NJ fort, technology vanguard for decades, closing

EATONTOWN, N.J. (AP) ? Anyone who has ever listened to FM radio, gotten a speeding ticket or wondered whether there is life on other planets has been affected by New Jersey’s Fort Monmouth.

The work done at the sprawling base near the Jersey shore led to communications advances including the development of FM radio, radar, and the ability to bounce signals off the moon to prove the feasibility of extraterrestrial radio communication. It launched the first radio-equipped weather balloon, and hosted hundreds of message-bearing courier pigeons that served in the two world wars.

By the time of the Afghanistan war, Fort Monmouth developed the “phraselator,” a system that translated the English voice into Dari, Pashto, Arabic and other languages.

But the fort’s time is up. On Thursday, after 94 years of helping warriors communicate with each other while keeping tabs on the enemy, Fort Monmouth is closing, the victim of congressional budget cutting. Most of its thousands of jobs have been transferred to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.

“It’s sad. It’s depressing,” said Tom Hipper of Little Silver, a division chief who rode his motorcycle out the fort’s main gate Wednesday for the next-to-last time. “I just think it was all politics.

“This was a great place to work,” said Hipper, whose duties included morale boosting and recreation for the troops, civilian workers and their families. “We all felt like we were doing something positive for our country, like we were an integral part of supporting the warriors.”

The base’s fate was sealed in 2005 when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission included Fort Monmouth in a list of military facilities it would close to save money. The commission estimated it would cost $782 million to move the fort’s mission to Maryland, but the cost rose to nearly $2 billion by 2008, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many locals who depend on the base for jobs.

“It’s a huge waste of money ? politicians were involved, so what do you expect?” asked Joe Jenkins of Eatontown, whose mother, father and brother all worked at Fort Monmouth. “They’re spending all this money moving it to Maryland instead of keeping it here where people need it. It’s going to hit a lot of people and businesses hard.”

Indeed, that’s already happening. Gerald Tarantolo is mayor of Eatontown, one of three communities upon which the base sits. He said his borough is already seeing more vacancies in commercial properties, which hurts the tax base.

“We’re seeing an impact already, and it’s going to get worse,” he said. “This is a very somber time. The reality is sinking in.”

The personnel remaining at the fort are experiencing mixed emotions, said spokesman Henry Kearney.

“There is some sadness but also a tremendous amount of pride at the work we were able to do over the years,” he said.

Of the 5,570 civilian and military jobs at the fort, 5,400 were to be transferred to Maryland. There were 3,144 civilian employees who took the Army up on its offer to move, Kearney said.

In 1917, the first 32 soldiers arrived at what was then called Camp Little Silver, after the nearby town. Once a potato farm, the location was considered ideal because it was close to river and rail transportation. It was named Fort Monmouth in 1925 and soon became a breeding ground for many technological innovations.

Over the years, the fort’s research teams devised radar that could locate enemy artillery and mortars. The fort created a field television camera with a backpack transmitter, and a pocket-sized radiation detector. It also developed or improved systems for surveillance and air traffic control as well as night-vision devices.

On Tuesday, the fort’s garrison flag was lowered, rolled up and covered for the final time. This week, the property will be turned over to a 14-member force that will maintain and secure it while yet another government commission seeks developers for its 1,100-plus acres.

“There’s a lot of tears and hugs,” said Hipper. “It’s just really sad.”


Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC