Memories of Quonset huts

Contributor: Nam Sang-so

Quonset hut is a lightweight prefabricated structure of corrugated galvanize steel having a semicircular cross-section. The name comes from the site of their first manufacture at Quonset Point in Rhode Island.

Topic: architecture, construction, Engineering
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When I started work with American engineering firm of Trans-Asia Engineering Associates, Inc. in late 1959, most barracks, offices or warehouses in the U.S. Forces bases in Korea had been built with Quonset huts.  Quonset hut is a lightweight prefabricated structure of corrugated galvanize steel having a semicircular cross-section. The name comes from the site of their first manufacture at Quonset Point in Rhode Island.

Quonset Huts in Camp Coiner

The most common design was a standard size of 20 feet x 48 feet with 16 feet radius, allowing 960 square feet of usable floor space.  A large size of 40 feet x 100 feet was developed for warehouse model. The sides were corrugated steel sheets, and the two ends were covered with plywood which had doors and windows. The interior was insulated and had pressed wood lining and a wood, or a concrete floor. It is known that some 160,000 Quonset huts were manufactured during World War II. Most of the U.S. Forces World War II veterans must have the good memories of the round ceiling, their beds lining up against the gently curved wall, feeling safe.

When I first started inventory of the U.S. Army facilities in the Western Corridor of Korea in 1963 as the chief of Real Estate at K-6 (now Camp Humphreys) most of the buildings in the Pyeongtaek base were of Quonset huts with wooden floor. So that it made big stepping sounds when the boots wearing soldiers walked around. But everyone in an admin office liked to hear the tuned sound made by Korean girls wearing high hills kicking around on the wooden Quonset floor. Some boys thought that they could tell without looking up from their desk if the passing girl was heavy, slim or busy. Some girls went further by producing snare drum rhythms with the two sharp ends of their hills, echoing the music from the half round wall.

The heating was done by individual stove and diesel was fed with a five gallon can by men power. The fuel delivery and the stove maintenance was then subcontracted to a civilian Repair & Utilities (R&U) contract.  It was a 24-hour service.  The smoke stack went straight up through the round ceiling. The white smoke lingering in the sunset glow in the peaceful military base has become a lonely reminiscence for the U.S. soldiers long away from home.  (Some drops of the diesel spilled by transporting the fuel from the outside tank to the stoves, however, has become now a soil contaminating issue at U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison, and ASCOM camps and in other areas)

The latrine building, containing a lot of washing basins, toilets, and shower heads, was located between the two or four Quonset billets connected by open sidewalks.  It was usually built with cement blocks reinforced with rebars and mortars in the hollows of the blocks.

According to the standards of the Department of Defense Activity Address Code (DoDAAC), the military Quonset buildings are classified as temporary structure, carrying T plus real estate identification numbers, having the usable life of 5 years, which meant that after five years of the usage the Quonset huts become zero value in the DoDAAC inventory.

Soon, the US Military have introduced a Butler structural system to replace the outdated Quonset huts after they have matured their life span in the field. Unlike the round-roofed Quonset building, the Butler had vertical walls and slanted roof lines. The Butler structural systems offered virtually unlimited flexibility with the most efficient use of steel. Still, the vertical walled steel structures received temporary real estate category of T, while the cement block structures received S number as semi-permanent. And P for permanent structures for those brick structures built by Japanese army during their occupation of Korea (1909 ~ 1945) and underground bunkers.

While Quonset huts didn’t need to calculate the snow load, the Butler roof needed to figure out the maximum weight of accumulated snow; the heavier the load coefficient for the facilities located along the DMZ, and less gravity action on the roofs in the bases of Daegu, Gimhae, Gunsan and in that southern zone.  The same design concept was applied on the frost-line determination for the underground pipes and thickness design of the base courses for the pavements and structural foundations, which were naturally deeper in the northern territories.

There still must remain some old Quonset huts in remote areas of the U.S. Forces bases in Korea, which I believe should be conserved permanently by painting the exterior walls in the same original pale green or combat camouflage patterns (not like the ostentatious sky-blue buildings in the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom) when a U.S. base is transferred to Korean government. As I remember Camps Casey and Hobby had a lot of the Quonset billets along the valleys of Dongducheon township.  They should remain as ones of the historic relics, as they signify in defending South Korea from becoming a community nation.

Mr. Nam at his desk while working for TAE and ID.

By Nam Sang-so (sangsonam@gmail.com) is a Korean War veteran. He had also served as a non-combatant architect/engineer in 1965~1968 for the OICC VN, U.S. Department of Defense in the Vietnam War.