Camp Fuji to recall fatal ’79 fire with memorial ceremony
By VINCE LITTLE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 19, 2006
Marines at Camp Fuji, Japan, were to conduct their annual fire memorial ceremony Thursday morning.
The observance marks the Oct. 19, 1979, blaze that claimed the lives of 13 Marines and injured dozens more. The gasoline fire was triggered by a powerful typhoon that raked the area with high winds and torrential downpours.
Local Japanese dignitaries, U.S. military officials and government representatives from nearby Takigahara Garrison, Gotemba, Oyama and Susono are scheduled to attend the 8 a.m. commemoration.
Twenty-seven years ago, Typhoon Tip, then the strongest storm to reach mainland Japan in 13 years, brought 115 mph winds and heavy rains to Camp Fuji. At the time, more than 1,250 Marines from Camp Schwab, Okinawa, were being housed in Quonset huts on the installation’s upper half for training.
A fuel farm consisting of two rubber storage bladders kept in place by a retaining wall sat just up the hill. After rains from Tip eroded the wall and allowed one of the bladders to break free, hoses sprang loose, releasing 5,000 gallons of gasoline.
The fuel skimmed the water’s surface and ran across upper Fuji and into the Quonset huts. Shortly after 1:40 p.m., a heater inside one of the huts ignited the gasoline.
Firefighting vehicles and emergency responders from the base and surrounding cities arrived on the scene within 10 minutes.
Among them was Jack Crystle of New Castle, Del., then a Navy corpsman and petty officer third class who’d recently arrived with his Okinawa-based unit.
“I will never forget the screams that I heard that day, nor the cries for ‘Mom,’” Crystle wrote in a recent e-mail, recalling how medics worked for more than 36 hours at a battalion aid station.
“Even after 27 years it is something that stays with me every day. It was something that happened to us and as we were told, ‘You were just doing your job.’ But if … not for the (corpsmen) there that frightful day many more men could have perished. That event has (scarred) me to this date and I still find it difficult to discuss what happened to us that October day and at times still hear those men crying out in pain.”
By 3:45 p.m., the blaze was under control but still not extinguished entirely. Fifty-one Marines and three Japanese lay injured, while 15 huts were destroyed and several other buildings damaged.
Casualties were evacuated to local hospitals in Gotemba, Naval Airfield Atsugi, Yokosuka Naval Base and Yokota Air Base, as well as Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Of the 54 people taken to medical facilities, 13 Marines later died from their injuries.
Jesus A. Lugo, a lance corporal in October 1979, suffered burns and was transported to a burn unit in the United States.
“I lost my brothers that day but I keep them close in my heart and memory,” he wrote in an e-mail.