While Dugway Proving Ground maintains an air of mystery for some in Tooele County and beyond, it was simply a great place to grow up to Jill Thomas and her sister, Cheri Lefevre.
“It was a great place to live because we had free reign of the base,” Thomas said.
Thomas and Lefevre came to Dugway in 1963 and spent their formative years at the remote military installation at a time when there were hundreds of kids and it was difficult to get on-base housing. They described taking buses on ski trips to the Wasatch Mountains, riding horses, the teen club and watching soldiers do physical training.
While she has maintained ties to Dugway over the years, Thomas said it has changed a lot since her time growing up on base. She was one of dozens of current and former Dugway residents and employees who attended the 75th Anniversary Observance at the military installation Wednesday afternoon.
Founded on Feb. 6, 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dugway Proving Ground was created to test biological and chemical weapons, as well as defenses against them. The remoteness of the installation, which was 126,720 acres at its founding, made it a prime candidate for a testing area.
Utah Division of State History Director Brad Westwood gave remarks at the 75th anniversary celebration, in which he highlighted Utah’s long military tradition and its impact on the local economy.
“During the last 100 years, really since World War I, Utah has nurtured and built a strong partnership with America’s military and America’s defense industry,” Westwood said.
The position of Utah as an inland state with easy access to much of the western United States is one reason it made good strategic sense to establish military bases in the state, according to Westwood.
“What I realized as director of state history is that this story is the story of Utah,” he said. “Your story here at this installation is a vital, significant part of the history of Utah.”
After it was established in 1942, Dugway’s projects included incendiary bombs, chemical weapons and modified agents sprayed from aircraft.
Following World War II, Dugway was combined with the Deseret Chemical Depot and then placed on standby. In 1950, the installation returned to active status and added 279,000 acres of land; four years later it became a permanent installation.
President Richard Nixon banned the development of biological and chemical weapon testing in 1969, which shifted the focus to defense against those same weapons. Today, Dugway’s mission revolves around testing detectors, protective clothing, air filtration units and other technology designed to protect against live and inert chemical and biological agents for government and private contractors.
Westwood also touched on some low points in Dugway Proving Ground history — including in 1968, in which a deadly nerve agent drifted off base and killed 6,000 sheep in Skull and Rush valleys. Dugway came under recent scrutiny in 2015 after it was found the installation had accidently shipped live anthrax spores to 194 laboratories in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories and nine foreign nations over a 12-year period.
Westwood said while landmarks like German Village, constructed during World War II for the testing of incendiary bombs, which still stand today are iconic parts of Dugway Proving Ground’s history, the people define it.
“As I speak to Dugway’s personnel past and present, the impression I get is that it is the thousands of people who lived and worked at Dugway that make up a bigger part of DPG’s history,” Westwood said.
Dugway Proving Ground Commander Col. Sean Kirschner said he tasked Chief of Staff Vincent Liddiard with creating a Hall of Fame for notable Dugway residents and employees and some sort of museum.
“I’ve also asked him to look into setting up some kind of museum so that we can start preserving some of that history that is starting to get away from us,” he said.
Dugway residents of note include Academy Award-winning actress Faye Dunaway, who lived on base for three years while her father was a cook and her mother worked at the dry cleaners. U.S. Air Force Major Carroll R. Michaud suggested the innovation which led to global positioning system during altitude testing of F15 fighter jets at Dugway and Charles Nagel, a biologist at Dugway, went on to pioneer the wine industry in Washington State.
Westwood also praised the diversity at Dugway, which has seen people from all walks of civilian and military life come through its gates over the years.
“Dugway has, from the beginning, been an island of social and ethnic diversity somewhat in contrast to Utah’s communities,” he said.
Thomas said she remembered people from all over the world coming to Dugway, including as far away as Japan, during her time on base.
“That kept it really diverse, which is really great for all of us because we got to experience it,” she said.
Kirschner echoed that sentiment in his remarks, placing special emphasis on the traits that define the employees of the installation.
“It marks and shows the attributes that our workforce here has embodied for 75 years,” he said. “Resiliency, industrious spirit, entrepreneurship, adaptability, hardiness.”
Utah Governor Gary Herbert designated June 14, which is Flag Day and the Army’s birthday, as Dugway Proving Ground Day in a declaration read during the ceremony Wednesday. A pair of munitions were unveiled and dedicated outside Dugway headquarters in honor of the 75th anniversary in the morning.