For the men and women stationed at the U.S. Naval Security Group’s Kamiseya, Japan, listening post, September 23, 1965, had been an all too typical day.
The weather had been a comfortable 75 degrees with bright sunshine. Back in the United States, President Lyndon Baines Johnson occupied the Oval Office and the number one song, typical of the times, was Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” In Vietnam, U.S. forces were ramping up for operations in the Ia Drang Valley and the onset of “Operation Rolling Thunder.” Sunset that day occurred at 1743. At the time, portions of the base personnel were coming off duty and heading for the dining hall, others were gearing up to report for duty. There was no hint or suspicion that the night and following day would be anything but routine.
Established in the early 1950s, the naval base was the brain child of the pioneering U.S. Navy cryptologist Captain Wesley Arnold “Ham” Wright. Previously, radio intercept activities had been conducted at the U.S. Navy Shipyard at Yokosuka. Over time, however, electrical interference at the site prompted the authorities to seek a more suitable location. Kamiseya, on Honshu’s Kanto Plain near Atsugi Airfield, proved to be the perfect spot.
The site was not only optimal for receiving signals, but also provided a secure environment that would be hard to find elsewhere. It suited the sailors as well. Many remarked that the site was a “sailor’s dream,” in that it provided an environment where one could be involved in interesting and challenging work, while at the same time it provided “. . . opportunities for liberty that couldn’t be beat.”
Later on the evening of the 23rd, over 110 personnel reported to their duty stations for the mid-watch, entering the operations complex through Building 25. The structure was a two story wooden facility, in front of “the tunnel” where the actual work took place. In the early morning hours of the 24th, a fire broke out in the building and thick black smoke began filtering into both floors and also, tragically, into the air conditioning system of the operations area. To this day, there is debate about the initial cause of the blaze. Some blamed faulty wiring; others attributed it to an overheated incinerator. The fact was that a serious, life-threatening situation was developing.
Shortly after the outbreak of the fire, the watch leadership informed the Officer of the Day of the emergency and began working to determine the appropriate course of actions to deal with the situation. It was not until almost an hour after the fire had started that orders were given to evacuate the area. By that time, Building 25 was engulfed in flames.
Fire units soon arrived and by 0550, the blaze was finally brought under control. Twenty-five men had to be carried out of the building and 14 were eventually hospitalized. Most tragically, 12 members of the watch perished in the conflagration. Survivors told many stories of courage and bravery related to the efforts of those on the scene to protect the lives of their fellow Marines and Sailors as well as classified information.
With this in mind we honor and remember those who perished that night:
CTSA Roger W. Alex, USN
November 25, 1945 –September 24, 1965 (age 19)
CTSA William Edward Briley, USN
December 24, 1946 – September 24, 1965 (age 18)
CTSN Wilfred Dewey Cordell, USN
September 23, 1945 – September 24, 1965 (age 20)
CTSN Dennis Eugene Etzweiler, USN
December 31, 1946 – September 24, 1965 (age 18)
CT3 Archie Russell Garofalo, USN
September, 24, 1965
CTSA John Dewey House
January 2, 1947 – September 24, 1965 (age 18)
LCPL Richard Eugene McKown
September 24, 1965
LTJG Ernest Don Moody
December 9, 1928 – September 24, 1965 (age 36)
Sgt Paul Charles Rodrigues, August
21, 1941 – September 24, 1965 (age 24)
CT3 Wayne Edgar Tower
September 15, 1943 – September 24, 1965 (age 22)
CTSN James Kenneth Whitman
December 10, 1946 – September 24, 1965 (age 18)
CT3 Gregory Scott Williams
December 11, 1945 – September 24, 1965 (age 19)
Today, Kamiseya is an abandoned patch of land overgrown with grass and weeds. Many of the early buildings still stand, but the current day scene resembles that of an abandoned frontier ghost town. However, despite that, the base will forever remain part of the proud past of the U.S. Navy’s cryptologic service, and the deeds and accomplishments of the many dedicated men and women who served and died there will remain in our memory for all time.
Kamiseya serves as a reminder that the deeds and accomplishments that helped to win the Cold War did not come without cost. We should never forget that while life in the U.S. military is tough and demanding, it can also be fraught with peril both on and off the battlefield.
It is with this thought in mind that we honor and remember the 12 brave and dedicated members of the cryptologic sea service who gave their lives that day. In addition, we remember all those who fought and died during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan in an effort to preserve freedom and liberty for generations to come.
25 September 2018 at 10:43
As a CTOSN, and reporting to my first duty station, in 1969,while at A school in NCTC Pensacola, I was told about the “great fire” of 1965 at NSGA Kamiseya. When I arriived at the “tunnel” for my first watch of my ensuing 20-year career, I saw the sign at the entrance of the communications complex memorializing the CT’s who had lost their lives on that tragic day. I also was given burn detail many times and couldn’t help but think that the fire started in the incinerator room. It was hard to keep that furnace from overheating as we had tons of burn bags to throw into it. We had no training on how to keep a fire from raging out of control and would feed the furnace with reckless abandon. We had ti crack open the back door to release the intense heat as I would surmise that the burn room temperature at times would reach in excess of 100 degrees! Thus, I can understand that the fire very possibly originated from that room.
CTO1 Roger “Smokey” Castonguay Ret.
No pun intended on the nickname as that was indeed what many of my shipmates called me in my first hitch.
29 May 2021 at 04:10
I was on duty in the comm center that night and alerted Chief James Farrell when I smelled the smoke before fire erupted. Will never forget escaping out back by crypto machines and over barbed-wired fence and back around to front of wooden superstructure to man fire hoses and try to rescue any who were trapped. I think of that tragedy all too often. We were never properly ‘debriefed’ and seems U.S. Navy only tried to cover it up as quickly as possible. I only hope something was learned by the officers who engaged in the actions that allowed it to happen — Jack Jones, CT2, “O” branch
25 September 2021 at 01:38
I remember this like it was yesterday. Digging up the bodies the next day was one of the worst days of my life.
8 June 2022 at 18:03
I was on duty the time of the fire. Smoke was entering the work area through the A/C vents. We put on gas masks but they were not designed for smoke. Our supervisor did not have the authority to have us leave our duty station. As the room continued to fill up with smoke our supervisor made the decision, and told all of us on duty to leave the building with exception of himself and one volunteer. We exited to find that there were a multitude of ambulances and fire fighting vehicles. At first we helped carry smoke victims to ambulances, then I was told to help man one of the fire hoses. We were up on the roof with our fire hose. The roof was so hot that we had to keep shifting from one foot to the other. The following day I was part of the clean up crew. I was due to exit the military on September 19th but was extended my McNamera for three months or I would not have been there. The supervisor and volunteer that stayed behind suffered smoke inhalation but did survive. After my time extension I did exit the military. I have only been in contact with one person Gene Plants, that I knew back then. I was a member of a Japanese/American Car Club and my hobby was photography. I hung out in Tokyo much of my liberty time and have many, many fond memories of my time in Japan. Probably the thing that has left the greatest impression on me was my visit to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Considering the two atomic bombs and the war, I found the Japanese people to be very kind and accepting of Americans.