There is a small town in southeastern Oklahoma where people work in a vast factory unlike any other factory in the United States. The people of McAlester are so good at what they do, and have been doing it for so long, that they have 100% market share in the product they build. And they build an important product — one that is central to America's security.
What these men and women build are bombs — the bombs that drove Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait during the Gulf War, the bombs that have pounded Afghanistan. Many of the 850 people at the "ammunition plant," as the one-of-a-kind place is modestly called, are the second or third generation to do this work. For them, bombs are the family business.
To the degree that it's possible to generalize about hundreds of people doing a certain kind of job, America's bomb makers are clear-eyed and sensible about their work. Making bombs is too sweaty and too demanding to be romantic. It is too deadly to allow much daydreaming. It is too vivid to inspire heated philosophizing about foreign-policy goals or America's place in the world. And making bombs is, frankly, too serious to be possible without laughing. Aaron Kilburn is a production-line worker who has been at the plant for 24 years. He is the David Letterman of the bomb lines, always ready with a groaner. "That guy? He's new. His job is using a hammer to test for duds!" Ba-da-boom. "If you don't have a sense of humor, you're in trouble," says Kilburn. "Everything we've got out here will kill you, maim you. We're making bombs!"
It's one thing to see, on the television in your living room, the destruction that a single 2,000-pound bomb can do. It's another to stand in a room with an open-topped kettle filled with explosive about to be poured into 10 such bombs. It's something else entirely to come to work in a factory surrounded by dozens of live and soon-to-be-live 2,000-pound bombs, each 8 feet tall. If something were to go wrong, you wouldn't be able to run fast enough. You'd also never know what hit you.
The bombs come from McAlester Army Ammunition Plant (MCAAP), a vast, somewhat dilapidated facility six miles south of the town of McAlester. MCAAP is the source of nearly every nonnuclear bomb that the United States now uses. Although MCAAP is not a secret facility — it shows up on road maps and has a public Web site — it is a closed facility, run by the Army, its workers civilian employees of the Army. Earlier this year, Fast Company was given unprecedented access to the people who work at MCAAP and to the plant's production and storage areas.
The people who make America's bombs do so not only with a tireless steadiness, but also in utter anonymity. A sign on U.S. Highway 69 says simply, "Army Ammunition Plant." A billboard in McAlester salutes the town's prison rodeo and its Italian festival ("Home of cowboys and Italians") but makes no mention of the bomb factory that underpins its economy. No defense secretary has ever been to MCAAP; no president has come to have lunch in the break rooms and thank the men and women who make the tools that give a commander-in-chief his power. It's fine to have aircraft carriers and a vast, agile fleet of fighters and bombers. But an F-18, a B-52, even a B-2 is worthless without the products of McAlester in its belly or under its wings.
The production of bombs turns out to be an arresting mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary — of disciplined, sometimes mundane work and unusual risk shouldered every day. The bombs are made in factories that have changed little since their construction in 1943, and a surprising amount of the labor is still done by hand. The people at MCAAP make products that must be perfect, but that they hope are never used. The emotions of bomb making are magnified during wartime, when the consequences of MCAAP's output are breaking news.
Terry Moore, like many of the people at the plant, has work outside MCAAP. For most, it's on a cattle ranch or a farm. Moore is pastor of Crowder Baptist Church. An ordained minister working at a bomb factory. "It sounds like a contradiction," Moore says. "But we need a strong defense. This helps maintain the peace. Jesus said to turn the other cheek — knowing what you have in your arsenal to keep 'em at bay."
Bomb Squad (I)
Larry Lame, 54, a Vietnam War veteran, worked for a number of years in production at MCAAP and is now an accountant there. His father, Sammie Lame, died in the last fatal explosion at MCAAP, on January 25, 1971, at the age of 46.
"My father was killed on a Monday. There were six guys in the building that night. Three were working, three were in the break room. A guy with a forklift had two pallets of old 20-mm ammunition. It was real old stuff, black powder back from Vietnam. It went off. It blew the roof off the building. The three who were working were killed. The three in the break room survived. They never did tell me why it blew up."
From the outside, the factory buildings where the big bombs get made — MCAAP's so-called A-line — don't give away many clues about their function. In fact, the buildings look desolate. The only hint that something unusual might be going on inside them is that parts of the buildings are buttressed with carefully positioned mounds of dirt rising two stories, and long slides run down these berms from the buildings to ground level.
The slides are kind of an inside joke at MCAAP. If you need the evacuation slide, good luck getting to it. And if you did manage to get to the bottom in one piece, as one employee said with a laugh, "it would just give your body parts a head start" — on the way to kingdom come.
Billy Don Cloud is a supervisor in the building that is at the center of the bomb-making process — the place where gray PBX explosive is poured into steel bomb casings. Cloud has been at the plant for 22 years. "I started here when I was 28 years old," he says. "I came from the oil fields. Is it hard work? Yessir, it is. And dangerous. But you just don't think about it. You block it out — like if you worked at a grocery store, handling groceries every day."
Just inside the building, Cloud and his group are wrangling a big green kettle the size of a hot tub into position. The group of eight look more like bakers than bomb makers. Everyone who works production at the plant wears white coveralls and a brimless white cap. The coveralls are designed to reduce the possibility of static electricity and are laundered in flame retardant. The plant-supplied clothing also protects street clothes from the ingredients of bomb making: paint, tar, and the gooey explosive itself, which spatters around during filling operations.
"Don't get any of the powder on your clothes," says Terry Moore. "You won't ever get it out."
The comparison to baking is not too far off. The enormous kettle, delivered from a mixing building, contains more than two tons of warm PBX, plastic-bonded explosive that is relatively stable and easy to handle. It's the dough used to make bombs; when filled, they will go to a hot room where they will cure for 48 hours. Cloud uses a small motorized cart to move the kettle down the tracks to the filling area. As the kettle rolls along, the wheels set off the occasional pop — tiny flecks of PBX left on the metal tracks, even after clean-up, pop off when squeezed between the wheels and track under heavy pressure. The quantity of PBX in the kettle is enough to flatten this building, as well as the one up the line where bomb casings are prepped — and the one down the line where finished bombs are touched up, inspected, and loaded onto rail cars.
Moore hops up on the moving kettle and with a gloved hand reaches in and scoops up a fistful of PBX. It's a good batch, one that will flow smoothly and quickly. The PBX looks like wet, gray clay. Moore, who has been at the plant for six years, says that the work did make him nervous when he first started. "You look around and wonder, How much explosive is in this one building? You worry."
A grinning Billy Don Cloud cuts in, "That's why we got a preacher!"
"They do try to spread us out," says Moore.
A 2,000-pound bomb does not contain 2,000 pounds of explosive. The prepped bomb bodies themselves weigh 1,500 pounds apiece. Their destructive force, in fact, comes in part from the hundreds of pounds of metal fragments that they generate. MCAAP — which also makes all sizes of bombs filled with concrete for practice — uses a clear designation to ensure that people know what's what. The noses of live bombs are circled by three bright-yellow stripes.
Once the kettle of PBX has made its way to the filling room, the process moves along with businesslike briskness. Except for lifting, everything is done by hand; even at this critical stage, nothing on the production line is automated. (The production buildings are also without air-conditioning. In the summer, inside temperatures reach 100 degrees or more, and everyone is still shrouded in coveralls.)
In the filling room, Cloud's team fastens a pressure lid on the kettle and hoists it up 15 feet. Someone hops onto an industrial tug, like the kind used to move airplanes at airport gates, and pulls a train of bomb bodies under the kettle. Movable platforms are put in place around the bombs, and a couple of people climb up to do the filling.
The kettle has fittings in its bottom; the PBX is squirted through hoses into the bomb casings like toothpaste. Filling bombs with explosive is not as scientific a process as one might imagine. Experienced fillers on the platform use a flashlight to monitor the flow, and they eyeball the right amount of PBX, clipping off the hoses between bombs. It's a bomb, after all: A little more or a little less explosive isn't going to change its quality. Excess PBX is scooped up by hand and set aside in a regular cardboard box for disposal. The filling transforms what is an ordinary steel pipe into a bomb. "It's kind of simple, really," says Cloud. "There's not as much to it as you might think."
Bomb Squad (II)
Donna Kindred, 53, a supervisor, has worked at the plant for 24 years. Many members of her family also have worked, or now work, at the plant: her father, her mother, her husband, her sister, one son, two uncles.
"This place has supported my whole family. I'm proud of the quality work we put out. I wouldn't want our soldiers to be over there and have a dud. I had a son in Saudi Arabia [during Operation Desert Storm]. Some of what he saw there had McAlester Army Ammunition Plant stenciled on it. He could say, 'My mom helped make that.' "
McAlester, Oklahoma is home to Oklahoma State Penitentiary — Oklahoma's maximum-security prison, which includes death row. The town also has a Boeing plant that produces parts for commercial aircraft, as well as a 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart. Despite the bombs, though, MCAAP is McAlester's employer of choice. For one thing, salaries in production start at $15 per hour — a figure that Boeing, Wal-Mart, and the prison can't touch. And MCAAP offers relative job security, some chance for advancement, as well as health insurance, retirement benefits, and government vacation and holidays. The plant runs a four-day week, with 10-hour-shifts, and that schedule appeals to people who work on farms. Residents often try for years to get hired. Says Kitty Corder, who works for the state employment-services office in town: "If I had 15 people here in the office and one job at the plant, they'd all be applying for it."
And yet there is something reserved about the relationship between town and plant. There is no sign at the town line that says, "Welcome to McAlester — we make the bombs that keep America free!" Not a single business makes even a glancing reference to the ammunition plant. There is no Boomtown Video, no Rocket City Hardware. The high-school team's nickname is the Buffs — short for the Buffaloes. The reserve is an unspoken acknowledgment that making bombs is serious, not something to be brandished about cavalierly.
McAlester Army Ammunition Plant was born in the frantic mobilization after Pearl Harbor. The entire place — nearly 3,000 buildings and hundreds of miles of railroad track and roadways — was constructed in 18 months and opened for production in May 1943. Its dimensions are vast. The perimeter fence encloses 44,800 acres — three times the size of Manhattan. The plant not only produces weapons for each service as the need arises, it also houses stockpiles of ammunition for all four services.
MCAAP is the Defense Department's largest storage facility. Its buildings have 6 million square feet of space, enough to make six large suburban shopping malls. That space is divided among 2,816 separate buildings. All but a handful of those buildings are ammunition magazines, or "igloos." You don't want too much explosive in a single igloo; you want igloos separated by enough open land that an explosion in one will not set off a chain reaction.
Just inside the plant's front gate is the first of MCAAP's many curiosities: a meandering stream called Peaceable Creek. The name did not come from some military official with high hopes that the bombs would remain in storage for good. The creek had its name long before the bombs arrived.
Alongside MCAAP's main road — even in the heavily trafficked areas — deer, turkey, and geese wander at all hours of the day. In more-remote areas, there are wild pigs, foxes, and bobcats. Just before the second security checkpoint is MCAAP's award-winning day-care facility. It has 41 kids, from 6 weeks old to 5 years old, and a waiting list. Underneath the center is a concrete bunker to protect the children — not from bombs, but from tornadoes. McAlester sits in tornado alley.
Most of the igloos are served by dirt roads and don't have electricity. Every magazine has restrictions of the quantity of bombs each can hold, in order to prevent chain-reaction explosions. To a person standing inside one of these igloos, those limits seem purely intellectual. The air is cool and smells musty. Two-thousand-pound bombs lie on their sides, two bombs to a metal rack, stacked four racks high, 36 rows deep. In a room about the size of a McDonald's, there are 313 bombs, each weighing a ton. In 1985, a car hit a truck carrying such bombs on Interstate 40, north of McAlester. The truck carried no fuses or detonators, but in the fire after the accident, three of the bombs partially exploded and burned. The crater they left in I-40 was 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep.
Bomb Squad (III)
Don Johnson, who works in storage, started at MCAAP in 1985. "Since 9-11, we've hired some new people. A guy was driving a forklift, and he accidentally knocked over a stack of bombs. I mean, he jumped off that forklift and took off running. I called after him, 'Hey, man! Where are you going? Come back here! You heard the bombs hit the ground, didn't you? If you heard 'em hit, you're gonna be fine. Come on back!' "
Last June, a man working in the finishing room for 2,000-pound bombs was crushed when a bomb fell on him. It was the first fatality at MCAAP in 30 years. In the aftermath of the accident, equipment in the finishing room — where finished bombs are taken from their carts and turned from vertical to horizontal — was automated. The new equipment has safety mechanisms that make it almost impossible to have a repeat of the June accident.
And yet, the new equipment simply sets the bombs — each weighing almost what a Honda Civic does — on a long metal table, where they are rolled along by hand, like so many logs, through the finishing process. The table has no ledges. The work rules just say that before anyone moves a bomb, there is supposed to be a person on each end, to maintain control.
America's bomb-making facility is surprisingly antiquated. As an example, even though parts of the process have been updated, computers are largely irrelevant. And the physical facility itself is beat-up in ways that go beyond the cosmetic. The concrete surfaces of loading docks where ammunition is loaded and unloaded are reduced to gravel in some places. Bathrooms in production buildings are filthy, not because of any lack of care by the employees, but because they're old.
"The buildings are rough," says Billy Don Cloud. "My ranch hands have better bathroom facilities than we do at the plant."
Many of the buildings appear not to have been painted in decades. Indeed, on the glassed-in bulletin boards of one break room in daily use, there are faded news clippings featuring a boxing match between Charley Fusari and Tony Pellone and a U.S. Open in which Lew Worsham beat Sam Snead. Both events happened in 1947. Says one employee: "In peacetime, they don't have the money to fix the plant. In wartime, they're not thinking about the bathrooms or the paint."
The plant's condition is partly a result of the way it is run: MCAAP is, in essence, a business. The base commanders — who typically rotate through on two-year stints — must run the entire facility from the revenue they generate. "Labor, fire protection, security: It all comes out of the revenue stream," says the current commander, Colonel Jyuji Hewitt. "If I choose to paint the bathrooms — well, it's a zero-sum game. What do we give up to do that?"
So far, the war on terrorism hasn't had a dramatic effect on MCAAP's operations. The military services keep stockpiles of weapons; MCAAP's thousands of magazines — most of which are full — represent additional supply. The plant, of course, was built for World War II, a multifront, multiyear global war. Right now, it runs at a fraction of its full capacity — one shift, four days a week, in only some of the factory buildings. MCAAP will soon add a second shift to replenish the munitions used in Afghanistan.
During World War II, the plant had almost four times the number of workers it does now. Indeed, given what MCAAP is in the business of making, its capacity is truly sobering. Says Dennis Tarron, MCAAP's chief of production planning: "I've seen old work orders from Vietnam where the Navy requested 1.25 million MK-82s [500-pound bombs]. We used to get orders for a half-million routinely."
During the height of the Vietnam War, MCAAP ran three shifts, around the clock, six days a week. "We produced 6,000 finished bombs in a 24-hour period," says Tarron. During the 1980s, says Tarron, that single day's Vietnam-era production "would have been a good load for a year."
MCAAP's staff lives with the plant's condition, much as it lives with the nature of the work itself. Melinda Cook is 25, and she has worked at the plant for three years. Her mother, both sets of grandparents, her great-grandparents, and even a parent of one of those great-grandparents — have all worked at MCAAP. She's fifth generation at the plant. "I try not to think about the fact that we make bombs. I don't really love the work, but I love the people out here," says Cook.
Ron Dugger, 59, has been working at the plant for 18 years. "Do I think about the bombs? I really don't. You concentrate on your area of the production line. You do the best at your job. When I see what's happening in Afghanistan on TV, I think, My Lord, I helped make that. It's kind of a mixed feeling. But I feel like we do make an important contribution. We furnish our military with what they need to fight."
Dugger, a supervisor, is leading a group refurbishing 2.75-inch rockets with fresh fuses. The last step of the process is to put each rocket into a cardboard shipping tube, slide a top on the tube, and tape the top in place. Oddly, a machine is used for that final step, to wrap the tape around the tube, sealing on the top. The young man operating that machine is careful to fold the end of the tape back on itself, leaving a little shirttail. "We put the tail on so they can peel the tape off easily," he says.
It's the kind of touch that reveals much about the attitude of MCAAP's bomb makers: They're not thinking about whom George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld is going to aim those 2.75-inch rockets at; they're thinking about men and women just like themselves whose very lives might depend on getting the rockets out of their tubes in one hell of a hurry.
Charles Fishman (email@example.com), a Fast Company senior editor, wrote most recently about five former employees of Enron (May 2002).
A version of this article appeared in the June 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.