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On a reconnaissance mission to Ft. Ord in Monterey Bay

Ft. Ord in Monterey Bay, where Army soldiers once trained for war, remains a work in progress after it was decommissioned in 1994.

October 11, 2013|By Susan Spano

MONTEREY BAY, Calif. — Along Highway 1 between Marina and Seaside, it's all roller-coastering sand dunes and chaparral. There the road cuts across Ft. Ord, where soldiers trained for almost every war the U.S. Army waged in the 20th century, as well as deployments to Panama and the 1992 L.A. riots.

Then Ft. Ord closed and it was over. In 1994, 36,000 soldiers and their families were relocated, emptying hospitals, barracks, chapels, stockades and 28,000 prime Central Coast acres. Alas, the Army left something behind: unexploded ordnance, contaminated groundwater and hazardous waste.

Two decades later, the cleanup job is far from finished. A state park, national monument and branch of the California State University system moved into areas where remediation was completed. But on top of the ongoing cleanup, the recession and conflicting ideas about how the area should be used have left decommissioned Ft. Ord a work in progress. For now, at least, much of the old fort looks as wild and undeveloped as Baja Mexico, with chapters of its past hidden in dilapidated buildings and earthworks.

To do a reconnaissance, exit Highway 1 on Lightfighter Drive, starting at Ft. Ord Dunes State Park, covering almost 1,000 acres west of the road overlooking the wide, pearly scallop of Monterey Bay. The park recently completed a 4-mile trail for pedestrians and cyclists, offering access to beaches where mock amphibious landings were staged during World War II.

About halfway along the trail, signs point to the bluff-top site of a club for enlisted men conceived by Joseph W. Stilwell, from 1940 to 1941 commanding general of the Army's 7th Infantry Division based at Ft. Ord. Now demolished, Stilwell Hall had a swimming pool, wide porches, a ballroom where all the biggest big bands played and what was said to be the longest bar in California. Stand there and hum a few bars of "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" for "Vinegar Joe" and all the off-duty soldiers who kicked back at Stilwell Hall.

Next stop, the main garrison across Highway 1, now partly occupied by Cal State Monterey Bay. Pick up a campus map at the Alumni & Visitor Center, then find your way to the grassy quad with a stunning view of the coast.

During World War II, the main garrison was a virtual town, populated by units assembled for basic training from all over America, headed to battle in Europe and especially the Pacific. Power lines, roads and more than 1,000 buildings originally intended for temporary use shot up in a matter of months as President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw war on the horizon.

Nowadays, the buildings on the quad look so new you wonder if the paint is dry. But many of them are military vintage, including retooled barracks that serve as dorms for some of the university's 5,700 students. The University Center has two murals from old Stilwell Hall, and Korean War vets will recognize iconic Midcentury Modern Hammerhead buildings — so named because they look a little like sharks — refurbished for educational use.

Efforts are being made by Cal State Monterey Bay faculty and the Ft. Ord Alumni Assn. to preserve the fort's history; it's hoped that a new veterans' center rising nearby will have room for a museum. But as you circle the campus by bike or car, you see eerie evidence of deterioration in the form of abandoned Hammerheads, most of them boarded up, windows smashed, slated for eventual demolition. Keep an eye out for military murals painted on the sides of buildings; my favorite is a 14th Combat Engineer insignia along Owen Durham Street, subtitled "Rugged."

Tight rows of standard, yellow-frame World War II structures, long past their expected five-year life expectancy, give the northwest flank of campus the air of a ghost town. I was lucky enough to tour the area with retired Maj. Gen. Frederick H. Lawson, a charter member of the Ft. Ord Alumni Assn., who served at the fort from 1978 to 1981. When we reached the old stockade near the intersection of 9th Street and 5th Avenue, he said, "There's nothing as depressing as an abandoned Army base."

State-of-the-art when it was built after World War II, the prison is now a ghastly skeleton, surrounded by coils of barbed wire. But the stories it could tell, especially from the 1960s, when public support for the war in Vietnam plummeted and draftees put on sandals and beads for off-duty visits to nearby Seaside. Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia did basic training at Ft. Ord with no known stints in the stockade, though Hendrix was discharged before he got to Vietnam, deemed a problematic soldier much distracted by his guitar.

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