HAWTHORNE – Outside the Macedonia Baptist Church, Vicki Conklin wiped tears from her eyes as she tried to put the town’s heartache into words.
“You could feel the overwhelming grief, the palpable grief,” she said Saturday a few days after seven members of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force were killed when a mortar shell accidentally exploded in its firing tube at the Hawthorne Army Depot. Seven others were injured in the explosion on March 18 outside the town that proudly calls itself “America’s Patriotic Home.” “It was very emotional for everyone in the town. No matter who you met, they already had their own tears. We had a memorial service at the park, and a lot of us stood and silently prayed. A lot of us got together in our churches and prayed for the survivors and their families.”
Conklin, 57, is like a lot of locals. She was born not far from Walker Lake. Her dad, Harvey Hursh, was a Seabee who worked at what was the military installation that was then known as the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot. And just about everyone you would meet had a connection with the military.
Although Hawthorne’s roots reach back to 1880, it took an explosion in 1926 at a naval munitions depot in Lake Denmark, N.J., to put it on the map as a safe alternative site to store massive stockpiles of war ordnance. The military presence has defined the town in the decades since the September 1930 opening of the munitions depot.
Last week’s tragedy returned Hawthorne to the national headlines and provided a painful reminder of the dangers inherent in military service. Locals, however, needed reminding.
Conklin noted that her hometown has suffered its share of losses in recent years. Hawthorne resident Army Sgt. Kenneth Bostic was killed Oct. 30, 2006, in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A banner proclaiming, “Welcome home Sgt. Tim Hall” still waves outside Joe’s Tavern for the Army veteran who suffered devastating injuries in Afghanistan. Halls legs were blown off in an explosion, and the town rallied to help make his home disabled accessible.
Those Marines killed last week were strangers with distant hometowns, but the Hawthorne residents still consider them local boys. And they feel the loss.
The marquee at the Hawthorne Convention Center, which serves as something of a community billboard, thanks the Marines and first responders in bold letters. Down the street, the town’s Veteran’s Memorial Park was crowded the evening of the explosion with grieving townsfolk who take such pride in their military support role. The military is such a welcome presence in this community that the elementary school’s mascot is a rocket.
“All of our families have had the military in their background, and our children still go into the military from here,” Conklin said, emotion filling her voice. “So when this happened out here, we knew it was something bad. You hear all these sirens going out of town. It tells you something went wrong in the military because nobody lives out there.”
At the Mineral County Museum, assistant director Sue Silver has lived in Hawthorne just seven years but has written four books on the area.
In the fourth volume of her history, she explains that the depot south of Walker Lake was selected by navy engineers because of it was located far from a densely populated area, but only a few hours’ drive from the Pacific coast. Hawthorne was selected over several other locations in the West, and in 1927 the Los Angeles Times trumpeted the development under the headline, “Gigantic Naval Arsenal.” By May 1928, the deal was done, and by 1930 the Hawthorne facility was open and operating.
It has been a defining element of the town ever since.
“The town bands together,” Silver said. “It’s the one thing Hawthorne always seems to have done in times of crisis. We’re all we have, and we turn to one another.”
From candlelight vigils to fundraisers and countless prayers, residents of this proud and patriotic town feel the loss and, as ever, remain ready to rally for their troops.