Fort Worden’s Korean War vets jump from the frying pan to the fire

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While soldiers of the 2nd Engineer Special Brigade, who trained at Fort Worden, were engaged in the Korean Conflict (1950-53), their replacements at the fort, the 369th Engineer Amphibious Support Regiment, were fighting an entirely different war.

For three months in 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) conducted a series of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Nevada desert. To prepare for the bomb detonations, the soldiers of Fort Worden, along with other troops, were assigned to build the target test sites.

In 2014 interview with Raymond Buell, he described their job: “There were no permanent buildings…we started building the permanent camp. I was working on a rock crusher because we had to build roads.”

Known as Camp Desert Rock, the site was eventually home to more than 7,000 Department of Defense civilians and military personnel. After the camp was constructed, Buell and his unit were reassigned to the forward areas known as Frenchman and Yucca flats. “We dug the trenches and then got in the trenches and then they’d blast the bomb.”

According to AEC public documents, the troops observed the blasts from trenches approximately 4 miles south of ground zero. Earl Hettick, also with the 369th, drove a water truck.

“Just before they set the bomb off, I had to spread water in front of the troops so the dust wouldn’t blow into their eyes from the impact. When the bomb went off, you could see the concussion coming.”

Walter Myren, another member of the 369th who served in Company D, described the air-dropped nuclear device coded Shot Charlie.

“The predawn blast was something to see. Every color of the rainbow. We were as close as anybody. I remember Sen. Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota being there. They didn’t have any protection at all.”

Not all Fort Worden’s troops were shot at in Korea or bombed in Nevada.

Floyd Lowell Michelson was fortunate enough to spend much of his tour of duty in Greenland. Drafted during the Korean War, Michelson was a local boy who crewed tugs for Cotton Construction and Washington Tug and Barge. He was ideally suited to serve with the 369th at Fort Worden.

Following his tour of duty, he worked for Olympic Ferries on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route and later joined Washington State Ferries. When he died at  90, it was noted in his obituary that “during his two-year hitch with the Army, he signed up for an even longer commitment when he married Dolores Ross, Nov. 17, 1952.”

By the end of 1952, within a matter of weeks of the end of the Korean hostilities, most of the Fort Worden troops had returned from their overseas assignments. The soldiers were either reassigned or mustered out. This would be the Army post’s last hurrah.

Fort Worden spent its remaining months in caretaker status with fewer than 400 officers and enlisted personnel rattling around the 400-acre post. When Washington’s Sen. Henry Jackson confirmed its imminent closure, the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce sallied forth in an unsuccessful attempt to save it. Unable to convince the Army to remain, Fort Worden was given a decommissioning date. The local government and the Chamber of Commerce began the search to repurpose the property.

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