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Defense plant weathers 3 decades

Published 1:00pm Saturday, November 16, 2013

This week Raytheon Co. announced a 150-job expansion at their plant in Forest, Mississippi.

Gov. Phil Bryant and the Mississippi Development Authority played a central role in making that happen, along with City of Forest and Scott County officials and the state’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran announced in April that South Korea had decided to supply its fighter aircraft with radar built in the company’s Mississippi plant. That announcement came after Cochran had invited the South Korean ambassador to the U.S. in 2011 to showcase the quality of the work done in Mississippi.

I remember when Hughes Aircraft, which later was acquired by Raytheon, first came to Forest.

Back in 1983, Hughes Aircraft was still the company founded by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and owned by the medical institute he endowed that bore his name.

The Hughes name resonated with all kinds of personal and political intrigue – the outsized Hughes projects like the Spruce Goose, RKO Films and Trans World Airlines (TWA). There was also the Hughes mystique, shrouded in legendary episodes of erratic, reclusive behavior and bizarre obsessions that obscured his legacy as a truly visionary aviator.

But in Scott County 30 years ago, the name Hughes Aircraft resonated as an opportunity for Mississippi workers in that area to have jobs in a less difficult working environment than the poultry industry or the timber industry. One large factory near Forest had shuttered a few years earlier and left hundreds unemployed or under-employed.

The late Erle Johnston — a former weekly newspaper publisher — was the mayor of Forest at the time and had experience in economic development and statewide politics. Johnston used those skills and the clout of U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, the longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to help Forest, Mississippi land the Hughes Aircraft of Mississippi plant in 1983.

The political baton for the growth, development and longevity of the defense plant was handed from Stennis to former U.S. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery — in whose district the plant was located — and then to U.S. Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran.

Now Cochran’s post as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee is bolstered by help from U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper.

Defense appropriations have always been a highly political exercise. The fact that Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula was for many years the state’s largest employer with some 10,000 employees coincided with the Stennis chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee is no coincidence.

Over three decades, Hughes and later Raytheon employees manufactured Enhanced Position Location Reporting System backpack field communication technologies for the Army and the Marines, the guidance system for the MK-49 advanced capability torpedo for the Navy, and electronics for the Avenger Missile System and the Sentinel radar system for the Army.

Company officials said this week that over 30 defense programs had been produced at the Forest plant. That’s quality defense products produced in rural Mississippi by Mississippi workers. While the clout of Mississippi’s political establishment certainly helped secure the plant’s 30-year tenure, the bottom line has been the reliable quality of the work done by those workers.

The people of Forest packed the Scott County Courthouse for the Hughes Aircraft announcement in 1983 as Johnston, Sen. Stennis, Rep. Montgomery and Gov. William Winter presided. I remember the look of hope and expectation on the faces of those who wanted to be successful in workforce training that would enable them to win jobs at the Hughes plant.

Writing that story as the 24-year-old publisher of the Scott County Times, who could have known that the seeds that those visionary Mississippi leaders and others planted back then would continue to grow and bear fruit for the county, the state and nation three decades later.

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