Bunkers open on game lands
Town turned into chemical factory during WWII
WILLIAMSPORT — Alvira was a small farming town located at the southern end of Lycoming County and the western part of Union County, which is now partly state game lands and the Allenwood prison complex.
During World War II, the town was quickly and secretly demolished by the government’s War Department and used to create a smaller town for storage and chemical production for munition for the war, an operation that many Pennsylvania citizens and the population of Alvira were unaware of.
Stephen and Martha Huddy, authors of “Alvira and the Ordnance,” “The Land,” and producers of “Surrender! The Sudden Death of Alvira” a documentary, were curious about the land after noticing buildings in the area. They have been researching Alvira and the World War II secret chemical factory for more than 10 years.
After the bombings of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the government decided to put up chemical factories, much like the one created in Alvira, in 75 different locations to create TNT and store munitions.
“Once we finally decided to go to war, we had absolutely no supplies,” Stephen Huddy said. “There were no bombs, no TNT. The president was Franklin Roosevelt and it was his secretary of defense that said ‘Mr. President, we don’t have enough munitions to fight one day’s worth of war much less an entire war.'”
It took 11 months to take the small farm town and transform it into a highly-guarded, secret chemical factory, a government town complete with a hospital and a fire department.
Pennsylvania Ordnance Works began its operation with 150 metal igloos that held 250,000 pounds of TNT at any given time and created, at its prime, 780,000 pounds of TNT a day.
The operation took place in this new “city,” and the operators, both women and men, were kept out of the loop when it came to other operations going on around them.
“It was a top-secret project when it was initiated, no newspapers wrote about it,” Stephen Huddy said. “It was during the war and any facility that housed people to go to war or was in the process of producing materials for war were top secret areas. They were afraid of German spies, people infiltrating it and those who were sympathetic of the enemy.”
“The people who worked there were taken in by bus to a specific spot where they worked and that’s all they knew about,” Martha Huddy said. “They didn’t know what was going on in other spots. They only knew what was going on with their specific job. You weren’t allowed to discuss it with your neighbor.”
“It was on purpose, compartalization,” Stephen added.
“You went on this trail with the windows blacked out; you couldn’t say what was to the left or to the right, because you didn’t even know how large the place was,” Martha Huddy said.
When the couple interviewed citizens of Alvira for their documentary, their children were hearing the stories for the first time. The factory, the creations at the factory and other operations were kept from everyone, no matter if you were connected to the operation or not. Children of ordnance works employees often didn’t know their parents’ jobs.
Many of the women who worked for the ordnance works were chemists and had studied previously at Penn State University, Bucknell University and Dickinson College, which is now Lycoming College. While the men were at war, the women were testing the materials at the factory and storing them in the igloos with other women and men at the operation. They were very strong in math and chemistry, according to Stephen Huddy, and were recruited for their jobs.
“The women were a vital part of the operation,” he said.
The igloos, which can still be seen on the game lands today, were 44 feet in diameter and 24 feet high. They were increasingly ventilated with special fuzes and designed for accidental explosions or fires. The beehive design of the igloo was created in New York City specifically for the POW and started with thicker concrete at the base and was at 6 inches of concrete at the peak so if an explosion were to occur, it would explode vertically, not horizontally, not causing harm to other igloos in the area, according to the Huddys.
Today, on the state game lands in Allenwood, there are igloos still standing along Alvira Road and hidden within the lands. Some are still open while others are cemented shut. The igloos during the war were also camouflaged with vegetation and sod, so if visitors are in the area and are looking to take a peak at an open bunker from World War II, you might have to do some digging.
Within the POW operation, there were a total of 12 lines of TNT even though six were only operated at a time according to Stephen Huddy. He continued by saying at the end of the operation, they were only using three lines, causing the chemical factory to shut down the operation after only 11 months.
In New Mexico, the Manhattan Project was underway with creating the first ever atomic bomb to end the war and there wasn’t a need for the factory to continue to make and store munitions.
It took six months to tear down the chemical factory that produced the TNT and the operation kept the igloos standing which then became the Susquehanna Ordnance Depot. This operation, also kept under wraps, was used to store bombs, missiles and other munitions from Europe. The igloos however couldn’t store everything that was being shipped to the depot.
“The stuff coming back from war was too much to store in igloos, they were storing bombs, acid and TNT in outside pits in the weather,” Martha Huddy said.
“The contents of all of these was going to go into soil and it did,” Stephen added. “The land was never given back to the public for that reason. There was chemical damage done to the land with weapons sitting out for 10-12 years, just sitting outside.”
With 11 months of operation, there were no explosions, no deaths but overwhelming success of munition creation and secrecy within the war department, a piece of history that is unknown.
While the remains of munitions from World War II were shipped or stored, later the operation became what it is today, often a forgotten part of Pennsylvania state and U.S. history. Alvira, a lost town that later became a secret TNT plant for the government became a munitions storage unit and now is partly state game lands used for hunting and fishing and partly the Allenwood prison complex.
“It was a small part of U.S. history that had fallen through the cracks,” Stephen Huddy said.
Locals and citizens alike can visit the remains and the igloos from the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works and Susquehanna Ordnance Depot at 1787 Alvira Road in Allenwood.