Washington State Army Depots in World War II

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 4/02/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10215

During World War II a number of U.S. Army and Army Air Force supply depots were established in Washington state, and an existing army depot on the Seattle waterfront was greatly expanded. These depots played a critical role in supplying the war effort in Alaska and the Pacific and in transporting Lend Lease shipments to the Soviet Union. The Seattle depot became a port of embarkation for troops, with thousands leaving from there for combat and many of the survivors returning there at war's end. Following the war these army depots took on new roles, including the somber one of returning the remains of war dead to next of kin. Depot activity returned during the Korean War, and after that conflict ended, the depots at Auburn and Pasco, and part of the Seattle depot, were put to new use.

Supplying the Troops

When World War II began, Washington had excellent ports in Tacoma and Seattle and also had good railroad and highway connections. The ports had years of experience supplying goods to Alaska and this background was quickly converted to military purposes. The primary military role of the depots was the warehousing of large quantities of materiel.

The depots in Washington delivered goods through the ports to resupply Alaska military bases and support the war in the Aleutian Islands. They also supported the war in the Pacific, shipping critical equipment and supplies to Hawaii and beyond. The Pasco Engineering Depot was a major supplier of equipment for military engineers.

Army Air Force Depot, Auburn

In 1943 the government obtained 553 acres of farmland two miles southwest of Auburn, and by September that year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the West Coast Construction Company at work building a U.S. Army Air Force depot on the site. The depot opened on December 1, 1943, handling Lend Lease aircraft parts and equipment and used to supply airbases in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. It had 12 large warehouses, each measuring 201 feet long and 808 feet wide, enclosing a total of two million square feet of storage space.

Seattle architect Leonard W. Bindon (1899-1980), serving as an army captain, designed the depot warehouses. The construction went smoothly except for a serious fire on March 3, 1944, that heavily damaged a cold-storage facility under construction. A tar pot exploded, and the fire trapped three men who were working from scaffolding. Two workers, Rocco Vigna (1887-1944) of Tacoma and John Waver (1907-1944), were critically burned and died days later. There later were labor issues at the depot when, in September 1945, the army discharged civilian workers and replaced them with captured Italian soldiers. The Teamsters' Union protested and the War Department banned their use at the facility.

In 1946 the Auburn depot was designated as one of 15 centers in the United States to receive war dead from the Pacific. It served Washington, Western Oregon, and Northern Idaho. The remains of some 5,000 casualties, shipped from San Francisco and Seattle, were received in Auburn and delivered to next of kin. The depot also had the responsibility of disposing of surplus war materiel. In January 1956 a two-story administrative building was completed at the depot.

The Auburn depot went on a closure list in 1960, and was recommended, unsuccessfully, as the site for the 1962 World's Fair. In 1960, when the General Services Administration proposed building a $5 million warehouse at the Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle, the U.S. Congress intervened, pointing out that the vacant Auburn depot had sufficient storage space. The General Services Administration dropped the proposed Sand Point warehouse and took over the Auburn facility and its 31 buildings. This is now the General Services Administration Northwest/Arctic Region Headquarters. The former administration building serves as the General Services Administration headquarters offices.

At the present time (2013) the former depot is substantially intact and has largely maintained its World War II appearance. In May 1962 a 279-acre portion of the depot, which included three warehouses, was sold to private interests. The General Services Administration donated six acres to the city of Auburn and this is now GSA Park.

Pasco Holding and Reconsignment Point, Pasco Engineer Depot  

Early in 1942, the United States Army sought a site for an engineer supply depot, one away from the coast and thus less at risk of attack. A good transportation system and flat, buildable land also were required. The army selected a 459-acre site on the north bank of the Columbia River near Pasco.

The land was acquired and construction started on May 15, 1942. The army designed it as a depot to store and distribute engineering supplies and equipment, including Lend Lease materials bound for the Soviet Union. Items stored ranged from nails to bulldozers and locomotives. Officially named the Pasco Holding and Reconsignment Point, the site commonly was referred to as the Pasco Engineer Depot or simply "Big Pasco."

The depot opened on August 15, 1942. Sixteen buildings had been erected, including eight large warehouses (960 feet by 180 feet) with 1,039,000 square feet of storage space. The total covered storage was 1.7 million square feet. There was also a large open-air storage area. Big Pasco became one of the largest and busiest army depots of World War II. Initially, 100 rail cars a day loaded with materiel were received, unloaded, and reloaded for shipment to military bases in Washington and Oregon. The materiel bound for the Soviet Union was sent to the Portland Port of Embarkation. At its peak, 225 rail cars were handled in one day. Construction of an Advance General Depot in Pasco, one mile north of the railroad terminal, was started but not completed. This unfinished depot and its two warehouses eventually served the Hanford Engineer Works.

In 1946, the War Assets Corporation used the Pasco depot to handle war-surplus sales. Among the huge number of items sold were 1,500 new, unassembled trucks. Veterans had priority, and many of them purchased the trucks for farming or to start trucking operations.

The Pasco depot closed in June 1947, but reopened during the Korean War. In 1955 it was deactivated and 11,000 tons of supplies were moved by landing craft to the Sharpe General Depot near Stockton, California. The depot stood vacant until July 1958, when the General Services Administration advertised it for sale. The Port of Pasco obtained the property in two steps, in 1959 and 1960. The facility had cost $9 million to build and sold for less than $900,000. Today it is the Port of Pasco Industrial Park, also called Big Pasco or Big Pasco Industrial Center.

Seattle Quartermaster Depot, Army Terminal, Seattle Port of Embarkation

In 1907 the Seattle Army Quartermaster Depot opened an office at 1st Avenue and Yesler Street, which managed leased ships and storage space. The depot received forage, food, and supplies that were then shipped to Alaska and the Philippines. In 1916 the army leased Pier 11, known as the Oriental Pier, to handle increased supply loads to Alaska. The quartermaster's office was moved to the Arcade Building in Seattle. An explosion in July 1916 destroyed Pier 11 and its storage facilities. The owner, Pacific Coast Company, rebuilt the pier and the army resumed its use.

In 1917 the added demand due to the construction of Camp Lewis near Tacoma led the army to lease additional space, and in 1918 plans were made to build a large depot on Seattle's Harbor Island. However, with the end of World War I expected soon, this plan was dropped. Instead a Seattle Quartermaster Depot was built on the water at Stacey Street and East Marginal Way. It had a pier, warehouse, and transit shed. The depot supplied Camp Lewis, Washington and Oregon coastal defense forts, Alaska, the Philippines, and Hawaii. The work force included 10 army officers and 160 civilians.

After World War I the depot sold huge quantities of war-surplus food and clothing. It was operated until 1940, when the army purchased the Pacific Steamship's Terminals at Piers A and B, (today's Pier 36 and 37). Soon the army became Seattle's largest buyer, purchasing $75 million in food and supplies from local businesses.

The Seattle Army Depot employed 1,000 workers, and its offices were located in the former Pacific Steamship building. In 1941, a four-story concrete warehouse was added, bringing total storage space to one million square feet, and the depot expanded to adjacent piers. In June 1941, the large Ford plant at 4735 E Marginal Way was purchased, providing an additional 500,000 square feet of storage space. The Seattle Port of Embarkation operated seven transport ships to receive and deliver supplies.

In November 1941 the terminal became a subport of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, and on January 17, 1942, it became a separate facility, the Seattle Port of Embarkation. Troops shipped out from Seattle to duty in Alaska and the Pacific. At the end of the war thousands of troops returned to the United States through the Seattle Port of Embarkation. Annexes functioned at Tacoma and Olympia. A subport of the Seattle Port of Embarkation was opened in Portland, used to ship Lend Lease materiel to the Soviet Union.

During the first year of operation, thefts from the depot were a problem. People living in a nearby "Hooverville" removed wood and material from the docks. In 1941 guard dogs were acquired and used to catch intruders. The Hooverville shantytown was razed in April 1941.

As did other World War II depots, the Seattle facility hired women, and about 40 percent of the workforce was female. To operate with the highest efficiency, the depot obtained local expertise for specialized duties. Grace G. Denny (1883-1971), a University of Washington professor of home economics, served as a textile consultant to the Army Quartermaster Corps.  She tested materials and taught others at the depot the testing procedures, and her work developing subsititute materials was deemed critical to the war effort.

In 1943 the Seattle depot was renamed the Army Services Forces Depot. In 1944, the military renamed the Seattle piers to provide uniformity; the depot and Port of Embarkation became Piers 36-39. After the end of World War II, the depot became a general depot and was very active again during the Korean War. By the mid-1950s air transport was replacing transport ships, and this led to the depot's closure in June 1957.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers occupied Pier 36 for several years. In 1964 the General Services Administration sold the property to the Port of Seattle, and in 1966 the U.S. Coast Guard started using Pier 36. It is now the United States Coast Guard base Seattle. The Coast Guard has its offices in the former depot and the Pacific Steamship administration building, now called Building 1. The former four-story army warehouse survives as Building 7. At Pier 36, a Coast Guard Museum is open to the public. Piers 37-47 were lost when incorporated into a container terminal.

Sources: Kit Oldham, Peter Blecha, and the HistoryLink Staff, Rising Tides and Tailwinds: The Story of the Port of Seattle, 1911-2011 (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 2011); Ted Van Arsdol, "Big Pasco": Pasco Holding and Reconsignment Point and Pasco Engineer Depot, 1942-1947 (Vancouver, Washington:  T. Van Arsdol, 1983); "New Terminal To Center Shipping For Government," The Seattle Daily Times, March 14, 1917, p. 1; "Harbor Island Dock Project Abandoned," Ibid., December 6, 1918, p. 32; "Seattle Quartermaster Depot Expands," Ibid., July 20, 1919, p. 26; "Army Plans $4,750,000 Depot Here," Ibid., March 21, 1941, p. 1; "Expenditures to Reach $75,000,000 Annually: Supply Depot Extended," Ibid., June 21, 1941, p. 14; "Army Is City's Biggest Buyer," Ibid., July 27, 1941, p. 66; "Army Storehouse," Ibid., March 1, 1942, p. 60; "U.W. Woman Professor Aids Army Quartermaster Corps," The Seattle Daily Times, September 13, 1942, p. 34; "Buildings For Big Army Depot Under Way Soon," Ibid., July 25, 1943, p. 2; "One Step Nearer the Goal Of a Great World Seaport," Ibid., June 28, 1943, p. 6; "Victim Of Fire At Auburn Dies," Ibid., March 7, 1944, p. 11; "Beck Protests Italian Labor," The Seattle Times, September 17, 1945, p. 4; "Army Depot Up for Sale," The Oregonian, July 26, 1958, p. 13; "Port Of Pasco Buys Depot Site," The Oregonian, January 31, 1960, p. 10; "Auburn Depot To Be Closed By End Of Year," The Seattle Daily Times, March 6, 1960, p. p. 8; "Plan for Sand Point Warehouse Dropped," The Seattle Daily Times, August 16, 1960, p. 12; "Depot Area Bids Sought," The Oregonian, April 29,1962, p. 123.

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