CAMP ROBERTS – As the dark steel arm of the excavator hung in the air – its claw clamped firmly around a mass of debris – retired Col. John Scully shielded his eyes from the afternoon sun.
"It's kinda different to think of all the people who went through here," he said, still watching. "There are a lot of memories."
Scully, 77, was one of dozens of people who attended a demolition ceremony Monday marking the end of an era at Camp Roberts – California's largest military training camp, and a stopping off point for many soldiers headed for deployment in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of the World War II-era buildings that put a roof over the heads of soldiers training for battle are finally coming down.
In fact, 658 of the structures have stood broken and empty for decades at the base, a training ground just north of San Miguel that's run by the California National Guard.
The green-topped structures with the gaping windows and peeling white paint have been a ghost-town landmark of sorts for passersby along Highway 101.
The structures — barracks accompanied by mess halls, chapels, supply rooms and administration offices — have not been used in more than 30 years.
Contaminated with lead paint, toxic chemicals and rodents carrying hantavirus, an often deadly disease, the decrepit structures were abandoned until National Guard whistleblowers contacted The Bee last year.
A Sacramento Bee investigation uncovered more problems, including dilapidated and unsanitary conditions, in a separate set of barracks still being used to house soldiers – many with jury-rigged plumbing, missing floor coverings and peeling paint. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in building materials and appliances sat unused or ruined in camp warehouses. The report stirred outcry among legislators and national military leaders, and the process of repair and rehabilitation finally began.
Guard leaders also plan a $21 million project to modernize the camp's utility services, and $14 million more on energy-conservation projects.
The buildings at Camp Roberts housed America's soldiers after the boom of wartime construction started in 1940 and finished in 1941. Craftsmen at the time used gasoline to thin the lead-based paint on the boards. The process drew the lead deep into the wood, making it unusable under today's laws.
That's why Camp Roberts had to build its own 85-acre hazardous waste landfill, which required about a decade-long permitting process that finally cleared this year.
The structures are to be torn down in phases over three years. The first phase costs about $3.4 million. The second phase is slated for 2014; but future phases are dictated by when funding is secured.
The concrete pads will go to the camp's rock quarry for recycling.
While many associated with Camp Roberts reflected on how difficult it was to tear down pieces of history, military leaders said it's the only way to look to the future.
The camp is undergoing a number of infrastructure updates, including modernizing existing living quarters, building a 1-megawatt solar farm, adding a water tank and constructing a modern dining hall. Within the next five years, the camp plans to build a brigade of living spaces on the old parade grounds at the garrison.
To read The Bee's coverage of the National Guard, go to: sacbee.com/investigations