Umatilla Ceremony (Oregon Military Department)
Umatilla Ceremony (Oregon Military Department)

Most of us know it was the former Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot, but it's history goes way back before that.

  Ceremony to honor 1944 fatal explosion victims

The Umatilla Army Ordinance Depot was first constructed beginning in 1940, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia, which is a project of the Oregon Historical Society.

It was chosen by the US Army because of the moderate, relatively dry and stable climate, remote location, and it was far enough away from the Pacific Coast to prevent any 'easy' attacks.

20,000 acres between Umatilla and Morrow County were set aside, construction began, and by October 1941 it began receiving large shipments of bombs, shells, and other munitions.

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The Depot is famous for its igloos, long concrete dirt-covered mounds with concrete walls and doors on each end. 1,001 were built, they were either 30 by 80 feet or 24 by 61.  On March 21st, 1944, a bomb that was being loaded into an igloo exploded, killing six workers.  A large chunk of that igloo is on display near the entrance to the now-closed depot.  This Google earth image captures the few igloos that still remain.


Umatilla Depot igloos (google earth)
Umatilla Depot igloos (google earth)

During the Korean War, it handled an average of 34 tons of munitions each month. Then it was modified to store 27 percent of the nation's chemical weapons, and from 1962 until 2004.  It continued to supply regular munitions, including to Viet Nam, and 20,000 tons of bombs for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Finally, the Army slated it for closure and the chemical weapons incinerator was built. Over a 7 year period, over 3,700 tons of VX, HB and HD nerve and mustard chemical weapons were safely destroyed.

The depot was formally closed in 2012. But authorities continue to hold the ceremony on March 21st, to honor the six workers who died in 1944.

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