38 years later, Marine veteran gets 'a chance to say goodbye' to Camp Fuji fire victims
By LANE LAMBERT | The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. | Published: September 22, 2017
HANSON, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Four decades later, the memory of the wind and rain and deadly fire is as vivid as ever for Marine Corps veteran Joe Macdonald of Hanson.
On Oct. 19, 1979, Macdonald was 21 and stationed at Camp Fuji in Japan, at the base of the famous, snow-capped mountain near Tokyo. All the men in his battalion were in their Quonset hut barracks, riding out Typhoon Tip, the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Pacific.
Then in minutes, deadly fires erupted in some of the barracks when leaking fuel reached them and was ignited by the kerosene heaters inside. The fires killed 13 Marines, including two of Macdonald's buddies, and left 38 Marines and three Japanese civilians badly burned.
In a few weeks Macdonald will return to the camp for the first time. He'll be the guest of honor at the Marines' annual memorial ceremony on Oct. 19, and he'll speak at the gathering. His younger son Joseph Macdonald will go with him.
They'll stay overnight at the base, and pay their respects at a single burned Quonset hut that's been preserved as a reminder.
"It will give me a chance to say goodbye to those guys," he said. "I never had the chance."
Macdonald, who's 60, is an appraiser for the Plymouth Rock Assurance insurance company. He said plans for the two-week visit began when his son suggested a Japan trip as a college graduation gift. When he contacted Camp Fuji to arrange a stop there, base officers invited him to join the ceremony.
He talks about the trip in terms of a pilgrimage, not a vacation. It's something he almost dreads, but feels he needs to do.
"It's going to be tough," he said. "But I always thought of going back there."
Macdonald grew up in Quincy. He graduated from Boston College High, tried college for a year and then worked at the Fore River shipyard for a while before he enlisted in the Marines in 1978. His father was a Korean War veteran, so he asked for an overseas assignment.
His "2/4" battalion – the 2nd Battalion, 4th Division – had been at Camp Fuji for cold-weather combat training for less than a month when Typhoon Tip struck. Long-range forecasting wasn't as precise then, so the base got a 24-hour advance notice to batten down.
Macdonald was on guard duty at the camp's motor pool that day. At noon, he said, the whole battalion was ordered to barracks. The wind was already 60 to 70 miles per hour.
As the sky darkened and the platoon sat on their bunks, "the roofs of some of the Quonsets began to come off," Macdonald recalled. "The doors were getting pulled off." So the base officers sent a crew around to nail the doors shut from the outside.
Macdonald and others saw flashes of red and yellow light outside the windows, and then a ball of flame. The Quonset hut next to theirs was engulfed in fire.
What the Marines didn't learn until later was that the typhoon's wind and rain had destroyed an earthen retaining wall that held the camp's fuel storage containers in place. The large rubber bladders were on the slope just above the camp. When the retaining wall gave way, the fuel hoses came loose, and 10,000 gallons of gasoline poured down the hillside around the barracks.
Inside the Quonset huts, kerosene heaters were lit. The heaters ignited the gas in one, then 15 huts in all.
When Macdonald saw the flames through the window, he figured his hut was next, until a burly captain broke through the door and said, "Run for your life! Do it now!"
Moments later, his Quonset hut burst into flame like the others.
"That captain saved 40 guys," Macdonald said.
The fires burned for two hours. Marines who weren't injured – and some who were – fled to the helicopter landing area. They sheltered the injured until ambulances arrived to take them to hospitals. Three Japanese civilians were also burned. Macdonald and other Marines were moved to a nearby Japanese military base.
A week later they were back at the camp in replacement huts, but Macdonald said they did little training. "You could smell the gasoline for weeks," he said.
He thinks the deadly fire might have gotten more coverage, but Iranian Islamist militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran a few weeks later, on Nov. 4, and that dominated international news. His battalion was sent to the Indian Ocean, as part of a Navy task force for possible action.
Macdonald's enlistment ended in 1981. He joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1990, after Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, but he wasn't sent overseas. He retired as a sergeant.
Over the years he's had "a little contact" with other veterans who survived the Camp Fuji fire, "but I don't think they want to talk about it," he said. "And some have died." He'll be the only one at this year's ceremony.
"I don't know what's going to happen there," he said. "It's going to be emotional. But maybe this can put some of these things to rest."
©2017 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.
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