GALLITZIN - The assignment was anything but exciting.
It was the spring of 1945, and Francis Shevenock of Gallitzin was picked to guard a nondescript building with three other Marine MPs on Mare Island, a naval yard off the California coast.
He would later learn that he had possibly the most important guard duty of World War II.
Mirror photo by Greg Bock
Francis Shevenock sits with his wife, Betty, in their home in Gallitzin.
The Marines had to stand at a corner of the building, and for four months, the only person the guards ever saw was the landscaper, who Shevenock recalled came by once a week to cut the grass.
Shevenock, who had joined the Marine Corps in January of that year, said Friday that the Marines never saw anyone go in or come out.
With orders to shoot anyone who approached and failed to comply with orders, Shevenock and the other Marines had no idea what they were protecting.
At one point, one of the MPs asked a lieutenant, "What the hell is in there?"
"If I told you that, I would be in the hoosegow," Shevenock, now 86, recalled the officer saying.
The duty was anything but exciting, even tedious, Shevenock said.
"Nothing to look at except the back of that building," he said.
For about three weeks, the USS Indianapolis docked at the island for repairs, and it wasn't until the ship cruised back out into the vastness of the Pacific in mid-July 1945 that Shevenock and the men learned what they had guarded: components of Little Boy and Fat Man, the atomic bombs that the U.S. would later drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki after their assemblage in the Marianna Islands.
"That's when it was really tight down there," Shevenock said of the security. "They really didn't want anyone to know what was going on down there."
After his time on Mare Island, Shevenock said he was transferred to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where he eventually became a guard at its military prison.
He laughed that he never received his dress blues until a couple of weeks before his discharge in December 1947 because of his 6-foot-4-inch frame.
Shevenock came back to Gallitzin and returned to work at Filer's Transfer in Altoona.
Shevenock's wife, Betty, 81, said the two will go to today's Veterans Day ceremony in Gallitzin as they always do. On Friday, at the request of their great-niece, they attended a veterans' program at Central Cambria Elementary School in Ebensburg where students sang and honored area veterans.
During the war, Betty Shevenock was only a teenager, but she recalled going to work like other young girls.
"I was 14 years old," she said. "I quit school and worked in a shirt factory - like everyone else."
It was strange to have spent so much time guarding something without knowing what it was or why, Shevenock said. Even after the bomb components left the island, the team still had to stand guard for another two months, he said.
"I never have seen the inside of that building," Shevenock said of the mysterious building on Mare Island.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.