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69th annual Armed Forces Day parade serves as homecoming for rural Nevada town

For military or nationally celebrated holidays, Armed Forces Day remains one of the least known or recognized.

Perhaps that’s because it sits in the shadow of Memorial Day, which occurs later in May.

However, in Hawthorne, Nevada — a town of about 3,200 on U.S. 95 two hours south of Reno — it’s the biggest holiday of the year.

Hawthorne hosted its 69th annual Armed Forces Day parade on May 18. Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Bandoni, fire emergency services chief, 152nd Airlift Wing, Nevada Air National Guard, served as the parade’s grand marshal.

“It was an honor to represent my hometown on Armed Forces Day,” Bandoni said. “I lived there from birth until I graduated high school in 1986. It was good to see old friends, both those who still reside in Hawthorne and many who come back once a year for Armed Forces Day.”

For this military town — home of the largest ammunitions depot in the world in the remote Nevada desert at the base of 11,285-foot Mt. Grant — Armed Forces Day reminds locals of the town’s more prosperous past.

A TOWN AND A HOLIDAY

Hawthorne was founded as a railroad distribution point for local mines in the 19th century, but entered it’s heyday in 1930 with the completion of the Naval Ammunitions Depot — the result of a massive explosion, a court inquiry and some politicking in Washington.

In 1926, an explosion at the naval depot in Lake Denmark, New Jersey killed 50 people and injured hundreds. A court inquiry into the explosion required Navy officials to explore options for a new site. The Navy focused on two locations: Herlong, California and Hawthorne, Nevada. In his argument for why the depot should be in Nevada, Sen. Tasker Oddie, R-Nev., a ranking member on the Naval Affairs Committee, said the upcoming construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco might interfere with fleet movement in time of national emergency.

“There’d probably be less fear if they knew that they had a tremendous backup for the fleet in the form of a new, well-established ammunition depot well behind the Sierra Nevada Mountains,” Oddie argued.

The argument convinced Sen. Hiram Johnson, R-Calif., and Nevada eventually became home to the world’s largest ammunitions depot about halfway between Reno and Tonopah.

With its ammunition stockpile, Hawthorne was an active town during World War II.

Hawthorne celebrated Navy Days before and during the war, but this changed in 1947 when Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, “unifying the four branches of the military” under the Secretary of Defense.

In 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced his intention to drop the individual celebrations for each branch of the military and create a celebration for all branches. In February of 1950, Truman proclaimed May 20, 1950 as the first Armed Forces Day.

“The earlier parades started in ‘47, ‘48, ‘49, and those were Navy Days,” said Harold Fuller, who has lived in Hawthorne since the 1940s. “In 1950, we had our first Armed Forces Day parade. That was the first year Bill Harrah brought all his cars down for the parade. It was quite a big deal.”

Fuller served as the deputy grand marshal in this year’s parade.

“I was honored,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about being considered for it at all. Surprised the socks off me. I really felt honored.”

REMEMBERING THE PAST

Hawthorne no longer bustles like it did from its opening in 1930 to the 1970s.

In 1965, the “Reno Evening Gazette” reported the workforce strength at 1,170. The U.S. Army took command of the depot in 1977. Only one uniformed officer remains today, overseeing contract workers at the depot.

“We refer to ourselves as America’s Patriotic Home,” said Heidi Bunch, who runs the town’s local newspaper, the “Mineral County Independent News,” almost exclusively by herself. “When you have generation after generation who work at the depot, the depot’s main job is to support the warfighters. Doesn’t matter if warfighter is here or wherever. Our main concern is to supporting them to come home safe.”

Bunch met her husband, Dennis, when they were both students in Mineral County High School. After they moved to Wyoming for a few years, they returned to Hawthorne about 16 years ago. They both work for the nonprofit, Mineral County Search and Rescue, an arm of the sheriff’s office there, as well as members on the Armed Forces Day parade board.

For Hawthorne, the parade is equally as much a homecoming as it is a celebration of the branches of the armed forces. Several high school reunion celebrations served as entrants in the parade. The parade included 55 entrants and about 2,800 in attendance this year, Bunch said.

Beginning Friday evening, the usually sleepy town along the Reno-Las Vegas route livens with vendors, games and a party along Main Street. At night, a firework show begins on the rooftop of the historic El Capitan Hotel and Casino.

For a brief moment, Hawthorne doubles in size and familiar faces return. For Bunch, it’s a welcome sight for a town she admits is on the decline.

“Don’t know if we will stay in Hawthorne the rest of our lives,” Bunch said. “We will stay in Hawthorne as long as it is alive.”

Date Taken: 05.22.2019
Date Posted: 05.22.2019 16:26
Story ID: 323559
Location: HAWTHORNE ARMY DEPOT, NV, US 

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