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Wednesday, August 10,2011

War and peace at the Marshall Street Armory

by Lawrence Cosentino

Hundreds of heavy guns and thousands of soldiers trundled
across the drill floor at Lansing’s Marshall Street Armory from 1924 to
2005. Shouldering heavy military and civilian duty, the big brick
blockhouse stoically endured the pounding of horses, Howitzers, wild
weddings and circus elephants.


With so many memories to choose from, one veteran of the
Michigan National Guard 119th Field Artillery, 77-year-old Howard
Becker, shared a quieter one.


“As you go straight into the officers’ club, you make a
little turn,” Becker said. “There’s a wall there. A poker table used to
sit in front of it. There was a beautiful, beautiful portrait on the
wall called Artillery Annie. That was a French present — a nude lady
with a cigarette in her hand.” 


Pause, aim, fire.


“Nobody notices the cigarette.”


Field artillerymen never lose their timing.


Artillery Annie has flown — along with the soldiers and
big guns — to a consolidated battalion headquarters in Charlotte. But
this spring, another battalion rolled into the Marshall Street Armory.


Truckloads of energy-saving windows and dry wall rumbled
onto the grounds where five-ton “prime mover” trucks once hauled 155 mm
Howitzers into position for field exercises. A skeletal frame of office
cubicles sprang up on the old basketball court. Clunky radiators and
leaky roofs were torn out and replaced.


By mid-October, the Marshall Street Armory will have a
second life as home to a cluster of nonprofit organizations and
headquarters of Lansing developer Pat Gillespie’s development company.


To paraphrase the Book of Isaiah, “And they shall beat their armories into nonprofit centers.”


The $5.2 million, 38,000-square-foot renovation is
Gillespie’s first historic restoration project, and the hometown boy is
playing “fort” with gusto. The building’s history will be everywhere,
from the heavy red barn doors in the basement — a relic of horse
artillery days — to the crossed-cannon insignia and eagle guarding the
entrances.


The stage that rang with big-band music at World War II
war-bond rallies will become a glassed suite of offices. Feet will
squeak on the same basketball court that hosted hundreds of weddings and
community events.


“People will walk over the free-throw line to work,” Gillespie said.


It’s a personal project for Gillespie, who grew up on
Lansing’s east side and went to school at nearby Catholic Central High
School. Gillespie used to ride his bike by the Armory and played on the
World War II-vintage guns (one German, one American) displayed outside.
As a kid, he helped set up for the big St. Patrick’s Day party held
there. His dad served in the Guard at Marshall Street.


The 1st Battalion, 119th Field Artillery, has a storied
past of national significance, but it has been closely tied to Lansing
since the Armory was built.


“This is a home-town unit,” retired First Sgt. Bill Goupil
said. “We had a battery in Charlotte and Albion, but the headquarters
was always here in Lansing. Everybody in the battalion always came to
Marshall Street, somewhere along the line.”


Marshall Street was one of five armories, all similar to
one another, designed by World War I artilleryman and Ann Arbor
architect Lynn W. Fry. The others are in Adrian (1925), Charlotte
(1924), Flint (1924), and Holland (1924). 


Armories boomed, in more ways than one, across Michigan
and the United States in the 1920s, when a series of federal and state
appropriations for state militias and a relatively calm period between
the two world wars allowed National Guard units time for training and
education.


Unlike several other retired Guardsmen who have peeked in on Gillespie’s restoration, Goupil is hesitant to go back.


“It’s kind of scary, like going back to Vietnam,” Goupil
said. “I’m happy it’s going to be vibrant again, but it’s hard to
describe. It’s a memory thing. I spent a lot of my life there.”


The thousands of Guard reservists who trained at Marshall
Street over the years, including full-time training staff like Goupil,
got used to carrying the weight of history in their rucksacks.


Goupil, a Vietman vet, left the regular army in 1970,
entered the National Guard in 1978 and came to Marshall Street in 1982
for a 16-year stint as a squadron leader, then a platoon sergeant.


Early in his career at the armory, Goupil talked with a
World War I veteran of the 119th. The old-timer told Goupil that when
the unit was mobilized and sent to France, its horses got lost during
the Atlantic crossing and never showed up. The men stoically cut the
harnesses, strapped them on and dragged their cannons 75 miles to the
front.


Aghast, Goupil asked the older man how they managed it.


“Son — back then, we soldiered,” he was told.


Every Marshall Street soldier knew he was stepping into a
row of big boots stretching back to Lexington and Concord. The First
Battalion, 119th Field Artillery and its precursors played a role in
every major war in American history, going back to “Rogers’ Rangers,”
colonial irregulars that fought for the British in the French and Indian
War in the 1750s and harassed the French in Fort Detroit. At this
moment they are on dangerous “convoy control” duty in Kuwait, providing
transport and security for troops leaving Iraq.


Shortly before the Marshall Street Armory’s horse barn was
torn down in 2001, Goupil and other soldiers found a brass cannon from
the Civil War in a corner, under a tarp.


“You just walked through the place and felt the history,” Goupil said.


Over the years, the legend grew that the Armory’s upper
floor is haunted. Soldiers claimed to hear footsteps, a ghost bugler,
and equine snorts and whinnies from the vanished horse artillery.


“I don’t want to say it’s creepy, because it’s not,”
Goupil said. “But it’s weird. I’ve sat up alone at night on duty more
than once and thought, ‘Man, I’m not alone here.’”


In civilian life, Goupil worked in a cemetery, digging
graves, for 25 years. “I’m not spooked by that sort of thing, but
there’s something there, man.”


Gillespie is delighted with the story, even though ghosts don’t pay rent.


“We’ve had four or five National Guard guys say, ‘You don’t know it’s haunted? You will,’” Gillespie said.


The Marshall Street Armory became a second home to
generations of reservists and full-timers. Stability and a local
connection made service there a satisfying blend of military and
civilian life.


Jack Duffy joined the Michigan National Guard in 1971, starting at the 182nd Field Artillery out of Detroit.


He transferred to the 119th in Lansing in 1977. Duffy made
it intact through active duty in Vietnam, only to be injured in the eye
while tapping a keg back home.


Goupil called Duffy “kind of a legend in the artillery community.”


Duffy said he was “fired” from the 119th shortly after
transferring from the 182nd Field Artillery out of Detroit in 1977, for
failing to complete a class on time. But he liked life in the 119th in
Lansing so much he couldn’t stay away.


“I was discharged one day and re-enlisted the next, as a staff sergeant,” he said.


“They talk about ‘Band of Brothers’ and all that, but I
think you have to experience it to understand it,” Duffy said. “Some of
‘em are bastards, but that’s the same in any family. It’s very
supportive, you all have common ground.”


In the regular Army, assignments rarely last more than
three or four years, but long stints with the National Guard in Lansing
were common. Friendships were tight.


“Field artillery lends itself to that,” Duffy said. “It’s
not a huge part of the service, and there are technical things other
people don’t understand that are secrets — like a secret handshake. It’s
kind of cool.”


Howard Becker of Mason, 77, grew up in Dimondale and
joined the Michigan National Guard in February 1951, at 16. He turned 17
that July.


Becker was 14, playing trumpet in a school band, when he
found out that the Army was looking for musicians to play “Taps” at the
gravesites of casualties returning to the Lansing area from Korea.
(Ingham County lost about 50 armed service members in the Korean War.)
He did it so well that the 119th Artillery Jazz Band asked Becker to
play.


Becker came to respect the World War II vets he met at the Armory and decided to join the field artillery.


“My parents had to come down and sign for me because I was too young,” he said.


Becker stayed at the Marshall Street Armory for 10 years
as an enlisted man, serving as sergeant in a firing battery. “They had
horse barns, the riding hall and a blacksmith’s shop,” Becker said. “The
field to the east of the armory was a polo field.”


In Becker’s time, single-engine, fixed-wing L-19
two-seaters took off and landed at an airstrip just east of the Armory.
Helipads were added later.


The commanders at the Armory kept up a busy routine.
Despite the batteries of big guns to master, basic soldier skills were
top priority. At 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays, the entire unit formed up on
the drill floor, got its orders for the day, and broke up into classes
and training sessions.


A lot of the training was standard-issue,
your-rifle-is-your-best-friend stuff — cleaning, field-stripping, taking
apart and putting together M-1 and M-2 rifles, along with hand-to-hand
combat training and classroom training in tactics, first aid,
communication and preparation for field exercises.


Lansing attorney Thomas Hetchler was among the last
cohorts of Guardsmen to inhabit the Armory. Hetchler enlisted in the
Guard in 1985 and was assigned to the Armory as a field artillery fire
direction specialist. He retired as a first sergeant in 2008.


Hetchler remembers working out the day’s frustrations on the basketball court and running the streets of Lansing to stay trim.


“We’d run through the neighborhood and the neighbors would
come out and wave,” Hetchler said. “We’d run through Groesbeck
Neighborhood and up and down Michigan Avenue.”


Field artillery units are equipment-heavy, so a lot of
time at Marshall Street went toward maintenance training for vehicles,
weapons and “individual maintenance” (personal hygiene). Winter was
devoted largely to “charts and darts,” or simulated computer exercises
in directional control.


To the frustration of generations of reservists, artillery
practice was confined to “dry fire” exercises. The weapons were “laid,”
or positioned somewhere on the grounds, loaded and made ready to fire.


“It was kind of boring for the cannon guys, because they
live to pull a lanyard and hear the thing go ‘boom,’” Duffy said.
Outlying towns like Okemos and Haslett should be thankful for the
restraint. A 105 mm Howitzer has a range of more than 7 miles, and 155
mm guns shoot even farther. The 119th saved live firing exercises for
Camp Grayling in upstate Michigan.


The run-up to the summer training period at Camp Grayling was Duffy’s favorite time at Marshall Street.


“The last several weeks were so hectic,” Duffy said.
“Going out the gate was such a relief. All that stress was over. The
firing batteries would get to shoot! You’d hear the guns hammering day
and night, for 10 days sometimes.”


Classes at Marshall Street were a point of pride of the
119th. According to Becker, Army observers who came to the Marshall
Street Armory to evaluate the Michigan guard’s lesson plans ended up
copying them for use at the Army’s field artillery base at Fort Sill,
Okla.


“The National Guard had a bad rep when I was on active
duty,” Duffy said. “The impression is they don’t have the same skills.
In reality, you can stack the units side by side, and in many cases the
National Guard units perform better.”


Becker agreed. “When we would compete with ‘em, we could outshoot ‘em,” he said of the regular Army artillery.


Does that mean that Michigan could secede if it wanted to?


“I think we could,” Becker said.


Unlike artillery practice, hundreds of parties and galas over the years did not stop at “dry fire.”


The Armory’s downstairs spirits were more famous than the ones upstairs.


“The NCOs (non-commissioned officers) put on a really
outstanding dance once a month,” Becker said. “It was a sellout to
everybody at every rank. You wouldn’t believe the people that showed
up.”


One NCO at the Armory owned M & M, a Lansing Budweiser distributor.


“He would bring it in by the keg,” Becker said. “The price was right for everybody to enjoy the evening.”


At 11 p.m. the swing music would quiet down and “outstanding” barbecue or some other hearty grub would be served.


“We were never without beer, ever,” Goupil said. “You
drink too much, there were cots. You could sleep right there. That
happened more than people knew.”


During this summer’s restoration, Gillespie’s workers
found a menu in the officers’ club: Scotch, 50 cents;
B&B-Drambuie-Benedictine-Triple Sec, 65 cents; complete New York
steak dinner (14 oz.), $4.95.


This summer, Gillespie’s renovation team liberated the
officers’ club from top-secret bad-boy décor: pink shag carpeting and
dark paneling over the windows.


“If these walls could talk,” Gillespie mused.


“Just drinking and talking shop,” Goupil said, taking a
defensive position. “Although I did go to a couple of bachelor parties
in there. Whew.”


The drill floor hosted hundreds of military and civilian
bashes over the years. Duffy celebrated his wedding there in October
1993.


“It looks like kind of a stark hall, but my wife and her
friends got in there and put in a big balloon arch,” Becker said. “A lot
of 119th and other army guys crashed the party. We didn’t get anything
to eat. They ate it all before we got there.”


Private weddings, military functions, annual St. Patrick’s
Day parties and many other events took place on the drill floor over
the decades. Circuses performed many times, especially in the 1950s.
“They had three elephants on that drill floor,” Becker said. “They had
to crouch down to get through the side door.” Golden Glove boxing
matches and pro wrestling — with free tickets for service personnel —
were regular features through the 1970s.


VanDervoort’s Sporting Goods, now defunct, used to hold
annual sales at the Armory in the 1990s. Until 1995, the Michigan
Antique Radio Club leased the Armory for swap meets. 


In the late 1990s, activity at the Armory wound down as the 119th was moved to a consolidated headquarters in Charlotte.


Becker said the Marshall Street Armory “just fell through
the cracks” of re-organization. From the late Cold War period to the
more recent Middle East operations, drones and ballistic missiles took
up more of the artillery’s role. Becker ended up inspecting
Nike-Hercules surface-to-air missile sites deployed at four sites in
Michigan: Utica, Carlton, Belle Isle and Rockford.


GPS and other modern gadgets superseded many of the “charts and darts” exercises at Marshall Street.


“They don’t need an armory,” Becker said. “They don’t need
much of a building to train out of. The artillery trains in the field.”


Despite the Armory’s aging bones, Hetchler didn’t want to see it go the way of the Riding Hall, torn down in 2001.


“You’d walk outside the back of the Armory and see that
building, with big brass letters that said ‘Riding Hall,’” Hetchler
said. “We kept our Howitzers there. When you see a building like that
come down, it’s emotional. It’s part of your life.”


Hetchler worked in almost every office at the Armory. “I
knew where all the leaks were, where to bang on the radiator to make the
heat work. The building had a lot of character. We griped about it
every day — hot in summer, cold in winter. But it was our home.”


The last personnel to leave the Armory were recruiters, who kept an office there until 2005.


“For a building 86 years old, it was as good as could be,”
renovation project manger Jason Kildea said. “Until we bought it, they
had someone in here daily, making sure the heat was running, shoveling
snow, mowing grass.”


Gillespie showed interest in the building in 2007, but the
price was too high. After the real estate market plunged, the Armory
was re-appraised in late 2009 and the Michigan National Guard contacted
Gillespie. They closed the deal in early 2010.


The foursquare blockhouse is as no-nonsense as they come,
but it has a lot of elegant touches, including limestone trim and
ornamentation and Tudor arches. While cutting holes in the wall for new
heating and cooling ducts, workers were shocked at the thickness of the
walls.


Gillespie’s workers had to dust off some seldom-used drill bits to punch new holes for ductwork and other utilities.


“Our concrete company broke two saw blades, and they do that for a living,” site superintendent Allan Baron said.


The drill floor sits on nine inches of concrete. Even when
1,400 men were on the floor, stacked shoulder to shoulder, marching in
cadence, nothing could be heard in the classrooms below.


When Gillespie’s team tore out a tin drop
ceiling added in the 1960s, graceful steel trusses were revealed
overhead. The military green paint was pristine. Gillespie’s team
re-evaluated its planned color scheme to match the stunning ceiling.


When Hetchler returned to the Armory to check out the
restoration this summer, he saw the trusses for the first time, even
though he had worked at the Armory for 20 years. 


“I had no idea there was an arched ceiling in there,” he said.


A munitions locker with a wire cage door will become the
Gillespie Group’s accounting department. Huge barn doors, painted bright
red with black hinges two feet across, will become conference-room
doors. The non-commissioned officers’ club will become one of three
high-tech conference rooms.


The Capital Area United Way, Michigan
Association of United Ways and the Michigan Nonprofit Association will
move in this fall, along with Gillespie’s company. 


“So we’re in a 90-day push,” Kildea said, military style.


Gillespie and Kildea like to think of the Armory as a fort
— and they have the enthusiasm of kids playing in one — but Duffy
didn’t think it was built to repel invaders.


“That was just 1930s construction,” Duffy said. “It was
supposed to look strong and imposing, but I don’t think they were built
as a defensive position at all. It’s a place for the local militia, a
place to store weapons and ammunition, but it’s not a fort.”


Duffy would know better than anyone. While he served at Marshall, he wrote the armory’s defensive plan.


“It’s tough to defend,” he said. “It’s a building sitting
in the middle of a big field. Anybody with a cannon could just sit back
and pound it to pulp. I bet you could shoot through those walls with a
.50 caliber machine gun.”


Let that be a warning to the nonprofits. Go ahead, confer,
strategize, write grants, fight the paper war, but keep an ear out for
the ghost bugler.

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