The Pine Bluff Arsenal is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
The arsenal was established Nov. 3, 1941, by the then-U.S. War Department Chemical Warfare Service. Today, the installation is under the command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command and the U.S. Army Joint Munitions Command.
The arsenal’s original mission was to manufacture and assemble incendiary munitions during World War II. The arsenal is a world leader in the design, manufacture and refurbishment of smoke, riot control and incendiary munitions.
Along the way, the installation has provided support in two major wars and several military actions.
In a long term partnership with Jefferson County and the state of Arkansas, the Army/public alliance here is unquestionably among the country’s strongest, according to a news release from the arsenal.
“In fact, according to many, the association may well be the sturdiest of America’s military/community relationships,” the release said.
However, while its roots actually date to 1941, the arsenal didn’t begin production operations until 1942.
In the summer of 1941, while America was boosting its military operations in response to the potential threats of Germany’s Adolph Hitler and his crusading Nazi forces, Jefferson County Judge James P. McGaughy received a telephone call from Congressman David D. Terry of Little Rock.
Terry related that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised him a military arsenal would be located in Pulaski County. However, a site satisfying the Army’s requirements was not found there.
Thus, McGaughy was invited to initiate efforts to bring the installation to Jefferson County, which was then much more dependent on agriculture than it is in today’s diversified economy.
As he undertook the challenge of securing the arsenal for Jefferson County, officials in neighboring Lonoke County began a drive to bring the base to nearby England, then a bustling farm community of a few thousand residents.
Other communities forged campaigns to acquire the arsenal, but Pine Bluff and England were chief competitors. While various factors were weighed between the two, the decision to locate the arsenal in Jefferson County may well have been finalized on immediate population numbers.
Another key benefit to the county came in the 1950s and 1960s via a more mechanized way of farming. The city of White Hall can point to the arsenal as driving force leading to its 1964 incorporation.
Pine Bluff’s proposal for the arsenal was submitted to the Army on Sept. 16, 1941. Following some alterations, the federal government committed $10 million for construction of the Chemical Warfare Arsenal here on Nov. 3, 1941, and the installation was charged with manufacturing and assembling incendiary munitions for Great Britain.
More than 200 parcels of land totaling approximately 15,000 acres were purchased as the site for the post, at a cost of $250,000 – less than $17 an acre.
Col. A. M. Prentiss, who would retire from the Army as a brigadier general, arrived in Pine Bluff on Nov. 21 to establish a headquarters, originally located within the city of Pine Bluff. Construction plans were quickly put into place, with the project commencing with a groundbreaking ceremony just 12 days later.
When Prentiss, other Army officials and area leaders gathered for the Dec. 2 event, they – like all Americans – were unaware that perhaps the most shocking incident of the 20th century was only five days away. Japan bombed the U.S. Navy’s Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, base on Dec. 7. The attack launched America into World War II, changing life throughout the nation and jolting nearly everyone out of their previous routines.
Prentiss immediately took command of an accelerated construction schedule. Work was conducted around the clock so that the arsenal could respond to the war’s demands. The influx of construction workers – estimated by one source at 16,000 – brought unanticipated changes.
Many of the city’s graceful old homes were dissected into apartments. One man reportedly established residency in a rented chicken house just outside the arsenal grounds. There simply wasn’t enough rental property to support the incoming construction force, so many of the workers lived as far as 75 miles away and commuted to the arsenal daily. Production was started amid the construction and in July 1942, the arsenal produced its first items – four-pound incendiary bombs for Great Britain.
The four-pound bombs first manufactured were later packaged into “papa bombs,” which contained 110 of the small units. Production expanded into 4.2-inch mortar white phosphorus shells, smoke shells, hand grenades containing phosphorus or smoke, 100-pound white phosphorus bombs, mustard gas, lewisite gas, both liquid and gaseous chlorine, napalm, nerve gas and harassment gas.
At the peak of its World War II production in 1944, the arsenal counted about 9,000 civilian employees and 450 military personnel. Partially because so many men were volunteering for or being called into military service, women – many of whom were not required to work but wanted to share in the war effort. Women made up nearly half of the arsenal’s World War II workforce. They provided the installation with a family atmosphere and prompted the establishment of 3,000 residences for arsenal workers and their families with the 1,000-unit Plainview Housing Project, which adjoined the arsenal in the area of today’s Creasy Complex and Plainview/White Hall Gate.
An elementary school was soon constructed as well. The school and housing gave the arsenal more appeal and made the war effort easier on families, especially those with younger children. Following World War II, activity at the arsenal primarily consisted of demilitarization, industrial mobilization planning, and maintenance and renovation of chemical supplies and equipment.
However, the Korean Conflict of 1950-53 necessitated renewed and expanded operations. The arsenal’s peak production for the war came in 1952, when it manufactured 38 different items, including incendiary bombs and clusters, smoke grenades, white phosphorus shells, smoke pots and canisters.
With the end of the Korean Conflict, activity slowed throughout the remainder of the 1950s. By the end of the decade, workforce numbers had dwindled to 1,075 civilians and 140 military personnel. With the location’s isolation, acceding to sensitive missions, local waterways and varied transportation systems available for continuing on as an Army post, the arsenal’s future had been secured for the foreseeable time. And on Aug. 16, 1954, the Department of the Army gave it a second designation as a permanent installation.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the arsenal began producing lethal biological pathogens in 1953 at its Production Development Laboratories under the direction of the Army’s chief microbiologist, William Capers Patrick. Patrick had perfected the production of anthrax spores that could be dispersed through the air. In 1956, he became the chief architect and production manager of such large-scale operations, called Project X1002, at the arsenal.
Among other factors, public outcry over the use of Agent Orange — a toxic herbicide used in the Vietnam War — caused President Richard Nixon to ban the production and use of biological weapons in 1969. Consequently, the biological weapons production facility at the arsenal was halted that year, but part of the complex, with a new mission, was moved a few miles north of the arsenal. Renamed the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR), this internationally recognized research center is now under the control of the Department of Health and Human Services and a branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The Army’s Chemical and Biological Defense Command maintained 3,850 tons (12.3 percent of the nation’s chemical agent stockpile) of toxic nerve agents stored in protective containers and in aging World War II projectiles. The Chemical Agent Disposal Facility and its civilian contractor, the Washington Demilitarization Company, began on-site incineration of these agents in 2005. On Nov. 16, 2010, arsenal officials announced that the last of the chemical agents stored there had been destroyed. As of 2011, the arsenal makes smoke, incendiary and pyrotechnic devices and tests chemical defense clothing.
In May 2012, Vivione Biosciences announced its lease of 2,000 square feet of space at the arsenal for its work on rapid-B diagnostic technology. This technology was developed in partnership with the nearby NCTR.
At a ceremony held Nov. 3, Arsenal Commander Col. Kelso C. Horne III, the installation’s 37th commander, cut the cake and also took time to honor the arsenal’s Vietnam-era veterans. Each directorate on the arsenal received cakes in commemoration of the day.