Recycling war surplus

Awhile back I was discussing college environments and entrance requirements with a student. I tried to describe what UCLA was like in the mid-1940s with the flood of GI Bill students and limited pre-war facilities. When I mentioned Quonset huts, where most of our classes were held, I was met with a blank stare.

"What is a Quonset hut?" was the student's response. That really made me feel like a dinosaur. In fact, I had lived in Quonset huts while serving overseas and attended UCLA classes every day in one.

For those millennials who never saw a Quonset hut, let me describe what they were like: corrugated metal shaped in a half-circle, often on a wood platform or perhaps a concrete pad; they lacked ventilation and certainly were not air conditioned. In a warm climate, they became a sweat box.

Well, you just dealt with it since it took several years for universities to get new construction for the increased student bodies of 100 percent or more after the war. Those Quonset huts had extended lives as the military camps shut down and colleges no longer needed them. They went into business.

If you look carefully in the Morena Boulevard area, you can catch a couple of Quonset huts being used as storage facilities. The largest collection of several huts can be viewed on Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach. They have been there since the 1950s when assembled in a line of connecting Quonset huts to serve as the manufacturing plant for Bill Jack Scientific Instrument Co.

They still exist today as part of the boutique art colony along Cedros Avenue. The complex should be an historic site since it was also the beginning of the computer age when Andrew Kay started his business in the old Bill Jack site. Few San Diegans realize that Kaypro was the fifth largest manufacturer of computers at that time. I had my first lesson on a so-called portable Kaypro that came in an oblong metal case that weighed about 85 pounds. Not very portable.

I'm reminded of this history when I read that Andrew Kay passed away in August 2014 at age 95. He was certainly a leading businessman and prominent citizen of the North County for many years. After he worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Andy moved his family to Del Mar in 1949 to work for Bill Jack who was occupying the lineup of Quonset huts in Solana Beach. In 1952 he started Non-linear Systems, which led the electronics industry into the digital revolution. By 1979 the Kaypro computer was being sold, and the company went public in 1983.

But I digress from the history of the Quonset hut. The design originated in England during World War I, but reached its extensive use during World War II for hasty installations of makeshift training bases in the U.S. and for occupation troops overseas. The first huts were manufactured in 1941 and could be easily shipped anywhere and assembled without skilled labor. The basic size was 20-by-48 feet, providing 720 square feet for barracks or storage.

The name "Quonset" came from the first installation at a military base on Quonset Point, Rhode Island. By the end of the war, approximately 160,000 Quonset huts were manufactured, many of them being recycled as war surplus. That accounts for the Quonset huts used at UCLA for classrooms until campus construction could accommodate a large student body. The Quonset huts at UCSD in the early years of the new campus were already in place as the former Camp Matthews on the Torrey Pines Mesa. I attended evening extension courses in several of those Quonset huts as late as 1975.

The newbies in San Diego would not know what the UCSD campus looked like when the university started. Many of the buildings used for many years were recycled barracks, Quonset huts and larger structures used for the bookstore (former mess hall) and administrative offices. It basically had the look of an Army base.

There had been a primitive training camp on the site in 1917 when the Marine Corps leased 363 acres from the city of San Diego. It was used as a rifle range until additional acreage was acquired to build Camp Matthews on 573 acres and expand the base after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The property was returned to the city and assigned to the University of California for a new campus in 1959.

Another example of war surplus recycling was noted on my first trip to the island of Maui in 1970. The one-flight-a-day, interisland airline landed at Kahului, an abandoned Army Air Force base from World War II. The terminal was, you might guess, a Quonset hut.

There was a lot of recycling of Army and Navy surplus in the 1940s and '50s, but I think the Quonset hut has been the most enduring and is still being useful.


Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at

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Emilie Winthrop 12:00am October 11, 2015

Loved this article!!! But I may have caught a mistake. When I was a child in La Jolla, just before and after Pearl Harbor, the Marine camp on Torrey Pines was called Camp Callan, or Callen. The Commandant there, whose name I have forgotten, but whose nickname was, I believe, "Toughy.," was an old beau of my mother's. I remember one afternoon he came to Tea and present also was Mrs. Balmer, original founder of the Balmer School (which became La Jolla Country Day School.) (Seems La Jollans like to change place names). Mrs. Balmer was saying it was important to pick up our Marine boys and bring them home for dinner. Toughy got apoplectic with rage and said, "Madame, if any of my boys are caught accepting such an invitation, I'll see them court marshaled." This was, just after Pearl Harbor, and everyone was concerned about spies and leaked intelligence. Keep up the nostalgia.

John Hattox 12:00am October 10, 2015

Thanks Pat. J.

Russ 12:00am October 9, 2015

very interesting - good job Pat - we need more of this about the wars etc. just hope that some young read this