Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II

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Lennon, had followed Sykes' recommendations, including keeping a water hose extended down into the hold for quick firefighting should the need arise.

Jeremy Paxman

Five-gallon pump water extinguishers were kept on hand. Based on a safety memo already in force in the yard, the ship also had carbon dioxide extinguishers and one man from the ship was assigned to stand on deck, watch for fires and extinguish them, a position known as a fire watch. The memo required a fire watch be assigned for each job undertaken by a welder, cutter or burner.

Lennon tried to accommodate any suggestion he was given. If yard safety assistants asked that trash accumulating in the hold be removed, he got right on it. When they previously noticed a lot of prepared cork in the hold and suggested civilian supervisors have it removed, the supervisors argued.

The assistants appealed to Lennon and the cork was removed. On the 27th, the joiners feared they would fall behind and asked that extra cork be prepared for them to install on the night shift. They had been using up the cork as fast as the painters could prepare it. Some time after p. Later, a fire marshal's inspection of the area found nothing except a little trash and a lot of hose lines in the bottom that posed a trip hazard. A sailor assigned as fire watch came on duty that afternoon, along with another sailor whose job was to keep watch for sabotage.

A few days earlier, tacks were found driven into a cable used to affect the ship's magnetic signature and keep it safe from explosive mines. A discreet investigation led to the sabotage watch. Before he left that afternoon, the painting supervisor told the man supervising the joiners about the prepared cork and mentioned that it was highly flammable. About p. Up above, a welder waited for a crane to lower a deck plate. He lit a cigarette and watched the others work.

He stopped and watched as fiery orange sparks rained down on the starboard side from the upper deck where others were welding. Several men spotted flames on the pile of cork on the starboard side of the deck in the Saturn's hold. The fire watch ran toward an extinguisher, but the flames had taken off. He tried to douse it with a CO2 extinguisher, but there was no use. One of the joiners ran for the ladder and tried to see his buddy through the smoke filling the hold.

The fire watch reached for a water hose leading to the deck below, but was blocked by flames. He put a coat over his head and ran for the ladder. Above, someone was yelling at the workmen to get out. Dorsey Slaughter and Cabble Scott, a joiner, both tried for the ladder, but by then, flames swirling around the top forced them back down. Scott went to the port side into a corner where men from the starboard side had run to escape the heat and flames. He grabbed one of the acetylene hoses hanging from above, swung out and climbed up to safety. He nearly passed out from the acrid smoke and fumes.

But he held on. Slaughter, too, tried to climb up one of the hoses, but was forced back down by the fire. He went into the diesel room and dropped into a manhole. At least two of the men climbed over some scaffolding to get out of the hold. Others figured the only way to survive was to get lower. Slaughter was having a hard time breathing. His throat and lungs hurt. He tried to hold his breath as long as he could, but it was impossible.

By then the shouting had stopped. There was nothing but darkness and the coughs of other men. Slaughter started to climb out, but could feel a man's body stretched across the opening of the manhole. As he pushed the man aside, he heard a gasp.

Then quiet. Slaughter, 32, had a wife and two sons. He crouched down in the darkness and buried his face in his hands. He had never been a religious man but decided to say a prayer.

If he could be rescued, he prayed, he would be a different kind of man. Soon after, Slaughter heard a noise and saw a flame shoot through the wall beside him. A welder was cutting a hole through the bulkhead from another hold in the ship. The torch carved a line about a foot long and then stopped. Struggling to breathe, Slaughter felt along the deck and grabbed a piece of scrap metal. He banged on the bulkhead two or three times. When the welder punched a hole through the steel, Slaughter could hear men calling to him.

He saw a light and a hand and reached for it. The fire was out, but so much water had been poured into the ship that it began listing to one side. While the crew worked to clear the ship's tanks of water, Sykes and others checked each unconscious man for signs of life and began artificial respiration. The men who were believed to have a chance would receive oxygen with equipment brought from the dispensary and by ambulances.


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Johnson later told a reporter. Johnson, 21, rode to the ship on the ambulance from the yard dispensary and was among the first to begin helping in the hold of the ship. Fourteen of the men who ran from the starboard side of the deck to the port side and huddled against the hull were found together in a corner. When the Saturn's medical officer arrived, all 14 men were lying together, face up. None appeared to be burned, but their faces had the rosy tell-tale glow of carbon monoxide poisoning.

They were given artificial respiration until, one by one, their hearts stopped. The last man was pronounced dead at p. A crane lowered large trays into the hold to hoist out the injured and the dead.

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Those who survived were taken to the yard dispensary and transferred to the Navy's hospital in Portsmouth. After two straight hours of working on the men, Johnson, too, had collapsed and was taken to the dispensary where he was treated for exhaustion.

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A half-dozen Navy chaplains were sent to inform and comfort the families of the dead. More than a half-dozen local funeral homes were called upon to handle the bodies. A memorial service to honor them in the yard was planned for the following Monday and was to be broadcast over the facility's loudspeaker system. He looked around and saw the 19 other men who had been rescued from the ship. Someone brought in the morning Norfolk Virginian-Pilot where Slaughter learned the details and tried to come to grips with what had happened.

Later, Slaughter learned that the man who had used a torch to cut a hole in the bulkhead and pull him to safety had found a worker dead beside him. As the men pulled Slaughter through the hole, one of them turned on the oxygen on his acetylene torch and let the air blow into Slaughter's mouth and nose as they placed him on a stretcher.

Slaughter was discharged from the hospital the morning after the fire and would later testify at an inquiry that began that morning. A few days later, Slaughter went back aboard the Saturn to see the hole that was cut to free him.

Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II
Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II
Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II
Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II
Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II
Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II
Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II
Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II Ordinary Heroes: Untold Stories of World War II

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