PHOTOS PUBLISHED with this story are from The Dalles Armory’s archive.
From outward appearance, the 1950s-era armory in The Dalles isn’t very impressive — a motor vehicle storage barn and administrative offices.
“In the 1950s, there was a law that said states would build armories — the federal government could build other facilities but not armories,” said Warren Aney, who wrote a history of The Dalles National Guard Unit and the Armory. Aney was a commander at The Dalles armory for a few months during 1962. “So what they did in a number of units in Oregon and elsewhere in the country, is they built a maintenance building for equipment storage and tacked on office space.”
So Wasco County provided the 1.3-acre parcel of land where the armory now sits and the bare-bones concrete structure was finished in 1953 and occupied by the National Guard in 1955.
No, the impressive thing isn’t the armory itself, it’s the hundreds of citizen soldiers who passed through its doors during its 61-year history.
Sgt. Alex Porter spent more than 28 years in the Armory, and was part of Alpha Company that went to Iraq with the 3rd Battalion 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in 2004.
“You don’t do that much time without getting attached, even though it was old when I got there and it stayed old.
Porter, a Hood River native who knew both the commanding officer and the first sergeant, enlisted in June 1983 right out of high school as a Private E1.
“They invited me to go to drill one time so I went to Gowan Field, Idaho, and shot a bunch of machine guns,” Porter said. “It was definitely the machine guns that drew me in.” When the unit moved to armored cavalry, Porter added Bradley fighting vehicles other big machinery to the attraction.
“I’ve been through five different transitions, either different equipment to train on or new, upgraded equipment,” he said. “I don’t believe anybody else has gone through five transitions and stuck it out. I’ve had great instructors over my career, and hopefully I’ve passed that along to the soldiers beneath me.”
Porter got to know the building and its idiosyncrasies well during his decades there.
“One hundred percent, hands down, that is definitely an occupied building,” he said. “We had an Ernie doll one of the guys tied up with a hangman’s noose. It hung in the drill floor of the armory for over 10 years. Just out of the blue, it would scream out
‘I feel great!’ You know good and well those batteries were dead, but we didn’t have to touch it.”
He and other soldiers he has known say the military tradition of watching out for their brothers is eternal. “The soldiers that have gone by who were in the armory — their spirits are watching over us. I’ve heard a lot of soldIer say they’ve heard voices and saw people in that building over the years. I’ve spent the night in that building many, many times and it’s a true statement. I believe.”
The Dalles armory saw serious business, too.
“I was in the building when the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh was there, when they brought the whole unit in to activate on those guys,” Porter said. “They brought us in to actually defend the compound, so they gave us riot control training and a bunch of batons. But we never actually went down. They shut the compound down after we had four days of training.”
That was right after the poisonings that sickened a number of local officials and quite a few members of the public.
Porter had been in the National Guard for 20 years before he saw active war duty.
“It’s hard to believe because today your don’t see any kids that don’t have a combat patch on their uniform, yet I did almost 20 years of service and never did have a combat patch,” he said. Porter earned his during the 2004 deployment to Iraq.
Though the old armory isn’t much of a showpiece, Porter helped make it shine, hanging old troop photos on the wall and contributing to the marksmanship awards that hang there.
“Even if it was a turd, it was a polished turd,” he said. “We took care of that building pretty well.”
Former Mayor Les Cochenour was a commander of the armory in the 1970s.
“I spent a lot of years there and I am not sad to see it go,” said Les Cochenour, former armory commander and former The Dalles mayor. “I’m glad to see it go because the new facility is going to be so nice. It’s going to be better for the community and for the guys serving in the Guard now and for the future guys who come along.”
Cochenour’s association with the armory was a long one. He joined the Guard when he was just 18, a Private E1. “There were three other guys and we got together — we had just graduated from high school and we didn’t know what we wanted to do,” he said.
They all enlisted, and took basic training at Fort Ord, Calif. Since the unit was a combat engineering company, they also traveled to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to learn how to build different varieties of bridges and how to demolish them and other structures using explosives.
While the company never deployed to overseas theaters of war during Cochenour’s decades in the Guard, its skills were employed within the community.
“In 1964, we fought the flood for seven and a half or eight days,” Cochenour said.
The infamous Columbus Day Storm left The Dalles and other parts of Wasco County cut off from the rest of the state by flood waters. Sand bags and gravel were flown into the airport in Dallesport.
“We did several rescue missions during that time,” Cochenour said. “A train was stranded in Roosevelt and buses at Biggs Junction.”
They also did more mundane work around the community like blowing up boulders blocking roads in the national forest and demolishing decommissioned fire watch towers.
Cochenour followed Van Cleave as commander from 1970 to 1974. Cochenour served 21 years in the National Guard, then 10 in the Army reserve.
“Once you get an officer’s commission, you never lose that commission until you are 65 years of age,” he said, “so I have 42 years in the service.”
Cochenour says he misses the military and, in particular, the camaraderie.
“Everybody looks out for everybody in the military,” he said. “If you’ve watched some of the movies like ‘Lone Survivor’, you watch each other’s back. That’s what happens in all military units.”
Cochenour has continued to watch local National Guard soldiers’ backs, serving as the liaison for Employer Support for Guard and Reserve.
Sgt. Ben Hall has been at the armory since November 2011, as the sergeant in charge of day-to-day operations, setting up drills planning annual training, deployment and preparedness.
After returning from the 2010 deployment to Iraq, Hall and his men have been pretty much in caretaker mode with the knowledge that the new Fort Dalles Readiness Center will be opening soon. They will be involved in the move to the location, and had input into the details of the new location.
“We’re definitely looking forward to moving,” he said. Hall said he isn’t feeling much nostalgia for the old building, since the focus has been on looking ahead to the new one.
Most of the fixtures at the old armory won’t be going to the new location, but the two Bradley fighting vehicles, the Humvee and the five-ton truck, all of the company’s fighting vehicles stored on site, will be moved with a bit of pageantry, since the city will have to close the streets for the move.
No doubt, the boxes of photos and memorabilia of the many citizen-soldiers who have passed through the doors will be moved to the new location to help soldiers to come remember that legacy.
The Readiness Center will get new office equipment and the old equipment will be shipped to older armories, where needed.
“They’re saying this is going to be the best armory anywhere,” he said. “It’s going to be really nice.”
The dedication of the new armory is April 17.