Quonset Huts

For some Military Brats, living quarters were very different from mainstream Americans. Quonset Huts were used for housing, school rooms, mess halls, storage and more. This article is a history of the Quonset Hut, an American icon.
From Barracks to Bungalow

A Quonset Hut is a prefabricated shelter set on a foundation of bolted steel trusses and built of a semicircular arching roof of corrugated metal insulated with wood fiber. An inexpensive and movable building built by the George A. Fuller construction company in New York for the US Navy as an improvement on the Nissen hut that was built by the British during World War II .

Built in Quonset, Rhode Island from which it derived its name, over 150,000 huts were built during the war to house barracks, supply depots, aid stations, and mess halls.

Some people thought the old Nissan hut had been modeled on Iroquois Council Lodges. Now the Quonset hut version had the same shape and an Iroquois-sounding name. The Quonset hut skeleton was a row of semi-circular steel ribs covered with corrugated sheet metal. The ribs sat on a low steel-frame foundation with a plywood floor. The basic model was 20 feet wide and 48 feet long with 720 square feet of usable floor space. Drive your streets today and you’ll see them here and there.

Much more than relics of war, they’re icons of a day in our history—icons that spread all the way from North Africa to the Aleutian Islands. And now, a new memorial museum for war correspondent Ernie Pyle has just been built of Quonset huts. Once in a while, a really good design surfaces — robust, simple, and enduring. The DC-3 , the Jeep, and the Quonset hut are all examples of the clear thinking that was needed to keep us out of serious trouble, back in the 1940s.

No. John H. Lienhard: http://www.uh.edu/

They provided rapidly built quarters for troops and inexpensive depots for military hardware. But it was quickly clear that these were not just feeble, transitory structures. All the workings used to devise Quonset huts were employed in an ideal accord to create an unbelievable strength that could bear up against the battering of typhoons.

Erica Carpenter and Erik Carlson from BASE: Advancing a Post-Military Landscape tell more about the development and design:

    In March of 1941, a design team consisting of Otto Brandenberger, Tomasino Secondino, Domenic Urgo, and Rhode Island native Robert McDonnell was assembled by the George Fuller Construction Company to improve on this design. The team settled on corrugated steel and semi-circular steel arched ribs as the best material solution to the issues of portability and adaptability. Strength was greatly increased and assembly simplified by carrying the roof arch all the way to the foundation. The Anderson Sheet Metal Co. of Providence, RI solved the technical problem of bending the corrugated sheets into a usable form (the answer lay in passing the sheets through large rollers in a process that produced “all kinds of tortured squealing” according to Robert McDonnell).

Several modifications were made during the war. The end bulkheads were typically finished with plywood to allow for the addition of doors and windows. Most were painted a dull olive to reduce visibility from the air. By the end of 1943, four foot overhangs were added to the end of the 48-foot length. This was to prevent heavy rains and sunlight from entering the hut through the end.

Living In a Quonset Hut Is Like Eating Spam.—Tim Clark (Yankee Magazine).

    It may seem strange that a place of eating, or “mess” as it is commonly called in the service, did not enter the scene of our camp. Arrangements were made before we arrived on Guam to eat with the Navy. Our mess was a large Quonset hut. Spam and beans seemed to be the only two products the Navy could muster out of their storehouse. One good result of not having our own mess hall was that we were never troubled by hungry Japanese.

    -John Paul Redmond, America’s Greatest Generation

In June of 1941 the Navy made its earliest shipment of Quonset Huts abroad and by the mid-1950s, 160,000 Quonset Huts had been shipped to points all over the world. The original Quonset Hut could be erected by a crew of 8 men in a single day. Eventually a larger version of the Quonset was produced measuring 40′ x 100,’ weighing over 12 tons, it was officially called the “Steel Arch Rib Building” and nicknamed the “Elephant Hut.” was developed.

By allowing for the rapid deployment of forward bases in war zones the hut could be flown in by helicopter and just as simply removed. Entire communities were built in a day. Facilitating a new kind of nomadic military, these instant modular cities could sustain troops on harsh terrains. The Quonset hut protected America’s overseas Army presence and quietly contributed to the worldwide spread of U.S military power during the middle of the 20th century.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful. – Mae West

Over the course of World War II there were between 150,000-170,000 Quonset huts manufactured. The distinctive half-moon shaped structure of corrugated steel the hut was used in all theaters of WWII and succeeding conflicts. Frequently several Quonsets were attached end to end or placed side by side.

The largest wartime collection of huts was said to have been “a 54,000-square-foot warehouse on Guam called the Multiple Mae West.”It rapidly became a classic military structure and a wide ranging emblem of military life. Many are still standing throughout the United States and other parts of the world.

For a period of time the Sacramento Peak Observatory was housed in one during the late 1940’s; even a play called Tents of Tin written by Robert Finton in 1995. A 20-minute play at National Building Museum where an actor playing a serviceman from that era explained the history on these innovative structures, including a demonstration of how corrugation strengthens the hut’s metal sheathing, along with a portrayal about what it was like to live in a “tin tent.” Throughout the performance, the actor works with vintage and reproduction props.

After the war many Quonset huts were recycled as student housings at Universities, churches and small businesses. Surplus huts were sold to the public for $1,000.00 and came in handy during the housing shortages in the late 40’s.

To see pictures of today’s Quonset huts that have been preserved you can visit the Recent Past Preservation Network.


BASE: The Quonset Hut

The Instant Building:

No. 1278: Quonset Huts:

Quonset Hut building: the timeless design:

Sacramento Peak: Quonset Hut:

USN ID tags:

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  1. Our elementary school in Kaiserslautern ( 1967 ) was made up of quonset huts. Being close to Ramstein AFB I remember the teachers just leaning against their desk because you couldn’t hear them over the B-52’s and Phanthom’s on approach to land.

  2. I lived in a qouset hut on RAF Burtonwood, England….  and stayed in one for 6 weeks on RAF Bentwaters.  That was quite an experience.  There was no central heat, so the bathroom felt like Vladivostock in England.

    Judy Cullen


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