The Cold War, Korean War, and the Resurrection of Utah’s Defense Establishment

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

In 1946, Winston Churchill warned that an “Iron Curtain” had fallen over central Europe, an image that galvanized the public imagination. The Soviet Union had begun installing puppet governments throughout Eastern Europe; and American, British, and French troops occupied western Germany. Communist guerillas unleashed attacks on the Greek government, and the USSR reluctantly evacuated its troops from Iran. Almost alone among the warring powers, Austria and Finland emerged as neutral states.

On the other side of the globe, a “Bamboo Curtain” fell over eastern Asia. In 1949, Mao Ze-dong’s Communist armies defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, sending the Nationalist government scurrying to Taiwan. Coincidentally, the victorious powers divided Korea and Vietnam between Communist north and capitalist south in what were planned as temporary settlements.

To the east and west along the Iron and Bamboo Curtains, hands from each side dripped with blood, twisting every convenient clamp to control the outflow of power. By the fall of 1949, both Britain and the Soviet Union had exploded atomic bombs. In 1949, the United States and western democracies organized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Each member nation promised that it would consider an attack on one as an attack on all. In 1955, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies formalized a condition that had existed for nearly a decade by negotiating the competing Warsaw Pact.

Since Utah’s defense installations continued to shrink in size, these events had at first only a minor impact on the Beehive State’s economy. In 1950, however, a new war gave the installations a shot of adrenaline that reinvigorated the economy. On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces armed with Soviet weapons struck through the Bamboo Curtain to invade South Korea. The United Nations sent troops to counterattack; and in a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon, which was planned by Douglas MacArthur, American troops repulsed the North Koreans and routed them back towards the Chinese border. Then, fearing the approach of American armies so close to their homeland, the Chinese Communists sent waves of soldiers across the Yalu River to fight alongside the North Koreans. Only a tenacious American army, reinforced by draftees, ground the war to a bloody standstill near the 38th parallel in conditions reminiscent of World War I’s trench warfare.

In response to the Cold War and to this nasty little hot war, the federal government inflated defense employment in Utah. In 1950, approximately 14,800 people worked at Utah defense installations; in 1951, that number had increased by nearly 90 percent to more than 28,800. Since the armies in Korea demanded mounds of war material, the installations hired new people to store, repair, and ship the tanks, bullets, cannons, and fighter planes committed to Asia.

In the meantime, Congress had combined the War and Navy Departments under a single cabinet-level secretary of defense while raising the air corps, renamed the Air Force, to a status equal with the army and navy. Under the new arrangement, the Air Force Logistic Command assigned the OOAMA (the Ogden Air Materiel Area at Hill Air Force Base) to assist U.S. flyers in Korea. At first, OOAMA took World War II-vintage, propeller-driven planes from mothballs, reopening its engine test facility to help in refurbishing the old aircraft. As the fighting intensified, the air force ordered up its fleet of jets, and OOAMA assumed the responsibility for storing and repairing new generations of faster-than-sound aircraft. At the same time, the Utah General Depot (renamed Defense Depot Ogden [DDO] at a later date), and Tooele Ordinance Depot (eventually renamed Tooele Army Depot [TAD]), carried out similar responsibilities for the Quartermaster, Signal, Engineering, and Ordnance Corps.

Some wartime installations did not survive. During the relatively peaceful days immediately following World War II, military planners could see no immediate need for them, and the number of soldiers in Korea relative to those who served in World War II did not warrant their reopening. Standard Surplus, Inc., of New York City purchased the Kearns Army Air Base; and developers built the city of Kearns atop its streets, water mains, and sewer lines. Refurbished as the Freeport Center, Clearfield Naval Supply Depot became a civilian storage and transshipment hub. U.S. Steel purchased the Geneva Steel Plant near Orem for three-quarters of its construction cost, and numerous other defense factories became civilian firms. Bushnell General Hospital in Brigham City was closed down, but it was later reopened as a boarding school for Native Americans, partly at the urging of Utah’s Senator Arthur Watkins, and renamed the Intermountain Indian School.

At the same time, the Defense Department realigned the management of a number of existing facilities. Hill Air Force Base gobbled up both the Ogden Arsenal and Wendover Air Force Base. Tooele Army Depot took over the Desert Chemical Depot. After the end of the Korean War in 1953, it appeared likely that the federal government might resume the dismantling of Utah’s defense installations, but the Cold War heated up in time to save them. Rearming and rebuilding their armies in an escalated arms race, the United States and the Soviet Union recruited or shanghaied the cream of Germany’s rocket scientists and, together with their own scientists and technicians, each nation began a crash program to build short-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. By 1957, both nations had locked themselves into a race to launch satellites into space. The Soviets won the satellite race when they propelled Sputnik into orbit in October 1957.

Utahns quickly entered both the rocket race and the atomic age. Beehive Staters witnessed these new conditions both as partisans in an international feud and as bystanders living in harm’s way, much like skiers in the path of an avalanche. Between 1958 and 1960, OOAMA assumed responsibility for storing, supplying, and repairing new generations of missiles, including the Genie, the Bomarc, and the Minuteman—the workhorse of American defense—and Dugway Proving Grounds continued to develop, store, and test an arcane assembly of biological, radioactive, and chemical weapons.

Ominously, a few miles across Utah’s southwestern border at the Nevada Test Range at Frenchman’s and Yucca Flats, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which Congress had created in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, conducted open-air atomic tests from 1951 through 1958 and underground tests afterward. Then, in an irresistible avalanche, the fallout from these tests buried soldiers and civilians under a blanket of deadly radiation-soaked debris.