The Indiana Landscape That Went to War

Rural Indiana is a place that evokes two things: flatness and corn. And, for the most part, you would be right. Indiana is indeed a very flat place (at least in the big middle). And corn is the preferred crop, though that has given way somewhat to soy. So, it’s not a place that evokes being the engine of war.

For a brief period in the 1940s, it was the engine of war.

Indiana is blessed with geography. It’s at a crossroads in the USA – of the roads and of the railways. This makes it useful in times of war. And during World War II, a small town just outside of LaPorte, Indiana became one of the biggest munitions factories in the world: The Kingsbury Ordnance Plant. Driving through the Indiana landscape, if you didn’t know it was there, you would never notice it. But it’s there.

Here you had a vast open space, well connected to the rail network with close access to the Great Lakes (and thus the Atlantic Ocean). It was in the middle of nowhere but close enough to major cities that finding labor would not be hard. It was located thousands of miles from the nearest coastline, so it was safe from foreign bombardment and air forces. And it would be easy to disguise the operations within the landscape. It’s remoteness also made it safe: if there was an accident, it’s damage could be contained.

Kingsbury, Indiana became a wartime boomtown. The American war economy was a boom time, which, despite wartime, was most welcome after the austerity of the Great Depression. There was a labor shortage, and thousands of people had to be lured to rural Laporte County Indiana, then only home to 16,000 people (today, it’s population is still rather small at around 110,000).

Thousands of workers, at one time over 21,000, were brought in from all over the country and lived in a newly constructed town called Kingsford Heights. It was one factory, one-industry town. Shrouded in secrecy. Many employees were women since the men were sent away to war. It was dangerous and dirty work. Many had health issues for the rest of their lives.

The Kingsbury Ordnance Plan sprawled across 13,000 acres. There were dozens of factory buildings, each connected to the railways, separated by safe distances in case of accidents. An entire infrastructure was put into place to support the factories. Machine shops. Water towers. Warehouses. Canteens. Offices.

And here, they made the bombs, shells and bullets that fueled the ‘arsenal of freedom’ that was sent over to Europe. That supplied our allies. That leveled German and Japanese cities. That led us to victory.

Kingsbury did its job. And when the war was over, it wasn’t needed anymore. It was briefly reactivated for the Korean War but has been abandoned since 1960. And by abandoned, I mean that it’s mostly still there, rotting away in plain sight.

While the security cordons and military patrols are long gone, the infrastructure is still largely there. Many former factory buildings, built with reinforced concrete are now warehouses, and there’s a vibrant core of businesses that operate in them. Other, less useful buildings have been left to rot and are falling down, leading to the picture of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You could film The Walking Dead here and not need to dress the set.

Much of the area was returned to farmland or given to the state of Indiana, who set it aside as the Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife area. In these places, you can wander around in overgrown fields, dotted with former munitions stores, steel doors long broken into. These ghostly bunkers, a remnant of a war long gone, sit there, abandoned in the landscape. They’re too difficult to demolish. Too dangerous to demolish. So, they’re still there. And will probably be there for hundreds of years.

There are dozens of them. Inside is the detritus of decades of teenagers up to no good. Garbage. Graffiti. Drug needles. If you grow up in Kingsbury, it’s a cool place to hang out in the dark nights of rural Indiana. When you walk amongst these silent sentries, you only hear the wildlife and the occasional gunshots of the people there to kill it.

It’s a scarred landscape. But a landscape where the wildlife has returned and is thriving. Even where the signs warn you that the land is contaminated and never to enter, they grow corn where they can, on land that one hopes isn’t still contaminated. There are large areas where nothing grows but grass. In the winter, when the land freezes and unfreezes, local farmers have reported hearing explosions as long-forgotten buried munitions manage to still explode.

When you approach by road and see the former factories, now working warehouses, it’s a chilling sight. It’s very reminiscent of a concentration camp. Railway lines go to each building, the complex is still surrounded by barb wire and is guarded. What are they doing in there? A few hardy people live out here, in mobile homes or industrial buildings converted to homes. It’s a muddy, dirty place. Many work the land that surrounds them.

In the areas that are no longer fenced off and part of the Kingsbury Fish and Wildlife Area, you’re free to wander and explore – at your own risk. You can walk along the streets that are now mostly grassed over. Peek inside the former munitions stores. Listen to the birds and the silence of rural Indiana. Despite what the place represents, it has a harsh beauty to it. And I love it.

It feels like walking through a town that was abandoned and razed. It’s weird walking through a cornfield surrounded by paved roads. This was industry. This was war. Now, it’s nature. And this is life.

The most chilling thought when you visit this place is that when you realize that most of the infrastructure is still there. The roads are still there. The rails are still there. The fences and buildings are still there. The electricity and water towers are still there.

It could all, quite easily, be spooled up again to manufacture death and destruction.