Strategic Bargains Abound at Navy’s Monthly Sale of Surplus Items

Times Staff Writer

In the market for a bridge, a barge or a C-121 cargo plane?

Has the U.S. Navy got a bargain for you: its monthly surplus sale at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme.

Once a month--usually on the third Thursday--the base’s office of defense reutilization and marketing auctions such military castoffs along with a slew of other goods not normally found at your local mall.

On the block is everything from crates of Army fatigues and steel-toed leather boots to electronic missile components to 8-foot-tall isolation booths used for hearing tests.


An auctioneer, with a rat-a-tat-tat spiel that could blend in at any county fair, even peddles camouflage-speckled pickup trucks.

“The general spread of stuff that Uncle Sam sells,” is how the office’s supervisor, James Orton, describes about 3,000 used, surplus or outmoded items sold each year in the center’s Building 513.

The goods all were initially purchased by the Department of Defense, but don’t expect any $640 toilet seats. With a lot of more than 100 aging office chairs frequently going for as little as $5, auction prices are rock bottom.

The khaki castoffs keep a corps of civilian buyers--many of them from military-surplus stores--in clover.

For Don Erkel, a 55-year-old vendor of industrial photographic equipment, attending the Port Hueneme auction and 13 or so other military sales each month is practically a full-time job. “Bidding is a 3-day-a-week thing,” he said. “The rest of the week is filled with picking up the merchandise and bringing it back.”

The supply of available booty has shrunk since the Vietnam era, when auction items covered about 50 acres compared to today’s 15, but the number of prospective buyers has not dwindled. “They’ll never die out,” Orton said. “There’s too much money to be made.”

The center, which is one of 21 military bases that conducts auctions statewide, doesn’t fare badly, either. The sale brings it nearly $220,000 annually--making it one of the larger auctions in the state behind similar sales in San Diego, Alameda and Sacramento, said Dan Gibson, chief of marketing for the Department of Defense reutilization and marketing service.

A nationwide closed-bid sale, in which buyers compete through the mail in 10 to 12 separate offerings each month for larger items, such as railroad cars and aircraft, pads Port Hueneme coffers by an additional $1 million each year.

Even more money is expected from a new sale scheduled for the second Friday of every other month--Feb. 10 is the next one--in which many of the same goods sold at auction will be sold for fixed prices in small quantities.

In addition to earning money for the base, the sales spare the military the expense of disposing of unwanted items. With landfills charging $70 to $80 per ton, the cost can be considerable for such items as a 4,000-pound diesel engine, which might otherwise fetch $400, as one did at December’s auction, Orton said.

But anyone expecting to find the makings for warfare will be disappointed by the government garage sale.

To get a howitzer, for instance, a weekend warrior would have to travel to Barstow, where the Marine Corps Logistics Base occasionally auctions them, Orton said. But the weapon will have been “demilitarized,” or reduced to its less dangerous components.

Boats Available

Boat aficionadoes will have better luck at the Navy’s Ream Field at Imperial Beach, where small vessels frequently go on the block, along with parts for larger ships and planes.

Although the Port Hueneme auction occasionally features a barge or a relic of anti-submarine warfare, such as the C-121, most surplus sea vessels and aircraft that find their way to the Oxnard area usually end up as targets for missiles being tested at the nearby Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, Orton said.

Indeed, the bulk of what is for sale is decidedly civilian in tone--typewriters, cameras, computers, pickup trucks, physics books, ceiling tile. Many items, such as scaffolding, power tools and temporary bridges, reflect the base’s role as home to the Navy’s engineering corps, which during wartime precedes troops into battle areas to construct needed roads, airstrips and base camps.

Still, not all items, which go on display for three days before each sale, will be familiar to the average shopper. December’s four-page listing of goods included such head-scratchers as a “comparator, optical,” a “compass-repeater, gyro” and “tellurometers.”

Particular Shoppers

But then, those attracted to the Port Hueneme sale are not average shoppers.

Take Ron Vincent, a 43-year-old electrical engineer who owns a small hydroelectric power plant in South Dakota. An Oxnard resident, Vincent said he has saved thousands of dollars by buying military equipment and adapting it for his business.

An example is the steam cleaner he bought at the auction several years ago. It now thaws the ice that covers the electricity plant’s floodgates during winter. An electric winch, bought by Vincent for $100 seven years ago, lifts the floodgates, allowing water to hit turbines that generate electricity.

“It’s something that I really needed,” he said.

Vincent expects to save even more after transporting the two electric cars he bought for less than $500 to South Dakota. There he will be able to tap into his electrical supply instead of buying gasoline, he said.

Stiff Competition

But competition can be stiff at the monthly auctions, which began in 1974. Regulars tell of a buyer who sometimes bids far more than the value of items to discourage newcomers. Another, Orton said, hides his interest by merely winking to raise a bid instead of holding up a paddle, as do the other bidders.

“Some like to play the game, ‘I don’t want my competitors to know what I’m doing,’ ” Orton explained.

Not everyone wins. A self-employed engineer who had driven from Bakersfield in hopes of buying a typewriter at the December auction went home empty-handed after a typewriter repairman from Port Hueneme repeatedly outbid him.

Others complain of the temptation to buy more than they will ever use. Dan Layman, the 42-year-old operator of a Ventura auto salvage yard, has steered clear of the auction after visiting it for the first time 6 months ago.

Layman bought 12 batches of “some junk that I probably didn’t need,” he said. “It took me 2 days off of work just to haul it off. You can get real carried away real quick.”

Cluttered Home

Even Vincent, who has been attending the auction every other month for 15 years, agrees. He says his home is littered with his purchases.

Four computers clutter one bedroom. In another, seven calculators sit in a pile. In his back yard, old lockers, rubber conveyor belts and refrigerator insulation have begun to show signs of weathering. And in front of the house, a trailer covered in plastic houses the 500 hand-sized transformers Vincent bought for a dime apiece, thinking that they would be easy to resell. They were not.

“I don’t like clutter,” he said apologetically. “But I don’t like to throw away anything that has value to it.”