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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Secret of the Hills : Bunkers Hold History of WWII Caltech Rocket Fuel Project

March 02, 1995|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 50 years, the foothills above Pasadena had kept the wartime secret, their overgrown oaks hiding the concrete bunkers, their canyons giving no clues of the days when they rumbled from rocket test firings.

And then in October, 1993, the foothills bared all.

A wildfire swept through the hillsides above Eaton Canyon, exposing a long-forgotten piece of World War II history: five concrete storage bunkers that had been covered by thick chaparral, scrub oak and sycamore.

During the war, Caltech stored more than 500,000 pounds of rocket fuel in the bunkers as part of its secret Eaton Canyon Project, a round-the-clock operation with dozens of machine shops, storage rooms and administration buildings spread over 146 acres in the foothills.

Workers in Eaton Canyon loaded fuel into more than 1 million rockets before the war's end, testing them in the canyons. Unknown to the locals--who heard the curious boom of test firings--Caltech-designed rockets led shore assaults in Sicily, Guam and Iwo Jima, blew up German submarines and exploded Japanese aircraft.

The bunkers are the only buildings left in the foothills from the $80-million project, which produced the first artillery rockets ever used by the U.S. military.

At the time, Pasadena was the rocket-making capital of the country, said Caltech archivist Judith Goodstein, with enough explosives in Eaton Canyon to blow the city off the map.

Even now, few people know about Caltech's war work, said Altadena resident Kenton Mac David, who worked on the project for two years as a technician.

Mac David, 72, is using his own time and money to write a "modest historical paper" on the project, for free distribution to local libraries and historical societies. He wants to interview not the scientists or administrators but the amateur laborers with whom he worked--the homemakers, barbers, preachers. The project's staff included dozens of Caltech's top scientists and more than 3,000 workers.

"A lot of this has been forgotten," said Mac David. "Now there's a generation of people who have never heard of the (project). I just think it's part of history."

*

The newly exposed bunkers are stirring curiosity about just what was going on in those hills during the war, when armed guards stood watch over the canyons. The revived interest comes during a year of 50th-anniversary commemorations of World War II milestones. On March 14, at Iwo Jima, veterans will commemorate the famous island battle against Japanese defenders. On Feb. 19, 1945, Marines, supported by Navy units, landed on Iwo Jima under cover of 20,000 Caltech rockets.

Now, in unincorporated Kinneloa Estates, where the bunkers are exposed, neighbors whisper that the structures had something to do with a secret project during the war.

"I heard some neighbors talk that (Caltech) stored ammunition there during World War II," said resident Charles Brinton, 78, who recently heard of the Eaton Canyon Project for the first time.

No rocket fuel remains in or near the empty bunkers. Two of the structures are inaccessible, nearly buried by hillside erosion and chaparral growing on top. The three others are visible in the Kinneloa Estates area and other areas where the foothills above Eaton Canyon can be seen, such as Mac David's back yard.

The bunkers are a few hundred yards from a cul-de-sac, up a sandy trail, where bits of an asphalt road remain. The bunkers' 15-foot-high walls--reinforced concrete, a foot thick--are intact, the lightweight wood-and-tar-paper roofs long gone. The metal doors are no longer standing, although a couple remain on the ground, their hinges gone.

Inside the bunkers, tall grass grows atop mounds of dirt and sunshine throws shadows on graffiti-scarred walls. Also on the walls are spray-painted drawings of huge green daisies next to a peace sign--perhaps an unintentional commentary on the war effort that once took place there.

In one bunker, a faded orange couch with no legs sits next to a dirty sleeping bag. Homeless people saw the bunkers as a place to sleep after the wildfire, neighbors said. Mac David saw something else.

He remembers the first time he hiked into the foothills, a few days before the wildfire. He went up after a local fire captain told him the bunkers were still up there. At that time, he had only a notion that he wanted to write something about Caltech's contribution to the war effort. But once he saw the bunkers, he decided to focus on workers in the Eaton Canyon Project.

"When I saw what was left, I thought, 'This is fantastic, man! This is part of history,' " Mac David said.

Maybe not for long.

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