Friday, September 15, 2017

Gurney Edwards and the Day that Shook Norfolk

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

(Photo by Rita Hayden/ Findagrave,com)
Among the trees, manicured lawns, and gardens of Forsyth Memorial Park in Winston-Salem, NC, lies the grave of Gurney Eugene Edwards. The inscription reads “Gone but not Forgotten” with a date of death of September 17, 1943.  This man was a casualty of the Second World War, but he did not die on the beaches near Salerno, far off in the Solomons, or even on Papua New Guinea. Instead, he died a hero on Naval Station Norfolk, the first victim of an accident that eventually killed 30, and wounded approximately 400 others.

In this November 1942 oblique aerial photo looking north-northeast, the fire station (R-43) has not been built yet, but the row of wooden barracks and Hangar V-30, which would become total losses because of the depth charge explosions that took place ten months later, are clearly visible.  The red dot marks roughly where the explosions occurred on September 17, 1943, leaving a crater some five feet deep and 20 feet across. (National Archives and Records Administration/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Gurney Edwards. (Courtesy of Rita Hayden)
September 17, 1943, most likely started like any other day for Mr. Edwards, an assistant fire chief with the naval base fire department. Perhaps he was doing paperwork or conducting training for the men under his charge, but one thing is certain: around 11 am, he was alerted by an ordnance truck driver of a potentially deadly situation. The driver informed him that one of the depth charges he was transporting from Pier 2 on the Naval Operating Base to the Naval Air Station magazine area had fallen off the trailer and been dragged along the road. This same depth charge was now smoking due to the friction. Edwards jumped into action and boarded a fire truck alone. He raced to the scene and began trying to cool down the smoking piece of ordnance with a fire extinguisher, but it was all in vain. The depth charge exploded, killing him instantly and vaporizing his fire truck. This single depth charge then detonated 23 other depth charges containing over a ton and a half of the inherently unstable explosive Torpex.
The eastern side of the closest aircraft hangar to the accident scene, Building V-30, was blown away by the explosions.  Shrapnel also killed numerous personnel working on aircraft between the hangar and Chambers Field. Note the propeller sheared off below the hub on the nearest aircraft. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
While the initial blast created a crater five feet deep and a fireball 500 feet high, the subsequent explosions destroyed 33 aircraft, between 15 and 18 buildings, and shattered windows eight miles away. Fire trucks and ambulances from all surrounding areas, as well as many Sailors stationed on the base, rushed to the scene to lend assistance. They attempted to put out fires, evacuate personnel, shore up damaged structures, and search for both survivors and victims trapped in the rubble or caught outside.
As seen from the lower roof of Fire Station 2 (Building R-43, the three-story corner visible to the far left) looking north towards Chambers Field, the cleanup process has already begun just days after the incident. The barracks buildings were a total loss and those that remained standing were torn down. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
These innocent lives would not be the last lost to a Torpex mishap. The chemical compounds and characteristics that made Torpex so useful as an explosive also made it more unstable than TNT, another explosive known for its sensitivity. Less than two months later, Hampton Roads was again struck by tragedy when seven workers, five of them African-Americans, were killed in an explosion at Naval Mine Depot Yorktown. The losses at Naval Station Norfolk and at what is now known as Naval Weapons Station Yorktown pale in comparison to the 320 lives lost, mostly African-Americans, exactly ten months later in an explosion in California. The Port Chicago disaster would go down in history not only for the loss of life and the destruction it caused, but also for the mutiny it inspired a month later and the metaphorical firestorm that would lead to the desegregation of the US Navy in 1946.
Only a month after the accident, hangar V-30 and the barracks complex have been razed, and it appears that construction has already begun on the barracks site. There remains however a dark area where many of the explosions took place. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
While those who lost family members in the explosion or who were victims themselves will never forget this harrowing day, the censoring inherent with wartime reporting caused the story to vanish from headlines in the coming days. Even now, there is no monument or memorial located on base to commemorate the tragedy. There is only a small memorial plaque for Gurney Eugene Edwards on the side of Fire Station 2, near the location of the disaster 74 years ago, the first victim of one event that has faded from memory during a war that cost the lives of tens of millions.
Building R-43, the newly-built fire station, as seen on September 17, 1943, from the side opposite the blast, which occurred about 40 yards away.  Although damaged, the station served as a natural command post for fire and rescue personnel during the recovery effort, and the building still serves as a fire station today. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Naval Station Norfolk's Fire Station 2 as it appears today. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)
The memorial plaque for Gurney Eugene Edwards, which is embedded in the south wall of the fire station.  (Photo by M.C. Farrington)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My grandfather Houston Eugene Adams was there that day and received a commendation "as I am sure many others did" for his actions following the initial explosion by heading to the danger and working to rescue survivors.