I enlisted in the US Navy in May of 1963. My recruiter had told me that I would be trained as a nuclear technician and assigned to submarine duty, but he lied.
After I was sworn in I was told that since I required glasses I could never be assigned to submarine duty, and I was reassigned. I arrived at Kami Seya in early 1964 as an E-3, after going through ET “A” school at Treasure Island. I was discharged on Treasure Island, in May of 1967, as an E-5 CT “M”. The best part of my duty in Japan was in Yokohama. I was introduced to a Japanese national who owned and operated a yakatori restaurant there. He could not afford to hire an assistant, so I worked in the restaurant during many of my off duty hours. The base approved this – he could not afford to pay anyone to help him, so I was told I could work there for free, since I was not removing a job from the local economy. I worked with some great guys on the base and hung out with them and their wives; it was sometimes hectic, running around on my motorcycle at all hours of the day and night. It was fun, but exhausting. I am sorry I lost touch with everyone after I returned CONUS; I didn’t realize, then, the importance of nurturing friendships.
The incinerator that caused the fire had been recently installed to burn confidential material. A few months earlier, while on a mid watch, another “M” brancher and I had gone “dumpster diving” in the trash outside the building because we had nothing else to do. This trash was routinely picked up by a local (Japanese owned) company for disposal. When we were looking through the trash we found some TS Kimbo material and confidential log books there! We immediately reported this to the duty officer, the trash was sealed, and command installed the incinerator and vented it up through an interior wall to the outside. The local company no longer collected material from the tunnel area. A few days before the tunnel fire the incinerator had blown back and injured one man. There had also been reports – scuttlebutt – that the walls where the vent pipe had been installed had been getting very warm when the incinerator was in use.
I was on duty in the tunnel when it burned down. When the fire broke out I was helping to take down a false bulkhead in the 211 division spaces (room 5 in building 42). Japanese workmen were helping to renovate some of the spaces, and the bulkhead had been put up to keep them from hearing and seeing what was going on in the spaces. As we took the bulkhead down we took the material outside through the double doors that were close to the head in the passageway, just past the guard post near the entrance to the tunnel and the entrance to the “M” branch spaces (Building 25). The doors were unlocked – I had the key from the desk of the duty officer.
We had taken a lot of material out the doors when people started hurrying along the inside passageway. At that point the passageway was cleared; no material was left inside. We were told there was a fire starting in building 25. At that point we locked the double doors and went to see what was going on and if we could be of assistance. We decided to enter the room where the incinerator had recently been installed, and which had already had problems because of overheating. My supervisor and I went into the room where the incinerator was located to see if we could locate the source of the smoke, but we could not. We went back into the corridor, where there was a large locker containing gas masks near the double doors. We each took a mask because of the increasing amount of smoke in the passageway. I realized I still had the key to the lock on the doors in my pocket; I gave the key to a man standing by and told him to stand guard by the doors in case they needed to be opened. I put on my gas mask and went into the machinery room adjacent to the incinerator room to see if the wall where the vent pipe ran was hot. I felt one spot and it felt normal, so I left and exited the building.
I walked around the outside of the building and reentered it through the now opened double doors where we had been taking the bulkhead out of the building. I assisted one person – it was the OWO – out of the building, and then my supervisor and I went into the 211 and 212 spaces to help people get out. The smoke was so thick by then that visibility was almost gone. We had separated. I checked a number of spaces for people before my mask gave out. All the masks that were in the storage cabinet were, as it later turned out, CBW masks. Large particulates, such as smoke, quickly clogged them. They proved useless in a fire. Two other men searching the area helped me get out of the building. When I recovered I found a number of men lying on the ground outside the building being given mouth-to-mouth respiration. Since I had a military driver’s license and knew the roads in the area I was instructed to drive an ambulance with two casualties (one was Sgt. Rodrigues, who later died) to the Camp Zama hospital. When I returned I was told to stand by for orders. By that time the local fire department had finally been called and, as I recall, had arrived.
I know that the review board determined that the fire started because of an electrical problem. I do not believe that to be accurate. The incinerator had known problems before the fire, and I am convinced that the vent pipe had been installed in a flammable wall rather than directly to the outside through a properly insulated pipe. I believe our public works department did the installation and, if so, I wonder whether they installed the incinerator following appropriate safety guidance. I believe that improper installation of the incinerator was the direct cause of the fire and the loss of life. I believe the review board reached a conclusion that was politically “safe”, but incorrect. Perhaps deliberately so.
I remember that there was an edition of the base paper, the Kamiseyan, put out in the day or so after the fire. I have no recollection of whether it was a regular edition or a special flyer, but I do know that whatever it was, it was confiscated. We were ordered to turn in our copies. I suspect that because from the time of the fire a number of us were blaming incorrect installation of the incinerator, that the paper mentioned this, and therefore was recalled because it questioned the intelligence/ability of Command. As I do.