Photos from the Vault

The bulldozer buried beneath Camp Roberts and other stories

Al Johnson, heavy equipment superintendent, kept the construction of Camp Roberts moving along during record rains in 1940-41.
Al Johnson, heavy equipment superintendent, kept the construction of Camp Roberts moving along during record rains in 1940-41. Telegram-Tribune

Camp Roberts has had a renaissance of sorts recently.

Decaying 70-year old structures are being demolished, sometimes turning up unexpected finds. The massive parade ground — the size of 14 football fields — is being cleaned up from the broken asphalt.

New facilities are being built as well. This week a new dining hall, mock village for training and base for drone training were dedicated.

U.S. Rep. Sam Farr emphasized that military bases need to reach out to other Department of Defense branches and to federal and local public safety agencies to make sure that facilities deliver maximum use for training.

On Nov. 15, 1990, Telegram-Tribune reporter Phil Dirkx wrote about how it all began:

Building of Camp Roberts recalled

CAMP ROBERTS — Fifty years ago next Monday, the peace and quiet north of San Miguel was shattered. The repercussions are still echoing today.

On Nov. 19, 1940, construction workers gathered on a ranch north of San Miguel to start grading building sites for Camp Roberts.

Large crews — working 10-hour days — completed the camp's West Garrison barracks in just 14 weeks.

Camp historian Al Davis also said the first troops to be trained at the new camp began arriving by train on March 15, 1941.

The entire camp — including the East Garrison area across the Salinas River — was completed by July 10, 1941.

The camp was built to house 30,000 soldiers but swelled to 46,000 during the height of training brought on by World War II.

Before then, construction of Camp Roberts had brought an army of workers to the North County. At one time the civilian workers totaled almost 8,000.

One of them was Dorwin "Dutch" Avery, 76, of Templeton, who came down in late 1940 from Gilroy where he had worked on a ranch.

He said there were so many workers many of them couldn't find a place to live.

At first the nearest home he could find for his family was a motel in Soledad. Later he found an old four-room ranch house on Union Road four miles east of Paso Robles.

Avery's family had to share the house with another family. Avery, his wife, Ann, and their five children lived in two rooms. Their sixth child was born while they lived there.

The house had no inside bathroom, Avery said, or any water for that matter. He had to carry water home from town.

How could they live like that?

"Hell, you couldn't find anything else," he said.

They lived like that for three years, he said, until they finally found a place to rent in Paso Robles.

It wasn't any bigger but had water and an indoor toilet, he said, so his wife was tickled.

She wasn't pleased, though, when men kept walking up and knocking on their door for weeks after they moved in.

Their home, it turned out, had been a house of prostitution, he said.

After the camp was built, Avery was hired there as a civil service employee in the roads, walks and grounds division. He worked there until he retired 30 years later.

Avery said he started out at the camp in December of 1940, about a month after construction began.

That was also about the time that the rains started. The winter of 1940-41 was one of the wettest on record.

Historian Davis said the rainfall that winter totaled 39.98 inches. The roads and ditches became rivers of mud, he said but the work never stopped.

Conditions were described in reports by Capt. J.T. Smoody, who oversaw the construction for the Army.

"Carpenters found it necessary to carry lumber to their worksite through knee-deep mud, and on occasion would be stuck so badly they would drop their load and would need assistance to be rescued from their predicament."

Davis reported that the wet weather delayed the construction of permanent roads. In many places, 4 to 6 feet of mud had to be removed and replaced with dry soil.

A legend grew up about a bulldozer that bogged down in the mud of what became the camp's huge parade field. The heavy machine was said to have buried itself so deeply that it was abandoned and covered over.

Davis, after checking, found the legend was almost true.

He checked it out with Harley Davidson, a foreman for the camp's general contractor, Morrison-Knudsen.

Davidson confirmed that a big piece of equipment did get mired in the mud, burying itself to top of its tracks, Davis said.

But it wasn't abandoned, Davidson said. It was finally recovered by using 14 other pieces of heavy equipment.

Laborers earned $50 per week while bulldozer operators made $100. Foremen were paid $150.

That was for a 58-hour week, Davidson said, 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday, and eight hours on Saturdays. For those days, however, the pay was good and attracted thousands of workers. They had a big impact on San Miguel.

Real estate agent Bert Turnbow was quoted as saying highway lots that sold for $200 in August were bringing $100 per frontage foot in November.

The Elkhorn Bar in San Miguel, which had grossed about $300 per week, was bringing in $400 to $500 on weeknights by February 1941, and $700 to $800 per night on weekends. By July 10, 1941 the construction contract was officially completed. But there was still a lot of work to do.

That's what Iveus "Red" Evans found out 16 days later when he arrived from Texas. Evans, now 90, said he had planned to visit his brother and brother-in-law for just a week and then return to Texas.

He still lives in Paso Robles.

Evans, a carpenter, was visiting his relatives on the job one day when the foreman walked up and told him he had been on the payroll since 8 that morning.

Evans worked at Camp Roberts for the next 30 years.

He also helped build the USO building at 10th and Park streets in Paso Robles. It later became the city recreation building and is now being torn down.

"I drove the first nail in the USO building," he said.

He held that job until his retirement in 1970 — except for about four months in 1942 and '43 when he was drafted into the Army.

He was 42, had a stiff leg and had only one eye. Evans thinks his being drafted had something to do with a conversation he had one night in a Paso Robles card room with a member of the local draft board.

He doesn't talk about the details.

His wife, Irene, got the Camp Roberts post commander and post engineer to write letters saying they needed Evans back at the camp. The Army discharged him.

His wife also worked at Camp Roberts in the post laundry during the war. They raised all three of their children in Paso Robles.

Red Evans and Dutch Avery said there aren't many people left who worked with them at Camp Roberts in those early days. "They're dead," both said.

But Camp Roberts is still alive, although it's been closed and revived a few times.

The war ended in August of 1945 and by July of 1946, Camp Roberts — which had trained 436,000 soldiers — was a ghost town, in caretaker status.

But it reopened on August of 1950 to train thousands of soldiers for the Korean War. By November 1953 the Korean war was over and Camp Roberts was again reduced to "ready" status.

But for an inactive post it remained very active, being used summers and weekends for National Guard and Army Reserve training.

Since 1971 the California National Guard has leased the camp from the Army, but it is also still used by regular Army troops from Fort Ord and it is the home of an Army satellite communications station.

Camp Roberts also still has an impact on the North County. It still provides many jobs, and residents often see truck convoys on the highways going to and from the camp.

Camp Roberts also stimulates the North County real estate market every few years because of recurring rumors that the camp will open again.

But since 1953 they've always been wrong.