Section one was on for the Midwatch and at the top of the log it read, “Friday, 24 September 1965.” Over 100 men were in the Ops Complex for that Midwatch. It was just another ordinary day.
According to the record, the fire started sometime around 0200, not in the ‘tunnel’ itself, but in the wooden two-story structure in front of the tunnel – Building 25. Thick black smoke began filling the air. Men stayed at their positions – as was the norm, while supervisors searched for the cause. The air conditioning system aided in the spread of the smoke.
Calls were made. The men were told to prepare to evacuate! The origin is believed to have been electrical in nature and may have been caused by an overload or perhaps frayed wires. Others maintain that it was caused by the incinerator, overheated – yet again – with the daily classified burn. What was the real cause? We’ll probably never know. What is known is that when the smoke cleared and the fire was put out two Marines; nine Sailors and the Officer of the Day were dead.
This was no longer an ordinary day!
The OOD was notified at 0230. The Fire Department was called at 0235 but personnel were not ordered to evacuate the building until 0255 – nearly an hour after the fire started !!
With one exception, all the men lost that night were junior personnel. The building that was destroyed was used, in part, as a training area where new people could get accustomed, to the job, up to speed, prior to moving into the tunnel. These new Sailors and Marines didn’t “know the ropes.” When the rooms and passageways filled with smoke, did they know where another exit was? Did they know more than one way in or out? No one knows. The majority of bodies were found clustered at the base of the interior stairwell of Building 25.
There were heroes that night. Wilford Cordell was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for his efforts as he tried to fight the fire. When the young seaman realized the hopelessness of the situation he found himself already trapped by the flames. He was awarded the Medal posthumously.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Ernest D. Moody, the OOD, was no newcomer to the Navy nor to Security Group. He was an 18-year veteran. As a former maintenance man on his third tour at Kamiseya, he knew his way around the labyrinth of interconnecting rooms. As OOD, he had been notified of the problem at about 0230. He was last seen near the incinerator room. For his actions that night, LTJG Moody was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal – posthumously.
By 0300 fire was evident throughout Building 25. Outside fire assistance had been requested with units from Camp Zama, arriving on the scene at 0312.
By 0430, twenty-eight pieces of fire fighting equipment had been employed and had finally brought the fire under control.
In the final analysis, there were 122 men on watch in the Operations Complex when the fire broke out. Buildings 25 and 105 were completely destroyed and Building 106 was partially burned. Twenty-five men had to be helped from the building – 14 of those required hospitalization, along with one Japanese National fireman from Kamiseya. Twelve men had died.
There was an official investigation. The board convened on 18 October and sat until 24 November. During that time 47 witnesses were called, 77 exhibits were entered into evidence, 68 personnel were involved with the inquiry. There were 55 recommendations. The court produced 1,661 numbered pages of questions and testimony, plus additional pages of facts, the exhibits, endorsements and forwarding letters: the stack of paper is over 9.5″ thick!
By the time of the first anniversary, a permanent memorial plaque had been cast with the names of the twelve shipmates lost that night.
When the command finally closed and left the base in 1995, the plaque was boxed up and eventually arrived at Corry Station where it remains on display today.
Over the past half-century memorial services have been held in remembrance of our Sailors and Marines. That tradition has continued, notably for the 50th anniversary. We still remember our shipmates.
Jay Browne served as the last Command Master Chief of NSGA Kamiseya from October 1992 through June 1995.
Below are the names of the 12 men who lost their life during the tunnel fire:
CTSA Roger “W” Alex
CTSA William E. Briley
CTSN Wilford D. Cordell
CTSN Dennis e. Etzwieler
CT3 Archie R. Garofalo
CTSA John D. House
LCPL Richard E. McKown
LTjg Ernest D. Moody
SGT Paul C. Rodrigues
CT3 Wayne E. Tower
CTSN James K. Whitman
CT3 Gregory S. Williams
Sayonara is not goodbye, but the promise of meeting again.