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Hingham

A modest museum bears testimony to key ammo depot during WWII

Ann and Ray Coughlan of Quincy visited the ammunition depot museum at Bare Cove Park in Hingham earlier this summer.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Ann and Ray Coughlan of Quincy visited the ammunition depot museum at Bare Cove Park in Hingham earlier this summer.

HINGHAM — Walk along the many winding paths of Bare Cove Park in Hingham, among the thickets of bushes and trees bordered by the placid Weymouth Back River, and you see few hints of the community of 2,400 that once stood here, complete with its own basketball team, swimming pool, phone exchange, and Howard Johnson’s restaurant.

Dig into the underbrush and you might find a corroded metal cylinder, the remains of an artillery shell from the years a naval ammunition depot sprawled over the site. Don’t worry, though, the greatest danger today is poison ivy.

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When US battleships pounded German pillboxes along the Normandy coast during World War II, there’s a good chance they loaded their guns with ammunition that came from the Hingham depot.

At its peak in 1945, the base included more than 100 buildings: barracks, houses, a PX, arms workshops, and scores of storage facilities — both above and below ground — packed with munitions and served by rail spurs. During the war, the Navy built an annex to the depot on land in Hingham, Cohasset, Norwell, and Scituate; much of that site is now Wompatuck State Park.

Today, all that remains of the Hingham depot are its paved and unpaved roads; rotting pier pilings and railroad ties; scattered fire hydrants; a few buildings; and towering poles that served as lightning rods to prevent Mother Nature from blowing up the base.

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One of the remaining buildings is by the dock on the Back River, along which barges once transported ammunition to and from naval ships anchored offshore. Instead of stacks of shipping records, the building now houses a museum founded and curated by the park’s part-time ranger, Scott McMillan, a 64-year-old retired Hingham firefighter whose father and maternal grandfather worked at the depot.

On display in glass cases are assorted artillery shells, dusty soda bottles, weathered telephones, gas masks, spark-proof tools, medical stitching, flare guns, and countless other relics that McMillan and others have scavenged since the base was decommissioned in 1962.

The museum walls are covered with historic photos, including one of the base’s jazz band; among the faces you’ll see is a young John Coltrane, who was briefly stationed in Hingham during World War II. Another depicts women assembling top-secret fuses. McMillan said that only recently had he noticed that one of the few men in that photo is his mother’s father, a mason who helped build the base and worked in various jobs there. McMillan’s family is also represented by his father’s Marine uniform. After fighting in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the elder McMillan served as a guard at the base. He met his future wife, Scott’s mother, at a USO dance in the Hingham building that later became the first Talbots shop.

The four-year-old museum — which bills itself as the Hingham Naval Ammunitions Depot Memorabilia Display at the Dock House — has also received donations from other wartime sites, such as a shell McMillan said was from the 1916 Battle of Verdun. A soldier had carved it with intricate designs during the nervous hours between assaults. Such shells have come to be known as trench art, McMillan said. His uncle made a lamp out of a shell engraved with tulips; under other circumstances, it could have sunk a patrol boat.

Once a month during the warmer seasons, McMillan holds an open house at the museum. The next is Saturday, Aug. 31, from 10 a.m. to noon.

As a child in the ’50s, McMillan was a friend of the base commander’s son. After being cleared at the main gate, “I’d ride my bicycle right up to the commander’s quarters and then we’d ride all around here,” he said.

The commander’s house today is part of the South Shore Conservatory. Other former base buildings have been converted into the South Shore Model Railway Club and the Bare Cove Fire Museum.

Driving through the park, McMillan pointed out swaths of open grassland that had once been magazines and grass-covered hillocks, reminiscent of Indian burial mounds, concealing underground storage bunkers.

Thickets of bushes and trees obscure remnants of concrete foundations. Some may be from filling houses like the one where McMillan’s uncle packed sacks of gunpowder. Each had to weigh precisely the same, as the number of bags used to fire a shell was a key factor in determining its range. Six bags could propel a 16-inch shell, weighing 2,700 pounds, some 20 miles, McMillan said. After a day’s work, his grandfather would be “totally orange from the powder,” McMillan recalled his uncle telling him.

The base was associated with at least one military tragedy. In May 1944, 17 sailors died in an explosion about 15 miles off the coast as they were dumping obsolete ammunition from the Hingham base. Last year, a granite monument inscribed with the names of the victims was installed just outside the depot museum. It was paid for by jazz musician J. B. Mills of Whitman, who was stationed at the base.

At the dedication, Mills noted that 11 of the victims were black sailors who had served with him. “I knew all the crew from the depot detail,” Mills told the Patriot Ledger of Quincy. “They were all my black brothers.”

After the base was closed, the Army Corps of Engineers swept the area for hazardous materials, and the Navy turned the 905-acre site over to the town. Attracted by the opportunity to recycle the steel, copper, and other materials left behind, a salvager paid Hingham for the right to clear the area. The park, which covers about half the depot site, opened in the 1970s as a wildlife sanctuary and recreation area. Families with strollers, cyclists, and couples young and old roam its many paths, while deer, coyote, and fox make their homes in the surrounding woods. Condo communities sit on much of the remaining depot site.

Hingham originally came to the military’s attention shortly after the Spanish-American War, when the Navy sought a more isolated place than Chelsea for its main East Coast ammo depot.

Starting in 1906, the Navy began buying property (some through eminent domain) in the crescent-shaped area bordered by Route 3A; Beal, West, and Fort Hill streets; and the Back River. A slice of land on the Weymouth side of the river was acquired as a buffer zone. At the time, the rolling hills, meadows, swamps, and woodlands were home mainly to herring fishermen, duck hunters, and farmers. Records at the museum show that the land went for about $100 an acre. The list of sellers — many from long-established Hingham families — reads like a street directory: Hersey, Baker, Bates, French, and Beal, to cite a few names.

Construction on the base began in 1911. During World War I, a training camp was added for sailors destined for the perilous Atlantic. Camp Hingham — which included 17 barracks and a hospital — was demolished in 1925, but the ammo depot remained.

During World War II, the base was beefed up to become the principal arsenal of the Atlantic fleet, as well as a storehouse for naval forces in the Pacific. But ammunition wasn’t its only business. The base was expanded to include the Naval Materials Handling Laboratory. While that may not sound as glamorous as assembling top-secret fuses, the Navy could not have sustained operations halfway around the world without advances in shipping techniques and equipment.

The team at the materials lab devised more efficient ways to pack, load, and transport everything from munitions to meat sauce, boots to binoculars. Among those playing a key role at the lab was a lieutenant from Maine and one-time Harvard track star, Norman L. Cahners. He demonstrated that cargo packed on pallets could be loaded and unloaded in half the time with a quarter the manpower. He patented a four-way pallet that allowed forklifts to approach from any direction and maneuver in tight spaces.

Cahners appears in one of the photos on the museum wall, standing among the students and staff of the depot’s “Ammunition Packaging School (Palletizing),” as the caption to the January 1944 photo reads.

To keep naval suppliers updated on best practices, Cahners launched a newsletter called The Palletizer. After the war, he paid the Navy the token fee of $1 to take the publication private. Renamed Modern Materials Handling, the magazine became the basis of a Boston-based publishing empire that by Cahners’s death in 1986 had grown to 90 titles, including Variety and Publishers Weekly.

Just another “who knew?” story out of this now bucolic corner of Hingham.

For more on Bare Cove Park, visit www.hingham-ma.gov/barecove.

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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