McAlester Army Ammunition Plant celebrating 75th anniversary

By Dean Craig

Okmulgee Lions


(Excerpts from the bio of Brian Foris and the article appearing in "The Oklahoman")

What a wonderful opportunity and privilege for the Okmulgee Lions Club to be included in the upcoming 75th Anniversary Celebration of the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, which is scheduled to begin in May, 2018. Recapping the history for the past 75 years was the program on Tuesday, presented by Brian Foris, Business Development Office Chief, and assisted by Kevin Jackson, Public Affairs Officer.

Foris has worked for the Department of Defense twice for a combined total of more than 15 years.  He began his civil service career at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in 1993 as a student employee while attending college.  In 1998, he transferred to Tinker Air Force Base, where he served as the Military Construction Program Manager for the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center.  In 2002, he left federal service to pursue a career in public education, serving as a middle school math teacher and a high school basketball coach for more than nine years before re-entering the federal workforce.

According to Foris, construction began on the proposed $52 million project in 1941, and was initially the Naval Ammunition Depot.  At the end of 1941, everyone, of course, remembers that the United States was in the throes of WW II, and munitions were in immediate demand.  Therefore, construction was "ramped up", and at the peak of construction, some 20,000 people were employed to complete the project by March 1943.

One can understand these figures when you take into account that the plant occupies 45,000 acres (roughly the size of Washington, D.C.), has 450 miles of roads, 250 miles of rails, concrete bunkers where bombs are built and stored--more than 2,000 explosive storage facilities in total.  And just like all across the United States, the Navy Depot had their "Rosie the Riveters", with the invaluable roles these women played during WW II in rescuing the United States.

Many people, even today, do not even realize how closely the American people came to speaking German or Japanese as their first language. Only through the true grit of our country-raised, cornbread-fed, refuse-to-lose, fighting men, and God's Divine Providence, did the United States win the war. We can NEVER re-pay these two entities.

A little known fact is that in the Spring of 1945, the McAlester plant had a part in developing the Atomic Bomb, which was the deciding factor for Japan to surrender, after the devastation inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The bombs killed 100s of thousands Japanese, but they possibly saved the same amount of our American fighting men.

During World War II, the plant employed 6,000 to 7,000 people, but after WW II ended, only retained about 1,000 employees.  But then, up pops the Korean Conflict (never declared a war), but our soldiers still died.  So, the plant begins hiring about 150 people per day, reaching around 3,500 employees.  The Conflict ends, less employees--all-time low of around 600+ employees.

Next up, Viet Nam, '64-'75.  The early 90s, Desert Storm/Desert Shield--ramped up again, 2001 saw Iraqi Freedom.  Some of the nicknames given to the plant:  "the Coca-Cola plant that goes boom", and the "Amazon Distribution Center".  These nicknames were coined because the plant receives no appropriation from the government and is a Working Army Capital Operation, meaning it sells products to military services and allied nations, but as a not-for-profit.  It sets rates to break even over a three-year period.  (I forgot to mention that the Navy turned the plant over to the Army in 1977).  Ammunition that is shipped must be blocked and braced for safety reasons.  The daily output of lumber is enough to build 55 average U.S. homes.  In the event of a crisis, they need to be able to move quickly and safely.  "We try to play on the road, no home games,” Foris said

If you are in the McAlester-Savanna area from Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (as atmospheric conditions allow), and you hear a loud boom and see what appears to be smoke in the far distance, it is not fireworks nor an earthquake (even though it rattles windows), nor is it smoke (but dirt) from the plant's daily detonation of "old" ordinance in one of the 52 pits used for this purpose.  At the blast site, crews of eight demolition workers in coveralls fill the 52 pits with old ammunition every day, everything from grenades to Maverick warheads no longer used by the Air Force.  The crews then cover the pits with about two feet of dirt and line each with Army wire and blasting caps.  The caps are blown remotely from a bunker set away from, but in sight of, the detonation field.  The dirt cover helps with the noise and flying debris.  State permits allow up to 500 pounds of old ammunition to be blown up at a time, but a typical blast contains 300 to 350 pounds.

The plant has everything a city has--they have their own water plant and their own sewer plant.  The State Department of Wildlife Conservation runs a deer management program on the facility.  More than 25,000 people apply every year to hunt deer on the property; 1,500 permits are allowed.

The largest employer in the region, with about 1,500 people, it has an economic impact of about $463 million.  According to Foris, they are looking to hire about 200 more employees, and the pay and benefits are excellent.

There was so much more that I couldn't squeeze into this article, and I've been encouraging you to visit us in person to get (as the late Paul Harvey would say) the "rest of the story".  And the rest of the story is that we are still recruiting a few more good men and women for the army of the Lions Club for the betterment of our community.  "WE SERVE".


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