No Slack

November, 2004. Photos scanned from 35mm prints.

In late 2004, we decided to make a daring run at the old Detroit Artillery Armory...which in itself put us a little on edge, because it was on the north side of 8 Mile Road, meaning that it was actually not located in Detroit, but in Oakland County where the local police actually had the means and the will to enforce trespassing laws. Although it is now demolished, the armory sat at 15000 W. 8 Mile Road, between Greenfield and Hubbell, across from Northland Mall.

Oakland County is the monied bastion of Detroit's suburbia, where local government and law enforcement has traditionally been very hard-nosed and defensive, especially against "invaders" from below 8 Mile. The split that formed between those who left Detroit for these northern 'burbs seems to be much deeper and more antagonistic than the rift between the city and the western 'burbs within Wayne County.

The armory also used to have an assortment of old tanks on display out front, with their guns aimed defiantly across 8 Mile, almost like the Contravallation Line of La Línea, or as if to say to the darker-complected residents of the crumbling, crime-ridden city of Detroit, "Go Ahead Punk, Make My Day." It was arguably an unintentional choice originally, to display the tanks in that manner; but the truth is it became a part of our landscape of racial fear and resentment, and a symbol of that socioeconomic gulf that divides our region.

To preface this I should say that back in the summertime we had already run into some bad ju-ju at the Armory, when we did a recon drive-by of the place at about 5am. Sure enough, the very second we pulled onto the property, Oak Park's finest rolls up on us and starts demanding to know what the f@#% we were doing. I thought we were busted for sure since we had some "utensils" in the car. Chisel played it off like we were just driving around and curious as to what the place was, and luckily the cop just checked our IDs and basically said "get the F lost" without searching the vehicle.

So, that's what what we were thinking about when we were making our second run at it. This was also supposedly state and federal property, and signs on the fence around it made sure to let us know that fact, in big bold letters. I'm not sure how something can be both, but whatever.

We parked in the mall lot nearby, hopped the fence, and did our thing. We trudged briskly through the marred and scrubby landscape toward the rear of a building under the heavy grey sky.

On every corner of the building stood a watchtower. The place was obviously built somewhere around the 1940s, and we guessed it to be one of the factories that cranked out munitions and vehicles for WWII, earning Michigan the nickname "Arsenal of Democracy," and inspiring the famous saying, "World War II was not won on the battle lines, it was won on the assembly lines of Detroit."

Cities like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Bay City, Muskegon, and so on produced so much war materiel that one could look at Michigan not as a cuddly "Mitten," but as the balled-up fist of U.S. industry, ready to pound the Axis to bits under the awesome weight of our military might. Meanwhile, the Upper Peninsula mined the astronomical amounts of copper and iron that facilitated the production.

The Artillery Arsenal bore many visual queues of Albert Kahn's late industrial style, so I wouldn't doubt if it was the work of his firm. Kahn himself did not live to see the defeat of the Führer; he died in 1942.

Judging solely by what we found inside and what little I had heard about the place to that point, we figured maybe this plant produced armored vehicles for the war effort, and apparently munitions as well. I had strong visions of endless lines of women busily manufacturing and packaging shells by the thousands, just like you always see in those old black & white archival clips.

No native Detroiter of my generation has ever grown up without being regaled by one's elders with stories of working in "The Factories" during "The War," and of living in the rationing years. It's a part of who we are. My own grandmother riveted bombers at Willow Run. Our grandparents were some hardcore motherf#$%ers. People nowadays are pussies.

Despite the factory-like appearance of this place, we began to find evidence that it was used as a Michigan National Guard base...

On many doors were painted the insignia and apocryphal military acronyms of Guard units, and some even said what officers were posted there. These next two say "BATTERY COMMANDER, and FIRST SERGEANT":

This is in fact what this place was most recently–not a factory, but a National Guard armory. According to a couple online sources I read, machine guns were manufactured here during WWII, but after the war the federal government turned the property over to the Michigan National Guard.

According to one source, the Michigan National Guard was organized into state units again after WWII, and Michigan had 121 units organized between 1946 and 1948–tripling the number of men in the guard before the war. And since no armories had been built in Michigan since 1930, the government went on a buying and building spree (which they never seem to have trouble doing). This building was originally constructed as the "Vickers War Plant" from 1942 to 1944 according to that source, and was acquired by the Michigan National Guard in 1948.

Vickers, Inc.–not to be confused however with the British machine-gun maker of the same name–was a manufacturer that dealt in "high pressure pumps and control valves, and hydraulic transmission machinery for supplying feeds and controls to machine tools and many other types of mechanical equipment" according to a 1935 article in the Detroit Free Press. It was the brainchild of Harry F. Vickers, who according to his bio on Wikipedia (sorry), was called the "Father of Industrial Hydraulics" by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which bestowed upon him their highest award, the ASME Medal, in 1956 (it is worth noting that another famous Detroiter, Gar Wood, was also a pioneer in hydraulics).

Vickers' first Detroit location was at Dubois & Clay (in 1929), with Fred J. Fisher (of Fisher Body fame) and Harry Vickers as its presidents. They moved to a plant at 1400 Oakman a few years later, and became a division of Sperry Corp. in 1937. Apparently with the onset of WWII Vickers saw a need for another plant dedicated to war work, so this new structure was built here on the fringes of the city.

Other articles said that Vickers aided the war effort by providing hydraulic power and control for aircraft, making electric hydraulic equipment for the Navy, and some work for the Army. Most of their products were hydraulic controls for heavy gunnery such as battleship cannons, and they received the Navy's "E" Award in 1941.

The "rosy" iconic image of Rosie the Riveter rolling up her sleeves and getting down to work in the war factories has a somewhat tarnished backstory to it, at least in the case of Vickers, as evidenced in the pages of a few books I came across on Google Books. During WWII, some plants had a deliberate policy of hiring the wives and daughters of the men they employed prior to the war draft. Vickers did this not simply to be paternalistic and to take care of the families on the homefront while their men were away fighting, but so that when the men returned it would be easier to get those women back out of those jobs and give them back to the men. The idea of men and women working side by side, or of women advancing in the workplace was not yet something that America was ready for, apparently.

White workers of Vickers' Oakman plant also held a strike when two "negroes" were promoted in the 1940s, as did a few other plants in Detroit (most notably Packard Motors).

There were some heavy duty filing cabinets that had a lot of paperwork in them...I remember seeing this sheet with a blow-up diagram of a truck axle:

The Michigan National Guard's 1st Battallion / 182nd Field Artillery moved into this old Vickers Div. plant in 1948, making it their home base. According to an article in the Free Press, this was the largest such armory built in the continental U.S. The Detroit Public Library has a historic photo of the previous Detroit Light Guard Armory, which was a castle-shaped structure once located downtown at the corner of Brush and Larned before this place was built. Another historic photo from Wayne State shows a view of this armory's facade when it was new.

The Guard began expanding with the authorization of its first two antiaircraft batteries that December; the 694th Antiaircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion was organized here, while the other was in the Upper Peninsula. Three more new firing batteries were activated here the following May, according to the Free Press, each with 105 enlistedmen, which would complete the 146th Automatic Weapons Battalion. Part of the Nike missile system's Detroit Defense Area was headquartered here at the armory in some capacity according to one website, but I'm not exactly sure to what extent. I explored a local Nike missile base in another post.

In December 1953, the Civil Defense Association held a strenuous survival training course for volunteers (mostly women) in 80-acre field behind the armory, to train them in how to feed bombed out populations in case of nuclear war. It was afterward deemed by the writer of the Free Press article that "It looks as if Michigan will survive an atomic attack." The trainees were shown how to construct crude stoves and cookware from simple wreckage and scrap metal while living outside in the cold.

Another historic photo in the archives of Duke University shows a billboard recruiting ad from the 1950s that encourages passing motorists to join the Michigan National Guard by calling or visiting the Detroit Artillery Armory. The ad was probably for the Korean War, which the guard was called up for, unlike Vietnam.

The Detroit Artillery Armory also served an important tactical role in the '67 Riot as the Michigan National Guard command post during that weeklong conflict after Governor Romney authorized the use of military force. Three-hundred and sixty Michigan State Police troopers also mustered here from all parts of the state, arriving at 1505hrs on July 23, 1967, before being sent into the chaos.

The Light Guard Armory at 4400 E. 8 Mile Road, built 1956, served in a similar function as a bivouac during The Riot.

According to the book Violence in the Model City by Sidney Fine, this armory was the marshaling point for "Operation Sundown," the rather ominous-sounding set of directives that guided the National Guard's mission in Detroit, wherein they would assist state and local police as needed to restore order.

Unfortunately, this translated to putting live ammunition into the hands of young, untrained white boys from places like Pinconning, telling them to lock and load, fix bayonets, and wander the streets of Detroit's black ghetto with permission to "shoot to kill," while separated from their own commanders. There was little to no communication or direction once they went out on patrol, and they were often being led by racist, stressed-out Detroit cops who were engaging in more wanton violence than the rioters themselves. The disastrous results that followed should have been predictable, but perhaps I am ascribing too great a confidence in the powers that be.

Major General John L. Throckmorton of the U.S. Army arrived at the armory in the early hours of July 25th, to take over command of the whole debacle when President Lyndon Johnson finally authorized the dispatch of federal troops to quell The Riot. The city was divided in half; Army forces would occupy the east side, and National Guard forces would occupy the west side.

The headline "National Guard is Told: Shoot to Kill if Fired On" ran in the Detroit Free Press that morning, illustrating that their own commander, Brigadier General Cecil Simmons, was not about to weaken his forces' stance in light of federal oversight. He said, "The laws of the state will be obeyed. We will use whatever force is necessary." Five-thousand more guardsmen were marched into Detroit from across the state, bringing their total number to 8,000...and they certainly did use whatever force they deemed necessary.

The Michigan National Guard engaged in countless firefights during The Riot...the 46th Division alone had fired a staggering 155,576 rounds of ammunition by the morning of July 29, according to Department of the Army reports. I believe that this command post was also one of the dispatch points for the Guard’s rolling armor—probably the 182nd Field Artillery, since it was their post. When the tanks started rolling through the streets, that's when sh#t got serious.

The National Guard's tactics on the street could best be described as "chaotic overkill," especially when they commenced use of their .50-caliber heavy machineguns to dislodge "snipers" without confirming a positive target first. LaSalle Boulevard near 12th was especially peppered with machinegun fire from National Guard tanks. Sadly, it was subsequently found that most of the "sniper" attacks on police and guard units were not actually from rioters, but friendly fire from other nervous, trigger-happy National Guard soldiers who opened fire wildly as soon as they thought they heard something. And once one of them started shooting, all of them started shooting, which resulted in numerous cases of National Guard units unwittingly engaging each other in the dark from two opposite ends of the same block of houses, each believing they were pinned down by insurgents, and began frantically calling for reinforcements. It was nothing less than a true miracle that only 44 people were killed during The Riot. Thankfully the Army was infinitely more disciplined in their use of force.

The Riot was over by the end of July, but another Free Press article details the withdrawal of military forces from the city, which was not complete until well into August. The official state of emergency had been lifted by Governor Romney on August 6th, and the last of the 8,000 guardsmen left this armory by 2:30pm that day. The withdrawal had commenced on the 4th, but the governor ordered that some guardsmen and state police remain through the weekend in case "anything new breaks out."

We found several rooms with what I guessed were ammo lockers, bearing heavy steel doors with steel-barred "jail" doors behind that:

Some were labeled as having been used to store chemical, biological, or even radioactive munitions. I never knew there were even such things stored in must have just been uranium-tipped tank shells or something like that, not actual nuclear warheads. There's no way real nukes would be held in a facility with security this light. And I'm pretty sure they would have something better for a sign than a piece of paper with the radiation symbol on it scotch-taped to the door:

Inside one of the hardened lockers we found no nukes, but some light reading:

Tactical Deception (FM-90-2), instructions for using the M27 flamethrower/riot-control agent disperser (TM 3-1040-221-12), Military Police Combat Operations (FM 19-4), and two from the US Army Chemical School entitled, Nuclear Weapon Employment Concepts (SH 3-97), and Atomic Demolition Munitions (SH 3-99). Next to those we found parts to gas masks and first-aid kits.

I'm sort of wondering why the National Guard needs nuclear and chemical weaponry...

There also seemed to be a lot of records safes if I recall correctly:

There was a chow hall, and front offices for recruiters and so on, all of which had your typically bland military feel. This pair of staircases was located at what would have been the lobby area of the armory's front offices.

The annual Detroit Auto Show was actually held here from 1956 to 1960, during a time when it was being moved around a bit. It's amazing to think that when the most iconically "Detroit" cars of all time debuted, such as the '57 Chevy and the '59 Cadillac, it was here in this building that the national public beheld their classic gleaming tailfins for the first time. Multitudinous results from different searches also turn up evidence that it held the Greater Michigan Boat Show, Outdoorama, and many other such expos like dog shows and manufacturers' conventions up through the 1980s.

An entry on the official blog of Dodge says that the Detroit Auto Show ceased for obvious reasons during WWII, but the Detroit Auto Dealers Association revived the show in 1954 at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. After two years at the fairgrounds the auto show was relocated here to the Detroit Artillery Armory (which the Dodge blog has a photo of, all festooned in its auto show flair), where it remained until the new Cobo Hall opened downtown. When Cobo Hall was built, it spelled the end of many of these events being held at the armory, since Cobo was where everyone wanted to be, and eventually the National Guard decided to get out of the facility rental business and sell the armory outright in 1984. It was abandoned by the mid-1990s when apparently no one wanted to buy it. 

A novel by Tommy McIntyre said that the Michigan State Police Intelligence Section was headquartered here during the search for the infamous "Oakland County Child Killer" in the 1970s.

A moody (ie, under-exposed and excessively grainy) photo of the massive chow hall where the guardsmen ate:

Mostly the armory was left empty, so aside from those random papers about atomic demolition, the coolest things to look at were what was written on the doors. One red door had a crudely drawn depiction of a mushroom-cloud on it, and the words "No Slack" above that:

But the best by far was the "War Room." As if we weren't already getting some serious Dr. Strangelove vibes off this place, that was the icing on the cake; it was like the hands of time had frozen at the Cold War inside this place. When we came across the door with the words "War Room" actually printed on it, we laughed, but going inside was even better–the entire thing was done up in camouflage paint! Hilarious:

Photo by Chisel
Then there were all the ones marked "Top Secret," and so on. We didn't know what to think, other than someone had a sense of humor–a rare thing in the military. Why I did not swipe this awesome sign, I'll never know:

It was apparent that some people had used this place for war games of a different sort after it closed down–paintball splats pockmarked many walls in the office corridors.

In one room I saw this chalkboard with some rather comical instructions depicting how to get from this armory to the main Michigan National Guard camp up north, in Grayling:

These vaults in the next photo were not for storing nukes, but food coolers for storing baked beans and whatever else they feed soldiers when they're not eating field rations. I'm still not sure which of the two would create a more devastating fallout...

We eventually worked up the 'nads to climb into one of the guard towers, or crow's nests situated at the corners of the building:

After all, this was a military installation. We needed to be extra cautious not to be spotted however, since, as I made clear earlier, this was not a place we wanted to be seen in, and it was very visible from busy 8 Mile Road.

Up inside the turret was quite cramped, and it seemed this was not a machine-gunner's nest, though there was a spotlight on top of the thing. From here one could also walk onto the roof, but to avoid being seen I stayed low.

We eventually started getting hungry and the sun began setting. On our way out, we had to dodge the parking lot security car that was prowling around the fence we were trying to almost seemed like he knew we were there, and was waiting for us to show our faces. 

We sent Chisel alone to get the car, then stop at a party store on the other side of 8 Mile (to avoid looking too suspicious), before coming to pick us up on the opposite side of the property. After he extracted the rest of us, we had another scare when we saw an Oakland County Sheriff's car driving directly at us in our lane, against traffic with his headlights off...before suddenly swerving into a turn lane. He must've hit the pipe a little too hard or something, but at least now we could exhale safely, and get the f@#% back across 8 Mile.

As of March, 2005, the Detroit Artillery Armory was demolished. Things may never change in Detroit, but in Oak Park and elsewhere, developers actually sometimes carry out their plans to repurpose vacant land. According to a news story from 2005, Eminem had 30 bricks salvaged from the demolition of the buildings and autographed them, then auctioned them off to raise money for charity. Some of the bricks ended up being won by bidders in cities as far away as Toronto, Hiroshima, and London. As of June 2016, brick #12 of 30 is back for sale on ebay, with a starting bid level of $2,000. There is also news that FedEx would be building a new distribution center here on the armory's former 100-acre site, which has been vacant for about 30 years.

American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, p. 537, 539, 540
Violence in the Model City, by Sidney Fine, p. 170, 171, 219
Hearings Before Special Subcommittee to Inquire Into the Capability of the National Guard to Cope with Civil Disturbances, U.S. House Committee on Armed Services, (1967)
Detroit in Its World Setting: A Three Hundred Year Chronology, 1701-2001, by David Lee Poremba, p. 293
Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: The Search for a Child Killer, by Tommy McIntyre, p. 178
The Nautical Gazette, Volumes 136-140 (1946), p. 84
Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest, 1941-46, by Andrew Edmund Kersten, p. 144
Hydraulics and Pneumatics, Volume 34, Issues 1-6 (1981)
Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex During World War II, by Ruth Milkman, p.  63
Industrial Wage Work, edited by Nancy F. Cott, p. 509
"Vickers Plant gets award from Navy," Detroit Free Press, December 4th, 1941, p. 24
"Guard Renews Bid for Vickers Plant," Detroit Free Press, November 4th, 1947, p. 9
"Plant of Vickers Being Enlarged," Detroit Free Press, January 27, 1935, p. 26
"U.S. Plans to Sell Oak Park Armory," Detroit Free Press, April 19, 1984, p. 60
"National Guard is Told: Shoot to Kill if Fired On," Detroit Free Press, July 25, 1967, p. 5
"Last Units of Guard Pull Out," Detroit Free Press, August 7th, 1967, p. 1
"Guard to Get 2 New Units," Detroit Free Press, December 18, 1948, p. 8
"Activation of 3 Batteries Due Today," Detroit Free Press, May 16, 1949, p. 4
"CD Aides Get Taste of Fight for Survival," Detroit Free Press, December 3, 1953, p. 3