HAWTHORNE — Tears were shed Tuesday in this town of 3,000 for seven unknown U.S. Marines.
“We are all military today,” said John W. Stroud, junior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Hawthorne. “They are our brothers in arms.”
“They died in my hometown,” added Myra Sterling. “It feels like we somehow are responsible. They didn’t die in combat, but they died in service to our country.”
About 600 residents turned out for a memorial service in Veterans Park to honor the Marines who died just after 10 p.m. Monday at “Old Bomb,” a training area about six miles south of Hawthorne, 320 miles north of Las Vegas.
Seven other Marines and one sailor, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., were wounded during a training exercise when a 60 mm mortar exploded.
Like Sterling, many of the residents have worked at the depot.
“It was a tragedy, but we should be willing to take the risk to protect our country,” added Ruben Palmer, another former depot employee.
The huge flag at Veterans Park was placed at half staff and the Chamber of Commerce posted a sign announcing the candlelight memorial service.
“You are looking at military heaven,” said Palmer as he waited for the memorial to begin in Veterans Park. “This is a reminder to all the sacrifices made to keep this country free.”
Rocky McKellip, a Vietnam veteran who volunteers at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum, says a 60 mm mortar has a 45-foot “kill zone” radius.
The 60 mm mortar, common in the Vietnam War, is a foot long and about three inches wide.
The Ordnance Museum has dozens of mortars shells, rockets, jeep and other empty ammunition and is staffed entirely by volunteers, most of them veterans.
Outside the museum is a monument to the 10 people who have died in buildings at the Ammunition Depot.
The last death from an explosion at the ammunition depot was 1971. Two civilians were killed that June and a Marine died that May during an explosion, according to the Mineral County Independent-News.
“We rarely see the Marines,” added Harold Warren, another volunteer. “They may stop in town for coffee. I bought a home here because it is safe. It is a super safe town where you can talk the streets at midnight and never worry.”
“This doesn’t happen here,” said Danny Womack, a parks and recreation employee who said he used to disassemble 150 mm mortars when employed at the ammunition depot. “Nothing like this has happened. It’s safe.”
As she stood in the park for the ceremony, Maria Morgan, held onto the stroller containing her three-month-old baby.
“We welcome the military,” she said. “My kids know they are the good guys. When they see them on the street they say “Hi good guy,’ or ‘Hi Army gun.’ The soldiers stop and salute. This is the saddest day we have ever had here.’
Names of deceased were not released pending a 24-hour delay after notification of next of kin, under Marine rules.