The Fort Dix Ammunition Story
A true story about finding an abandoned cache of military
Ammo and tear gas in the woods at Fort Dix New Jersey.
Written 4/13/2011 rewritten 04/20/2016 unedited
By 1960, I had finally decided to join the Army Reserves in New Haven Connecticut. The reason I had joined the reserves was because I felt it would be better than getting drafted into the infantry. I was also hoping that by joining the reserves I might get to go to school to learn to become a mechanic on military vehicles, that was wishful thinking on my part as it didn’t turn out that way at all.
Joining up with the army reserves, required me to receive eight weeks of basic training at Fort Dix New Jersey and then after that we were to be assigned to go to some other military installation for six months of active duty. Then after that six months of active duty, you were required to attend two weeks of summer training every year until you were discharged.
When we started the eight weeks of basic training, the drill sergeant asked if anyone knew how to drive an army truck, several of us raised our hands and we were all given brooms and told to drive them all around the company area and pick up cigarette butts while we were doing it. I didn’t realize it at the time but that was the army’s way of identifying who was going to be a potential truck driver. All of us who raised our hands were eventually tested on a variety of military vehicles and issued a military driver’s license.
When we had completed our basic training, it was August of 1961, and we all anxiously waiting to hear where we were to be assigned. Because everything in the army is done in alphabetical order, I had to patiently wait for the letter “Y” to come up. Now there were more than 300 of us all waiting that day, and the only name that was after mine was a fellow named Zafino. So I just patiently waited and listened as all my friends were assigned to go to various exotic military installations around the world. When my name was finally called, I learned that I was assigned to report right back to good old Fort Dix New Jersey as a truck driver, what could be more exotic than that. There was a lot of back slapping, but we all realized that our eight weeks of friendship was over and we probably would never see each other again.
The Army Reserve unit that I had joined back in my home town of New Haven, was a heavy fuel tanker unit, which meant our mission was to be delivering gasoline to the battlefields. At first I thought driving a military fuel tanker truck was pretty cool thing to do, that was until I realized that it was like driving around in a bomb, one bullet or one spark and everything would be all over.
So when I returned to Fort Dix for my six months of active duty, I was happy to learn I was to be sent to a motor pool as a regular truck driver, I would not be a fuel tanker driver.
Now Fort Dix New Jersey was a very big place, it was almost like a city in itself and Company C, where I was staying, seemed to be filled with all kinds of guys just like me, who were involved with the everyday running of the base. My orders said I was to report to the main motor pool on Fort Dix, which I did.
The main motor pool was a very big facility with perhaps sixty to seventy various sizes of military vehicles, mostly military vehicles, ranging from ¼ ton jeeps to 2-1/2 ton cargo carriers. With a few 4 x 4 civilian stake body trucks mixed in. The motor pool itself was a large building with about eight bays to work on vehicles, and a large comfortable waiting room for the drivers to sit and wait for an assignment. Next to the waiting room was the office of the motorpool sergeant. He was a tall no nonsense looking black Staff Sergeant named Sergeant Kimbrough. His job was the everyday running of the motor pool and his performance was graded on how efficient he did his job. Running a motor pool was no joke, it was a lot of responsibility. He was graded on what in the army is called SOP, or Standard Operating Procedures. That meant all his trucks had to be up and running, looking good, and every nut, bolt and tool in the motor pool had to be in its exact place, with nothing missing and nothing extra allowed. Every tool in the motor pool had a special place to be hanging, and it better have been there.
Now staff sergeant Kimbrough was no marsh mellow he was a tough soldier that had probably seen active duty in Korea or somewhere worse, and he certainly didn’t want any blemishes on his record before retiring. So that meant he had to run the motor pool by using his wits, he had to run that motorpool by using every trick in the book and not to get caught doing it.
While our big motor pool did have five mechanics, interestingly enough, we were only allowed to do minor repairs on the trucks. When a truck had major problems it had to be sent to a higher echelon repair facility. But while it was gone, Sergeant Kimbrough lost the use of the vehicle and it went on his dead lined vehicle report, which looked bad on him as a motorpool manager. It was a lousy system, but it was the SOP, and the way the army operated.
After about a month, I felt I had gained Kimbrough’s trust because he started to teach me a few of his motorpool management tricks. I noticed it one day when I saw that Sergeant Kimbrough was acting nervous, we had six trucks that had major problems, and they were dead lined. The problem was that Kimbrough needed those trucks to be up and running. He knew that to fix the trucks ourselves was against the rules, and besides that, we didn’t have the parts needed to fix the trucks anyway.
Sergeant Kimbrough told me to take a 2-1/2 ton cargo truck and pick up a case of beer at the base PX and then to come back to the motor pool and pick him up. Kimbrough gave me some money and I did what he said, then we both then headed to the base salvage yard. The salvage yard was like a big junk yard on the base, it was where everything used or excess was put before being auctioned off by the government. While the stuff was mostly junk, it was still all government property. If anyone was caught removing any of it, it would be considered theft from the government. So here’s how it was done, once we were at the salvage yard, Kimbrough gave the manager a list of the parts and tools he needed and he gave him the case of beer. It was all very illegal but we left the salvage yard with a truck load of surplus parts and special tools, everything that we needed, and within two days Kimbrough had all his broken trucks running again. It appeared Kimbrough did this every month, and sometimes trading his excess junk yard parts with other motorpool managers. He told me that this was called scrounging, and everyone in the Army did it.
It was about two weeks later, when I was reporting for duty, I could see something was really wrong with Sergeant Kimbrough, he was sweating and looked really worried, so I asked him what was going on. He said he just received notice from a friend at headquarters, his friend said that there was going to be a surprise “IG” inspection of the motor pool, which meant the Inspector General of Fort Dix was coming. Kimbrough said, he thought someone had squealed on him that he had excess parts and tools in his motor pool, and if the inspection found that it was true they would want to know where the items came from and Kimbrough said that if he told them, both him and the salvage yard people could be court marshalled for theft. It could be the end of his military career and his retirement.
Sergeant Kimbrough said, “I need a very big favor from you, will you help me”, sure I said. So he told me to pick four other truck drivers, guys that I trusted, and after supper we should come back to the motor pool. He gave me the serial numbers of five 2-1/2 ton cargo trucks and said I was to have them filled with fuel. He was insistent on which trucks we were to take. So after supper we did just what he said. That evening, we backed the trucks up to the motorpool. That evening Sergeant Kimbrough had several of his other Staff Sergeant friends go through the whole motor pool with a fine tooth comb and pick out every illegal parts and tool, and load up the five cargo trucks, I was absolutely amazed at how much illegal stuff Kimbrough had collected, he was a hoarder, he even had three beat up extra desks. It was all stuff he had illegally taken from the salvage yard, or traded with his buddies for.
Sergeant Kimbrough said I should take the five trucks and find a good hiding place somewhere on Fort Dix and stay out of sight for at least three days. I asked him if the Inspector General would find the five trucks were missing, Kimbrough just winked at me, and I got the message, the five trucks were also excess illegal items that he had put them together illegally with parts from the salvage yard.
I had a map of Fort Dix and found there was an abandoned firing range in a closed off part of Fort Dix that was no longer being used, the area on the map was marked as an “Infantry training area”. So that’s right where I headed. It was my intention to park the trucks and hide there for at least two nights, I intended on using one partially filled truck to bring all the drivers to the mess hall to eat, and then the drivers would take turns while doing guard duty and sleeping in the trucks for a couple of days. The first night went like clockwork, but by the second day, I saw that everyone was getting bored, the guys were running out of jokes, stories and cigarettes, so some of them started wandering around in the woods.
Now the Infantry training area was a real strange place, there were fox holes dug everywhere and all kinds of different colorful metal markings nailed to the trees. The whole area we were in was set up like it was a simulated combat area.
Suddenly I heard one of the fellows running back to the trucks hollering, he was all excited, “You are not going to believe what I found”, he said, so I followed behind him deep into the woods, but running behind him wasn’t easy as the woods were thick with trees and there were infantry foxholes dug all over the place that you could trip and fall into. About a half mile into the woods, we came onto a large clearing, and there was a giant pile of wooden crates. The pile was like a pyramid and so big, I couldn’t see over it. I would guess the stacked wooden crate pile was about forty feet long and twenty five feet high, and they were old, and as I looked closer, they seemed to all be wooden ammo crates with rope handles on both ends. The crates had been there so long they were turning a gray color, and some were already starting to rot and fall apart. It was obvious that no one had touched this stuff for many years, we didn’t know what to make of it. So I lifted one wood crate, and purposely dropped it on its edge, it broke open and water proof sealed, cardboard boxes fell out of it. We opened the cardboard boxes and they were full of aluminum flare gun cartridges and they all looked like brand new. So then we started breaking open other crates and we found blank ammunition, red and green smoke bombs, tear gas, and hundreds of packages of M80 exploding trip wire kits.
The bigger wood crates, all had five sealed metal canisters in them, each canister was filled with bandoliers full of blank 30.06 caliber ammunition, ammo used in the M1 Garand rifle. My buddy, the soldier that had found the stash, went absolutely crazy He started breaking open all the watertight ammo containers and dumping the blank ammunition on the ground.
He said he was going to return with his car the next day, and fill it up with the waterproof metal bullet containers, he said they would make beautiful waterproof, tool boxes. And could easily be sold for five dollars each. I reminded him that we could all go to Leavenworth prison if they ever caught us with any of this stuff, he didn’t seem to care.
Once we went back to the trucks and told the other guys, about what we had found, every one of them made several trips back and forth, carrying back as many of the items as they could. It was all very exciting as I personally carried out smoke bombs, trip wires and tear gas canisters, we were all so fascinated by the stuff we soon forgot all about the serious trouble we could get into by taking it. By the end of the day, I had made several trips myself to the pile and I had also brought back two big wooden crates of the blank ammunition, which I had put in the back of my truck.
After resting a while, I wondered what in the world would I do with two huge crates of blank ammunition, as I didn’t own a rifle that it would fit, and even if I did, who the hell needed blank ammunition, so as all five of us were now all tired, worn out and sweating, we sat there discussing what the stuff could be used for, and the more we talked about it the more nervous I became about getting caught with it.
The next day we heard at the mess hall that the IG inspection at the motorpool was over and we could return with the trucks. But I was still concerned about our getting caught with all the ammunition, smoke bombs and teargas.
So as we were driving out of the woods, I saw there were several small, colorful metal triangles nailed to the trees, they were probably signs used for training the infantry years ago. My mind was now racing over one hundred miles an hour, I was sure one of the guys with me were going to blab about what we had found, and all I needed was for the Military Police to find me with the two crates of ammo in the truck. So I stopped my truck at the next tree that I saw had a small green triangle sign on it, and like a pirate burying a treasure I walked about ten paces into the woods, and there I found an old foxhole. I put the two wooden ammo crates into the hole and I covered it up with whatever dirt I was able to kick over it.
Once we were back at the motor pool, I still kept some of the smoke bombs, tear gas, trip wires and a hundred rounds of blank ammo, the blank ammo was still in their cloth bandoliers. The rest of the guys divided up all their stuff also. Then we all returned later with our duffle bags and put our stuff into it.
On my next furlough, I carefully filled my duffle bag with all the various items I had kept, I then hoisted it up on my shoulder and started my long trip home to Westville Connecticut. First I took a taxi to Camden New Jersey, and there I boarded a commercial bus to Penn Station, which was the New York City Bus Terminal. There I joined hundreds of other military guys that were coming and going. Everywhere I looked around me there were Military Police “MP’s” and Shore Police, SP’s”, as well as loads of New York City cops, I was hoping none of them would check my duffle bag which was full of smoke bombs, tear gas, flares, trip bombs, and blank ammo, it was amazing no one stopped me.
Once I was home, in Westville, and in the safety of my bedroom, I threw my duffle bag on my bed. It was only then that I noticed that you could clearly see the shape of the tear gas cans and the smoke grenades that were in the bottom of the bag. How I had made it so far with no one stopping me was nothing less than a miracle, I felt very lucky and I felt very stupid.
After showing all my local friends my loot, I started having pangs of guilt about bringing all this stuff home, So I went up to the attic of our two story house, and dumped everything down the hollow wooden walls. I could hear the stuff rattling its way down to the first floor, where I am sure they remain to this day.
It was several years later, in 1963, when I was already off active duty and back with my army reserve unit in New Haven, it was summer and I was getting ready to do my two weeks of summer training. That year our Company was supposed to do a convoy to Fort Eustis Virginia, and we would be staying overnight at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
We arrived at Fort Dix around 9:30 PM, and were assigned to an empty barrack to get some sleep. As we all sat on our bare mattress bunks talking, I mentioned the story about finding all the ammunition several years before. After all the guys heard my story, I felt that no one believed me, so then I told them where three years before I had buried two crates of blank ammo on a back road at the abandoned firing range.
Several of my fellow New Haven reservists were gun collectors, and they were really interested as to where the blank ammunition was. I told them it was too dangerous to go so far into the woods, where the big pile was, but we could possibly get to where I buried the two ammunition crates. A sergeant, asked me if I thought I could find the spot where I buried the ammo. I said I thought that I could find it, but it was already getting too late that night, and we needed to hit the road with the convoy at seven in the morning.
Thirty minutes later, the sergeant and two other fellows, shook me awake. “Let’s go”, they said, “We got a Jeep”. I quickly dressed and, we all piled into the Jeep. It was late and it was dark and I was really starting to worry about even finding the place in the woods. I was tired, and I had no map, there was only the moonlight and the jeeps headlights, and I hadn’t been to Fort Dix in more than three years. That’s when I started to worry, about what these guys would think about me, if I couldn’t find the spot, how, would I ever be able to face any of them again?
But luck was with me, as there was enough moonlight that evening, and I found the long abandoned road going into the woods where we had hidden the trucks.
We drove in very slowly so the Jeeps headlights would reflect on the green triangular sign that I hoped was still on the tree. You have no idea how happy I was when we found the tree it was the same one with the green triangle nailed to it. We stopped and I told the guys to go in ten paces and dig, it was just like we were looking for pirate treasure.
They were thrilled when they dug up the crates, and threw them into the jeep. No one in that reserve unit ever doubted anything I ever said after that. But that was my last summer training with the New Haven unit and I moved to Florida at the end of 1963.