The Fredericksburg Incident – 1944

May 1, 2019

Frank’s note: If you have been reading my Grapevine articles you know that I have been featuring our LAFD Fireboat 2 “The Ralph J. Scott often.” This historic boat has been under restoration by our LAFDHS volunteers since it came out of the water 15 years ago and should be fully restored by the end of this year. In 2020 we want to move it from a “shipyard” to a museum that is open to the public. This story about the explosion and fire of the tanker “Fredericksburg” in 1944 is one of many of the heroic efforts by the crew and the Boat. All of us need to appreciate what the Boat and its crews have done for nearly 78 years serving the Port of Los Angeles.

The Incident
During 1944, the City of Los Angeles was a nervous place. Although more than two years had passed since the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the coast of California and the LA Harbor specifically were considered to be potential targets for the Japanese Navy. The LAFD worked closely with the US Navy and the Coast Guard to prepare for any type of incident that might befall the harbor. Still, even with all of the preparation, the “Fredricksburg” incident served as a reminder that anything can happen – at any time.

Fuel and related components was a highly in-demand resource during the war. Tankers of all sizes move in and out of both Long Beach and Los Angeles harbors. During the evening of October 20, 1944, the S.S. Fredricksburg, a tanker operating for the War Shipping Administration, was tied up to Berth 151 in the LA Harbor. The ship had arrived with her holds filled with water ballast.

Shortly after midnight, dock crews began loading toluene into hold number two, while at the same time pumping water ballast out of hold number one. Toluene is a highly inflammable, very volatile petroleum substance that has many military uses such as a component part for high-test fuels, among other uses.

By 0800 hrs. on the 21st, several people, among them a cafe owner, detected the odor of what they thought was gasoline in the area around Berth 223. The Coast Guard arrived and several officers began checking for the source of the fumes. They discovered that hold number two of the Fredricksburg was leaking into hold number one (containing ballast water) and was being pumped into the bay. At that time of day, the tidal current in the bay carried almost directly from Berth 151 to Berth 223. It’s unclear what action was requested, but the polluted ballast water continued to fill the bay.

Shortly before 1400, a collection of Navy and civilian ship workers were working on several Navy ships at Berth 223. A welder, C.E. Truitt, struck an arc on the bow of one of the under-construction ships, LSM 211 (Note: An LSM is a Landing Ship Medium). As he struck the arc, a flash fire occurred that completely enveloped the under-construction LSM’s and a large area of the surrounding bay and docks. On the docks were about 25 vehicles, all of which caught fire.

At Berth 227, quarters of Boat No. 2, a short way down the bay, the man on floor watch saw the flash of fire and called to Captain Jack Allen. Captain Allen turned in a still alarm and ordered immediate response of the big fire boat. Also responding were Fire Boats 2 and 3, Engine Companies 36 and 40, Rescue 36, Salvage 36 and Battalion Chief Dikeman.

As Boat 2 churned up the channel towards the fire, a 4 1/2-in. tip was put on the ship’s main battery, “Big Bertha,” and the bow and tower monitor were readied for action. As they neared the burning LSM’s, one sweep of the great 4 1/2-inch stream of water was all that was needed to completely snuff out the fire. The smaller batteries went to work knocking down fire floating on the surface of the bay.

Within a minute, Boat 2 had completed one pass of the dock and making a quick turn, made a second pass and in similar fashion, extinguished the fires on the dock involving the autos and trucks, while the arriving land companies were still stretching their lines. Coast Guard fire boats which had been patrolling the area closed in and aided in the task of finishing off the areas of the water that still were afire.

Boat 3, with Senior Boat Operator J.V. Roquemore, responded along with the rest of the assignment. As he neared the burning area he noticed that a considerable number of men were in the water around the burning vessels and clinging to the nearby wharves. As Roquemore was alone, due to the depletion of manpower in the fire department, he realized that it would be impossible to make any effort to fight the fire and handle the boat at the same time. His first duty appeared to be in the direction of saving all possible life.

Leaving the firefighting to Boat 2, he took up a position as near as possible to the struggling men in the water, throwing all the life preservers that he had aboard to them and pulling men out of the water as fast as he could reach them. A civilian, Pat Lee, clambered aboard when Boat 3 drifted close to some tugs, and helped “Rocky” with his life saving endeavors. These two men also got help from the nurse at the Industrial Hospital of the boat yard and brought her aboard to administer to the victims. By now “Rocky” had his boat full of injured and suffering naval and civilian men. At first they didn’t seem too badly injured, but soon some showed the effects of severe shock and many of them were seriously and dangerously burned.

It was decided to take them to the Coast Guard base at the old California Yacht Club across the channel. Arriving there at 2:15 p.m. Boat 3 delivered the seventeen cases she had aboard. In the interval many of the injured had become unconscious and had to be removed via stretchers.

Boat 3 returned to the scene of the fire and pulled in several more victims found in the water and after taking them to a place of safety, made several trips bringing medical officers, civilian doctors to and from the scene of the fire. A total of sixteen men died and thirty-five were hospitalized. Undoubtedly this toll would have been much higher had it not been for the courageous and efficient work of Mate Roquemore, who has spent his 20 years on the fire department in the bay area.

Once the fire aboard the LSM’s was knocked down, the Navy removed them, but a tough and dangerous fire continued to burn amid the creosoted under piling of the wharf. The dock had a fire stop underneath to the north, but to the south there were no stops and in this direction the fire continued to spread.

At approximately 1445 hrs. A/C Harold Johnson arrived to take charge of operations. Calling for a second alarm assignment which brought Engines 38 and 49, Truck 48 and moved Engine Co.31 into 38’s quarters, operations on the dock fire commenced.

From the water side the fire boats closed in and rail standee streams were directed into the burning piles. Skiffs from the Coast Guard boats and Boat 2 with 1 1/2-in. lines were sent under the dock although the acrid smoke and fumes made the going plenty rough. Starting at a point just south of the blaze, axes and jumbo bars were used to cut holes through the three inches of asphalt and heavy 4×6 inch timbers that formed the dock. At first cellar nozzles were tried, but it was found that the barrels were too short to provide any effective reach. Changing to Bresnan distributors, the desired results were achieved as they could be lowered to any point necessary. In some cases it was necessary to lower men and lines into the openings to get at stubborn pockets of fire in remote places of the dock construction.

Subsequent arson investigations developed two theories as to the cause of the fuel and vapors being in the bay around the LSM’s. First it is known that toluene was escaping into the bay from the Fredericksburg, and that the tidal drift would carry it across the channel to Berth 223. If such was the case then the question arises, why was there no flash back to Berth 151? It is believed that incoming and out-going sea traffic would break up the continuity of any such flow on the surface of the water and this coupled with the ebbing of the tide, would confine the polluted area to around the ships at the pier and under the pier itself. The fumes from the material and from fuel carried in some instances in open containers aboard the ships covered the site with a blanket of highly inflammable vapors that took just one spark to start an inferno of death and destruction.

A second theory is that fuel leakage from another ship that had been tied up to the same docks a short time before, had polluted the area along with some possible pollution from the tanker at Berth 151, and the fumes from these being ignited, caused the fire. The whole story will be unfolded when the Naval Board of Inquire reveals its findings some time in the future.

In conclusion a word of “well done” to the men and officers of the boat and land companies of the harbor for a fine heads-up job.

Article from the Los Angeles Firemen’s Grapevine by Bill Goss (LAFD Deputy Chief)

Submitted by Frank Borden

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