Scott Sonner / AP
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | 12:01 p.m.
HAWTHORNE, Nev. — It was one of the largest displays of public support ever held in this town of just a few thousand residents.
On Tuesday evening, several hundred people gathered for a memorial service for the Marines who died after a 60-millimeter mortar round exploded at the Hawthorne Army Depot Monday night.
The mourners — many of them veterans of foreign wars in austere dark blue suits — gathered around a large American flag at Veterans Memorial Park. Under gunmetal gray skies, they prayed, consoled each other and honored the fallen.
They all felt ties with the Marines, the depot and the suffering of the entire community of about 3,500 people, many of whom work at the base. Many years ago, the town’s slogan was changed from “America’s Arsenal” to “America’s Patriotic Home.”
Only the annual parade that begins in Veterans Memorial Park draws a similar size crowd.
Shirley Schmuck, 72, stared at the towering flag flying at half staff, her eyes welling with tears. “We’re devastated,” she said. “Those were our boys.”
As the U.S. has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, the Marine Corps has considered the sprawling and remote Hawthorne Army Depot an invaluable site for realistic training — its wide-open spaces supporting live-fire exercises, its climate, elevation and terrain mirroring much of Afghanistan.
But with realism comes danger. The mortar round that exploded Monday night at the facility outside Reno killed at least seven Marines and injured eight — seven Marines and a sailor. The dead and injured were from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, with headquarters at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Brig. Gen. James W. Lukeman, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division, said the explosion occurred when a round exploded in a mortar tube during “live fire and maneuver training.”
“Our hearts go out to you,” Lukeman said Tuesday, referring to the families of those killed and injured. “We appreciate your sacrifice. We send our prayers and condolences. We remember their courage and sacrifice.”
The unit has been training for the past month at Hawthorne Army Depot and the nearby Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., Lukeman told reporters at Camp Lejeune.
Lukeman declined to name the unit involved, citing the ongoing notification of the families of those killed and injured. He said the exercise was “readiness training,” preparing the Marines “to do the things the nation asks us to do.”
An investigation is expected to determine whether the mortar tube was improperly loaded or whether the firing pin, round or tube were defective. The 60-millimeter is one of the military’s smaller projectiles; the tube is designed to be easily assembled and fired during combat.
There usually is a crew of three or four Marines operating a 60-millimeter mortar, but there are often other Marines observing.
The Marine Corps said it has suspended all uses of 60-millimeter rounds, for training or in Afghanistan, until the review of the explosion is complete.
The injured were taken to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. The most seriously injured were suffering “penetrating traumas, fractures and vascular injuries,” according to a hospital spokesman. One Marine was treated and released.
The 147,000-acre Hawthorne facility is about 140 miles southeast of Reno, in a desolate area serviced by the small town of Hawthorne. The remoteness of the facility is by design.
In 1926, an explosion destroyed the ammunition storage and production complex at Lake Denmark, N.J., killing hundreds of people in nearby towns. The Hawthorne facility, then operated by the Navy, was built in a sparsely populated area of Nevada as a replacement and received its first shipment of arms and high explosives in 1930.
When the United States entered World War II, the rechristened Navy Ammunition Depot became the staging area for bombs, rockets and ammunition. Employment was at its highest at 5,625 in 1945. By 1948, the depot occupied about 104 square miles.
In 1977, the depot was transferred to the Army, and renamed the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant. In 1980, it was redesignated as a government-owned, contractor-operated facility.
Day & Zimmermann Hawthorne Corp. is the current operating contractor. In 1994, the facility received its current name of the Hawthorne Army Depot, according to the facility’s website.
In 2005, the depot was on the Base Realignment and Closure list, targeted for closure to save money. But strenuous opposition from the Marine Corps, and support from Nevada’s congressional delegation, kept it open. Much of the training is done in an area named for Marine Lance Cpl. Timothy Carter, posthumous recipient of the Silver Star for bravery in Vietnam.
With its proximity to the Bridgeport Mountain Warfare Training Center, Hawthorne is used by the Marine Corps for active-duty troops preparing to deploy and reservists training to remain sharp if they are called to duty.
“We send our prayers and condolences to the families of Marines involved in this tragic incident. We remain focused on ensuring that they are supported through this difficult time,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. “We mourn their loss, and it is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor: “My sympathies are with their fellow Marines, who are also grieving this loss.”