Eyes of the Fleet

Eyes of the Fleet

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday Ship History: Behold the Quonset Huts

Imagine, if you will, a family uprooted from the American state of Wyoming and transported across the world to live on a topical island. An island only about 15 years removed from invasion and counter invasion during World War II. Imagine then, the island of Guam in 1959.

Now, Guam is good but you still need shelter and there was a large build up of the big U.S. Air Force base at the island's north end and housing for new arrivals was being built. In the interim, newcomers got to live in ... the "boonies," in housing that was, well, often not quite up to modern standards.

And so those former cowboys managed to find shelter in temporary quarters near Harmon Village, just by what is now known as "Two Lovers Point," on the cliff above lovely Tumon Bay. And that temporary shelter was made out of corrugated steel. The corrugated building, we were informed by then Captain (USAF) Dad, was a "Quonset Hut" and we were having an adventure.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Quonset Huts, here's a little Navy background:
The quonset hut, whose semi-cylindrical form was copied from the British Nissen hut, by the end of the war differed considerably in construction from its prototype. The original quonset hut was framed with arch-rib members of steel, T sections, 2 inches by 2 inches by 1/4 inch. The hut was 16 feet by 36 feet in plan. The members were formed to a radius of 8 feet and covered with corrugated steel sheets, borne by wood purlins. The principal improvements over the Nissen type were an interior pressed wood lining, insulation, and a tongue-and-groove wood floor. Innumerable detail problems were encountered in the development of the original T-rib huts, principally because of the necessity for 48 different needs, such as galleys. shower-latrines, dental offices, isolation wards, and bakeries. Each type required individual drawings and layouts for the interior setup, and in many cases it was necessary to develop special interior equipment, such as special ovens and beds, to fit the quonset hut form. All huts were designed and detailed, using the original T- rib design.

The principal objection to this type of construction was that the curveline of the side walls began at the floor, resulting in a loss of effective width of the hut. A more suitable structural rib was found in the form of a welded strip steel member, 2 inches by 3 5/8 inches. This member--actually two light-weight channels welded back to back--contained a groove which held nails. The new rib was fabricated to provide a vertical sidewall, 4 feet high. This new hut was known as the quonset redesigned hut. Its floor plan was 16 feet by 36 feet. Standard-hut drawings were remade, for both structural and facility details. As the necessity arose for adapting the huts to use as dispensaries, latrines, hospitals, and other special facilities, the details were worked out and checked by actually erecting units in the field at the proving ground, to determine the practicability of the design for field use. In all, 86 approved interior layout plans were prepared for the small hut and the large 40-by-100-foot arch-rib warehouse.

To reduce shipping space and tonnage a redesign, incorporating lighter, corrugated, galvanized sheets for covering and half-inch plywood floors instead of one-inch tongue and groove, was effected. The new hut was larger, 20 feet by 48 feet, and lighter, using 3 ½ tons of steel instead of 4 tons. It occupied from 270 to 325 cubic feet of shipping space instead of 450 cubic feet. The arch-rib again became semi-circular.

Toward the end of 1943, continuations to each end of the hut added 4-foot overhangs to the 48-foot length. The addition was to prevent driving rains and sunlight from entering the hut through the end bulkheads. The total outside length of the hut became 56 feet, but the actual interior living space remained 48 feet. The official quonset hut dimension nomenclature then became 20-by-56. However, in the spring of 1945, it was determined that the 4-foot overhangs on the huts used in northern or temperate climates were unnecessary, and they were eliminated. In order to standardize the nomenclature for both the northern and the tropical type the dimension nomenclature was changed back to 20-by-48. This. of course, was based on interior, living dimensions; the exterior dimensions of the tropical hut remained at 20-by-56. Throughout this war history, with few exceptions, when quonsets are referred to they are of the 20-by-48-foot living-space size.

As finally developed, the quonset hut required less shipping space than did tents with wood floors and frames, when equal numbers of men were to be accommodated.

Originally, all huts had unpainted galvanized exteriors. To reduce the chance of enemy observation from the air, an olive-drab camouflage paint was applied at the factory. After 1942 the factory service was extended to include packaging for overseas shipment. Before then, some plate bending, wood fabrication. and all packaging took place at Davisville.

The number of huts produced or procured by the Navy were as followed:

T-rib quonset 8,200
Quonset redesigned 25,000
Quonset 20-by-48 and 20-by-56 120,000
Total 153,200

Larger warehouse structures also were developed for Navy advance- base use. The first were 40-by-100-foot structures with vertical sides. They used 20 tons of steel and about 650 cubic feet of shipping space. About 300 of these were procured. They were superseded by a quonset-type warehouse of the same floor plan. The steel weight was 12 ½ tons, and the shipping volume was 350 cubic feet. If a concrete floor was required, 600 additional cubic feet of shipping space was required for portland cement. In all, 11,800 such warehouses were procured. For large advance base supply functions, multiple arch-unit warehouses were developed from the 40-by-100-foot warehouses, to furnish greater storage area under single roofs.
More history of these structures here from the Seabee Museum:
Even before the formation of the Seabees in 1942, the US Military was aware that war was imminent. And to fight that war they would need a way to quickly house people and protect materiel at far-flung bases. The building needed to be inexpensive, lightweight, and portable so it could be shipped anywhere and put up quickly using hand tools.

The British had developed a light prefab structure called a Nissen Hut during WW-I. In early 1941, the US Military looked at the Nissen hut, but felt the design could be improved.

At this time at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, a new Navy base was nearing completion. Two construction companies, George A. Fuller and Company and Merritt-Chapman had been hired to build the base. In March 1941 the Military asked Peter Dejongh and Otto Brandenberger of George A. Fuller Company to design and produce a hut to US specification. And, do it within two months!

Dejongh and Brandenberger adapted the British design using corrugated steel and semi-circular steel arched ribs. The Anderson Sheet Metal Company of Providence, RI solved the technical problem of bending the corrugated sheets into a usable form. These were attached with nuts and bolts. The two ends were covered with plywood, which had doors and windows. Major improvements over the Nissan Hut were an interior Masonite (pressed wood) lining, insulation, and a one-inch tongue-in-groove plywood floor on a raised metal framework.
When the war ended, Quonset Huts were too good a resource to throw away. So the military sold them to civilians for about a thousand dollars each. They made serviceable single-family homes. Universities made them into student housing and returning veterans occupied Quonset huts by choice. Robert Winton even wrote play about them titled Tents of Tin.

Once in a while, a really good design surfaces -- robust, simple, and enduring. The DC-3, the Jeep, and the Quonset hut are all examples of good design. Many are still standing throughout the United States, primarily as commercial buildings.

Yep, I got to live in a classic design! One studied by engineers for its practical (note that there seems to be more than a little "sharing" of common phrasing) appeal:
Drive your streets today and you'll see them here and there. Much more than relics of war, they're icons of a day in our history -- icons that spread all the way from North Africa to the Aleutian Islands. And now, a new memorial museum for war correspondent Ernie Pyle has just been built of Quonset huts. Once in a while, a really good design surfaces -- robust, simple, and enduring. The DC-3, the Jeep, and the Quonset hut are all examples of the clear thinking that was needed to keep us out of serious trouble, back in the 1940s.
See also here.

And practical? Well, that was the whole point, wasn't it? As the war in the Pacific moved toward Japan, the support bases could have buildings that sheltered offices, doctors, and personnel. Massive warehouses could be assembled and vital supplies stored for use.

The Quonset Hut could be used in all climates, from Guam to Alaska. And they did their humble job well. Did they win the war? Probably not all by themselves, but they did help.

And after the fighting, they kept on serving - sometimes as housing, sometimes as offices on piers or in remote locations where it would be too hard to build any other type of shelter. Even working with "atomic energy".

When the troops came home and there was a severe housing shortage in places like Los Angeles, well, there were all those Quonset Huts, and Rodger Young Village:
Built on the site of Griffith Park Aerodrome, in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, the Village consisted of 750 Quonset huts, temporary buildings made of corrugated steel, which were intended to house 1,500 familes. At peak residence, over 5,000 persons lived there.

Built in approximately two months (and over the objections of the Griffith family, who had donated the park to the city), the Village was dedicated on 27 April 1946 and closed in the mid-1950s. The Quonset camp met a desperate need for living space. Many thousands of Californians had left the area for military duty. When these men and women came back from the war, they found that the housing had been taken by the thousands who had come to work in plants producing warplanes, trucks and other vital materiel.

As the veterans were discharged from the service, they found themselves with no place to live. Rodger Young Village, named for Private Rodger Young, was one of several such projects under the control of the Los Angeles City Housing Authority. Veterans and their families were able to rent living space at reasonable rates, while waiting for the post-war housing "boom" to counter the post-war housing "crunch." Other veterans' housing projects used military barracks and trailers, as did a settlement in Burbank which provided travel trailers to house some of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who had been taken from their Southern California homes and sent to internment camps in other parts of the country.
Nearly all residents were young families with children (including many war brides). Each family had one half of a Quonset hut, built on concrete slab floors. Their living space consisted of two bedrooms, a bath, kitchen and den. The few unmarried residents, and some married couples without children, had a bedroom to themselves but shared the remaining family area.

"RYV," as it was known, had a market, hardware store, milk and diaper delivery, drug store, theater and other amenities commonly found in small towns, and children enjoyed the adjacent Griffith Park (though they perhaps did not enjoy the RYV elementary school quite so much) and climbing the tower which still held the airport beacon. The Helms Bakery trucks and Fuller Brush salesmen made the rounds, as they did in the other neighborhoods in the area. Residents planted lawns and gardens, and were encouraged to make their surroundings as homelike as possible.

Few families had telephones, relying instead on phone booths located about 100 feet apart. When a phone call would come, whoever was closest at the moment would answer (even someone walking through from another part of RYV), while the neighborhood children would run to see who the call was for, then pass the word to that person.

Rodger Young Village was, for a time, the most diverse community in Southern California, as veterans of all races and all branches of the military lived there. This caused problems in some nearby restaurants, which were practicing de facto racial segregation, as next-hut neighbors went to dine together. The influence of RYV residents helped end these practices in a number of establishments.
College campuses sprouted Quonset Huts to, among other things, house GI Bill students and as temporary classrooms. . Photo caption:
Students walking through snow past uninsulated quonset huts that served as temporary classrooms at North Carolina State College after World War II. - 1948 February

Heck, the old Q-hut has even had museum exhibition devoted to it, as seen here, where photos of the various types of huts can be viewed (and by all means, visit the multimedia portion of the site - the "exploding view" of a redesigned Q Hut is well worth a look). Books have been written, including Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age, which is tied to the Anchorage Museum exhibit. Other sites of interest include this collection of photographs of Quonset Huts in the modern world, some of them still in use...churches, movie theaters, warehouses and ...homes.

A salute to the Quonset Hut and the men behind it.

1 comment:

  1. Great article about the ever fascinating Q-hut. I didn't realize they were used so much in college campuses until reading this. Thanks!