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Marines recall 1979 fire at Camp Fuji that claimed 13 lives

By VINCE LITTLE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 19, 2007

Marines at Camp Fuji, Japan, will hold their annual fire memorial ceremony on Friday.

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 and government representatives are scheduled to attend the 8 a.m. commemoration.

Marine Sgt. Maj. Michael E. Tuttle, a survivor of the tragedy, will be the guest speaker.

In October 1979, Typhoon Tip brought 115 mph winds and heavy rains to Fuji.

It was the strongest storm to reach mainland Japan in 13 years.

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 a bladder 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.

David Luttenberger of Sewell, N.J., was a 19-year-old lance corporal assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment’s “Dragon” platoon. He described a hellish scene.

“I remember first the smell of the gas, then hearing the rhythmic boom-boom-boom of space heaters exploding in quonset huts as the gas worked its way through,” he wrote in an e-mail, recalling “rivers of fire” that ran down open storm drains and how he had to get a running start to hurdle it in his own effort to get out.

Luttenberger instinctively lied to an 81st platoon Marine who ran up and asked if his face was OK. “I could only recognize him by the sound of his voice — his face was unrecognizable and strands of flesh hung from his arms,” he wrote.

By 3:45 p.m., the fire 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, Yokota Air Base, Naval Airfield Atsugi and Yokosuka Naval 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.

Luttenberger rotated soon after the fire but instead of going home, he flew to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to visit friends in the burn center there.

“I remember trying to identify buddies who called out my name, but who I couldn’t recognize due to the patchwork skin grafts of pig skin,” he wrote.

“I also remember the screams from … where nurses were scrubbing raw burns to protect against infection — it was horrific.”

Luttenberger spent 11 years on active duty and another 12 in the reserves, retiring as a gunnery sergeant in November 2000.

He’s now the director of a business intelligence service for the packaging industry and said he plans to visit the Camp Fuji memorial someday.


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