African American Workers at the Naval Ammunition Depot in Hastings
What were the experiences of Black workers in Hastings, and what role did the African American community in Omaha play in these workers' lives?
The War Effort at Home
During World War II, the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot (NAD), located 150 miles west of Omaha, played a central role in the nation’s war effort. At the confluence of three railroads and two transcontinental highways and with a vast amount of open space—though land did have to be claimed under eminent domain and 200 buildings were moved—the area served as a nearly ideal location for a massive ammunition depot. It was one of the largest of its kind in the country and the only one the government intended to make permanent. Covering 75 square miles, construction of the depot continued throughout World War II. At its high point, the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot supplied 40 percent of the U.S. Navy’s ammunition and was reputedly on a German list of top-ten facilities to be destroyed in an attack on America. It stood among Nebraska's three army ammunition depots, including the Martin Bomber Plant, which constructed the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Before the war, Adams County, where Hastings is situated, was depopulating, with 40 percent unemployment in the depths of the Great Depression. Residents met the announcement of a $45 million ammunition depot with enthusiasm. However, while the depot would easily solve the twin problems of unemployment and population loss in the area, it would create new problems, at least in the eyes of long-time residents, including higher rents, unfamiliar newcomers, a shortage of services, a larger and more diverse population in a small and homogenous community, and a higher crime rate.
Life on the base usually consisted of work, work, and more work. At its peak capacity, the depot employed more than 10,000 workers: 2,000 military personnel, 6,700 civilian production workers, and 2,000 civilian construction workers. The changing racial makeup of employees began with hiring 100 Sioux and Chippewas for construction. After that, 400 Black sailors were brought to the depot at the end of 1942. African Americans were hired in construction and production, and Mexican Americans were also.
Eventually, 1,600 sailors, including many Black sailors, ages 18 to 25, were brought in from the Chicago/Great Lakes region. Because of racial segregation in the armed forces, Black sailors were not allowed on ships and so could only be sent to assignments on land, including places like the Hastings Ammunition Depot, where they worked in the Negro Ordnance Battalion. This would change following World War II, with President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948 establishing racial equality in the armed services, at least on paper.
Hastings offered Black soldiers and civilian workers few entertainment options in their free time. As a result, Black troops looked toward North Omaha when they wanted to relax and have fun and had to load into “cattle trucks” on Friday to travel for recreation. Emma Hart, a native of North Omaha, remembers the soldiers well. “I used to live down by the train station during World War II,” she said. “I could sit on my front porch and watch the soldiers coming off the train. One time my girlfriend, who had a lot more courage, came up and started talking to them.”
Eventually, separate recreation facilities were created for African Americans in the Hastings area. These included the Cabin in the Sky Café, the Apex Tavern, and Jamie’s Tamalie Café and Recreation Parlor. However, facilities located in town for racial minorities created great anxiety among the town’s White leaders. Eventually, an agreement was made between the mayor and the navy officers that no more than 150 Black sailors would be allowed in town at a time, they would have to remain on First Street, and they would be heavily patrolled.
Segregation also existed in housing. Those African Americans living on the naval base resided in separate barracks from their White counterparts. Efforts to segregate the town of Hastings were not as successful. Though whites tried to frame the issue as Black people deserving a community of their own in arguing for segregation, they failed in their efforts, and housing for African Americans was built in northwest and southeast Hastings next to white residential areas anyway. At the same time, there was class discrimination among whites, as those whites who lived in the town derided those whites living in trailer camps at the depot.
Although they resided in different cities, a new community formed between Blacks in both Hastings and North Omaha. While nearly 2,000 Blacks would live and work at Hastings during wartime, many had moved to Hastings only to work in the plant during the war. After World War II ended, many Blacks returned to North Omaha, bringing with them the Black men stationed at the NAD. This contributed to a new wave of Black migration and community growth in the city. Hastings, for its part, returned to a city that was roughly the same size if one assumed a proportional increase over time, rather than the wartime boom in population that occurred. It again became racially homogenous and dependent on agriculture.
This photograph shows African American enlisted men helping create ammunition at the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot. The largest ammunition depot in the nation was southwest of Hastings, Nebraska; 40 percent of the ammunition used in World War II was created there. The depot “manufactured and stored bombs, rockets, mines, 40-millimeter shells and six-inch shells” (NebraskaStudies.org). The War Department chose Hastings as the location for the $45 million facility because it was halfway between America’s West and East Coasts. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives.) For more information, visit NebraskaStudies.org.
“You know, after the war, I worked on the farm until I got enough saved up to quit farming, and I moved to Omaha, Nebraska. I got a job as a server at the Blackstone Hotel. Here, I am eating my lunch in the basement because that is where Blacks had to eat. From the basement, we could hear Fats Domino performing up on stage. This is the late ’40s now. Fats Domino could perform for those people, but he still had to eat in the basement. But I did get to meet Fats Domino.”
—Bennie Jones (Alabama native stationed at the Hastings munitions plant during WWII)
As the largest provider of ammunition for the navy during World War II, the Hastings ammunition plant brought a boom to the small city of Hastings. Hastings was one of many cities, including several in Nebraska, which experienced a wartime increase, as military branches established ammunition plants across the nation, many of which were located in rural communities. Its placement in a relatively isolated area was necessary because working with volatile munitions meant dangerous accidents, which sometimes disproportionately affected African American workers.
An article about an explosion at the depot from the Omaha World-Herald from January of 1944 says that three sailors from the Negro Ordnance Battalion were killed: Adolph Johnson from Indiana and Jessie C. Wilson and J. C. Miles from Louisiana. Another explosion in September of that year killed two Black sailors and one coast guardsman, presumably white because he was not identified as “Negro.” The worst accident was in April 1944, when 100,000 pounds of high explosive accidentally detonated, killing eight and injuring 35 people. It shook buildings in Lincoln, 100 miles away, and could be felt as far away as Concordia, Kansas, 125 miles away.
Included in Hastings’s boom were many African Americans who came for wartime jobs. African Americans were newly provided the opportunity for employment in the defense industry following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prohibition of racial discrimination in Executive Order 8802 (1941).
Unfamiliar and uneasy with the racial diversity that came with the incoming “outside” workers, the overwhelmingly white Hastings residents did not want to accommodate Blacks in their living and entertainment spaces. Blacks were resented and discriminated against not only because of race but also as newcomers who were blamed for creating a shortage of services, increasing rents, rising crime, heavy traffic, and more. Many Black workers and Black soldiers stationed at the plant would travel to Omaha, already home to a significant African American population and a vibrant Black culture. Hastings residents also established separate living and entertainment facilities for the Black and Native American workers.
Following the war, most Blacks moved from Hastings to other cities, including Omaha. The Hastings depot expanded for the war in Korea beginning in 1950, and the Hastings ammunition plant remained active until the 1960s, but many defense industries established permanent locations outside of Nebraska, and the depot was closed in 1966.
2010 MIHV Project
"Boarding Navy Bus to go to Work, U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, Hastings Nebraska", (Photo courtesy of The National Archives. Circa 1944.)
"I believe that history should always be studied, both to prevent bad things from happening again, and to help people better understand themselves and their community. Heck, maybe if we can really move forward based on the past, the GLBT civil rights movement won't take hundreds of years like the African American civil rights movement."
- Carl B.
"I do think this project is really important because most of these stories told by WWII veterans are not heard or even forgotten. I do think that these stories should be passed on or even recorded by people and told for generations."
- Izaac H.
"I walked in the room
I was so confused
I thought I wasn't prepared
But there was nothing to fret
I was all set
To make history
There was a mystery
Of the history
That I did not know
There were many things
That I hadn't seen
Or even heard of before
I did an interview
I never knew
About the Hastings Munition Plant
They had a band for entertainment
And Mason Prince played in it
He played loud and clean
I wish I could've seen
You know what I mean
Later in the day
Bennie Jones came to say
About how he was also in the plant
He would get a weekend pass
It was quite a blast"
- Angela S.
Miller, Walter L. U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot, Hastings, Nebraska, 1942–1966: A History Sketch [DVD]. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 2009.
Nebraskastudies.org. “Minority Experiences: African Americans.” The War: Nebraska Stories.
Russell, Beverly. “World War II Boomtown: Hastings and the Naval Ammunition Depot.” Nebraska History 76, nos. 2–3 (1995): 75–83.
Taylor, Quintard. “African American Men in the American West, 1528–1990.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 569 (2000): 102–119.
Compiled by: Angela S, Carl B, Izaac H, Colleen W, & Chris P.