Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Barksdale Fire Heroics Recounted

Fire at Barksdale Field, 16 Jan 1945. Source: Barksdale's Bark

Barksdale Field, now Barksdale Air Force Base, battled its "worst fire disaster in Barksdale's history" during the winter of 1945. Barksdale personnel detected the fire at 3:03 a.m. on a Tuesday, and it raged on for four hours. Before firefighters could extinguish the fire, it leveled hangars one and two along with two twin-engine airplanes. Firefighters remained on the scene as they continued to apply water to the smoldering embers until 10 a.m.

Barksdale firefighters, soldier volunteers, and two Shreveport crews fought the blaze. Col. Garrison, Lt. Col. Grover Wilcox, and Capt. George Booth organized teams of enlisted men and moved planes and equipment from hangar one. "Col. Wilcox and Capt. Booth entered one ship and manned the controls while volunteer soldiers towed it out on the runway. By the time the men reached the plane, it was partially damaged. Capt. Booth's hands were burned in handling the controls of the plane and Col. Wilcox's clothing was scortched [sic]."

The selfless and quick actions of Pvt. Franklin J. Hines made their efforts possible. He single-handedly manned the fire hose's nozzle while perched on a ladder leaning against the burning building when others were driven away by the intense heat. He kept a steady stream of water along the rescue party's path, making it possible for the men to pull the plane from the fire. Also, making it possible for another group of men to remove several gasoline-filled railroad cars sitting nearby.

Hines remained perched precariously on the ladder until he was driven back by the intense heat and smoke. Then he moved to another sector where he and a crew of men continued fighting the fire. Col. Wilcox and Capt. Booth taxied two planes from the parking area facing the fire while enlisted men towed four other aircraft out of the danger zone. Hines’s section officer Lt. Lucien G. Edwards submitted a commendation letter to the 380th headquarters for his heroic actions.

Hangar 1 after the fire. Source: Barksdale's Bark.
The Base Commander, Col. William B. Wright, Jr., gave a commendation to Maj. Earle K. Knauer, Assistant Chief of the Supply Division, III TAC, "for superior supervision. He had the gasoline tanks removed and expended great effort with a raging fire about him in an effort to extinguish the fire." Capt. Emile Greenleaf, QM supply office, assisted Knauer and also received a commendation.

Master Sgt. James J. Flanagan, Sgt. Maj., 331st Base Unit received a commendation "for issuing orders alerting the Base Headquarters staff, and then proceeded to the fire where he assembled approximately 100 enlisted men to move a heavy gasoline truck from the fire area. He also kept spectators away from the buildings until assisted by MP's."

Tech. Sgt. Seth T. Fritz of III TAC received a commendation for "disregarding his own safety, and in the face of imminent danger of exploding gas tanks, he entered a fiercely burning hangar with a fire hose in order to extinguish flames, holding property loss to a minimum. Col. Wright made special mention of the saving made to the government by his gallant action."

The exploding gasoline tanks shot flames into hangar one's roof shortly after the soldiers had rescued the airplane. "Under the intense heat the 3-inch ceilings sagged 14-feet in great bulges before thy [sic] crashed to the floor, dragging large portions of the concrete and steel walls with them." Another plane was pulled to safety just as the roof and hangar doors collapsed. Fighting a fire is always dangerous, but fighting this fire was made more hazardous by machine gun shells exploding in the fire.

The fire ravaged hangars Barksdale Field Jan. 1945. Source: Barksdale's Bark
The investigation board concluded that an explosion of two gas heaters caused the early morning fire. The heaters were located in the tech supply room of hangars one and two and were in operation when the rooms were closed the night before the early morning fire. Though the heaters were inspected and approved as meeting the Underwriters Laboratories' specifications eight days before the fire, the heaters were, without a doubt, the cause.

Similar heaters in other hangars were removed and replaced with a different type of heating equipment. The concrete slabs where the hangars once stood became a large wash rack—equipped with a large water tank, a solvent solution tank, and pressure hoses. Barksdale used this wash rack to clean B-29s before each 50 and 100-hour inspection and the B-17s 100-hour inspection.

The destroyed airplanes had a value of $758,000, and the hangars had a value of $63,000. The cost would have been far greater without everyone's fast and heroic actions in moving equipment while fighting the fire that night.

By: Amy Robertson

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