastings depot expanded for the war in Korea
beginning in 1950, and the Hasting ammunition plant remained active until the
1960s, but many defense industries established permanent locations outside of
Nebraska, and the depot was closed in 1966.
Resources and Further
Miller, Walter L. U.S.
Naval Ammunition Depot, Hastings, Nebraska, 1942–1966: A History Sketch
[DVD]. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 2009.
Nebraskastudies.org. “Minority Experiences: African
Americans.” The War: Nebraska Stories.
Russell, Beverly. “World War II Boomtown: Hastings and the
Naval Ammunition Depot.” Nebraska History
76, nos. 2–3 (1995): 75–83.
Taylor, Quintard. “African American Men in the American
West, 1528–1990.” Annals of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science 569 (2000): 102–119.