As the dark steel arm of the excavator hung in the air — its claw clamped firmly around a mass of debris — retired Col. John Scully shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun.
“It’s kinda different to think of all the people who went through here,” he said, still watching. “There are a lot of memories.”
Scully, 77, was one of dozens of people who attended a demolition ceremony Monday marking the end of an era at Camp Roberts. Hundreds of the World War II-era buildings that put a roof over the heads of soldiers training for battle are finally coming down.
In fact, 658 of the structures have stood broken and empty for decades at the base, a training ground just north of San Miguel that’s run by the California National Guard.
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The green-topped structures with the gaping windows and peeling white paint have been a ghost-town landmark of sorts for passersby along Highway 101.
The structures — barracks accompanied by mess halls, chapels, supply rooms and administration offices — have not been used in more than 30 years.
But changes in environmental law after the 1970s put demolition plans at a standstill until now.
The buildings at Camp Roberts housed America’s soldiers after the boom of wartime construction started in 1940 and finished in 1941.
Craftsmen at the time used gasoline to thin the lead-based paint on the boards. The process drew the lead deep into the wood, making it unusable under today’s laws. The buildings also have asbestos and disease risks from rodent droppings.
That’s why Camp Roberts had to build its own 85-acre hazardous waste landfill, which required about a decade-long permitting process that finally cleared this year.
The structures are to be torn down in phases over three years. The first phase costs about $3.4 million. The second phase is slated for 2014; but future phases will be dictated by when funding is secured.
The concrete pads will go to the camp’s rock quarry for recycling.
While many associated with Camp Roberts reflected on how difficult it was to tear down pieces of history, military leaders said it’s the only way to look to the future.
The camp is undergoing a number of infrastructure updates, including modernizing existing living quarters, building a 1-megawatt solar farm, adding a water tank and constructing a modern dining hall.
Within the next five years, the camp plans to build a brigade of living spaces on the old parade grounds — a large square field in the middle of the garrison.
The footprint of the torn-down barracks will be used for parking and native landscape. At Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, similar World War II-era buildings are kept for historical purposes at its museum so their replicas across the country — including those at Camp Roberts — could be taken down.
For Claude DeMoss, news of the demolition “sure brought back some good memories” of training as a private first class at Camp Roberts in 1953.
DeMoss, 78, said he “would come back in from the field in the noon chow truck to play ball.” He said he enjoyed being a lifeguard and remembered attending a dance at the American Legion Hall in San Luis Obispo that same year.