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Strategic Bargains Abound at Navy's Monthly Sale of Surplus Items

January 08, 1989|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

In the market for a bridge, a barge or a C-121 cargo plane?

Has the U.S. Navy got a bargain for you: its monthly surplus sale at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme.

Once a month--usually on the third Thursday--the base's office of defense reutilization and marketing auctions such military castoffs along with a slew of other goods not normally found at your local mall.

On the block is everything from crates of Army fatigues and steel-toed leather boots to electronic missile components to 8-foot-tall isolation booths used for hearing tests.

An auctioneer, with a rat-a-tat-tat spiel that could blend in at any county fair, even peddles camouflage-speckled pickup trucks.

"The general spread of stuff that Uncle Sam sells," is how the office's supervisor, James Orton, describes about 3,000 used, surplus or outmoded items sold each year in the center's Building 513.

The goods all were initially purchased by the Department of Defense, but don't expect any $640 toilet seats. With a lot of more than 100 aging office chairs frequently going for as little as $5, auction prices are rock bottom.

The khaki castoffs keep a corps of civilian buyers--many of them from military-surplus stores--in clover.

For Don Erkel, a 55-year-old vendor of industrial photographic equipment, attending the Port Hueneme auction and 13 or so other military sales each month is practically a full-time job. "Bidding is a 3-day-a-week thing," he said. "The rest of the week is filled with picking up the merchandise and bringing it back."

The supply of available booty has shrunk since the Vietnam era, when auction items covered about 50 acres compared to today's 15, but the number of prospective buyers has not dwindled. "They'll never die out," Orton said. "There's too much money to be made."

The center, which is one of 21 military bases that conducts auctions statewide, doesn't fare badly, either. The sale brings it nearly $220,000 annually--making it one of the larger auctions in the state behind similar sales in San Diego, Alameda and Sacramento, said Dan Gibson, chief of marketing for the Department of Defense reutilization and marketing service.

A nationwide closed-bid sale, in which buyers compete through the mail in 10 to 12 separate offerings each month for larger items, such as railroad cars and aircraft, pads Port Hueneme coffers by an additional $1 million each year.

Even more money is expected from a new sale scheduled for the second Friday of every other month--Feb. 10 is the next one--in which many of the same goods sold at auction will be sold for fixed prices in small quantities.

In addition to earning money for the base, the sales spare the military the expense of disposing of unwanted items. With landfills charging $70 to $80 per ton, the cost can be considerable for such items as a 4,000-pound diesel engine, which might otherwise fetch $400, as one did at December's auction, Orton said.

But anyone expecting to find the makings for warfare will be disappointed by the government garage sale.

To get a howitzer, for instance, a weekend warrior would have to travel to Barstow, where the Marine Corps Logistics Base occasionally auctions them, Orton said. But the weapon will have been "demilitarized," or reduced to its less dangerous components.

Boats Available

Boat aficionadoes will have better luck at the Navy's Ream Field at Imperial Beach, where small vessels frequently go on the block, along with parts for larger ships and planes.

Although the Port Hueneme auction occasionally features a barge or a relic of anti-submarine warfare, such as the C-121, most surplus sea vessels and aircraft that find their way to the Oxnard area usually end up as targets for missiles being tested at the nearby Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, Orton said.

Indeed, the bulk of what is for sale is decidedly civilian in tone--typewriters, cameras, computers, pickup trucks, physics books, ceiling tile. Many items, such as scaffolding, power tools and temporary bridges, reflect the base's role as home to the Navy's engineering corps, which during wartime precedes troops into battle areas to construct needed roads, airstrips and base camps.

Still, not all items, which go on display for three days before each sale, will be familiar to the average shopper. December's four-page listing of goods included such head-scratchers as a "comparator, optical," a "compass-repeater, gyro" and "tellurometers."

Particular Shoppers

But then, those attracted to the Port Hueneme sale are not average shoppers.

Take Ron Vincent, a 43-year-old electrical engineer who owns a small hydroelectric power plant in South Dakota. An Oxnard resident, Vincent said he has saved thousands of dollars by buying military equipment and adapting it for his business.

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