Members of the Fort Drum community gathered Aug. 27 to dedicate a historic marker to the memory of five World War II veterans who lost their lives on post more than 60 years ago.
The plaque dedication was the culmination of nearly three years of research and archaeological investigation into the events of a barracks fire that occurred early Dec. 10, 1947, on what was then known as Pine Camp.
Although the incident is the only structural fire on Fort Drum to have resulted in fatalities, little was known about the circumstances of that fateful morning until one surviving Family Member expressed interest in visiting the site.
In 2010, Carolyn Leps, daughter of one of the deceased officers, was planning a visit to upstate New York with her husband. Hoping to see the site of the barracks fire, Leps contacted the Fort Drum Public Affairs Office’s community relations officer, Lori Haney, to request permission to visit.
“She (Haney) sent follow-up emails to me (indicating) that members of the master planning staff and archaeology staff would like to meet with me to discuss the fire, because they were unaware of the event,” Leps said.
On Oct. 1, 2010, Leps met with Fort Drum archaeologist Dr. Du-ane Quates, who took her to view the site of the barracks fire.
“I was amazed to find that little had changed in 63 years,” Leps said. “It was like a small piece of the fort had been forgotten, and it was just waiting for someone to remember the events that had happened here.”
The visit was only the beginning for both Leps and the Fort Drum Cultural Resources Branch. Over the next three years, Quates and his staff worked alongside historians from the Army Corps of Engineers to research the incident and excavate the site of the barracks fire.
Advanced imaging techniques allowed Quates to create a subterranean map of the site. Paired with floor plans of the two-story building, an excavation of specific rooms was planned out.
“We ended up excavating in June of 2012 … and removing thousands of artifacts that we are still currently sifting through and trying to do an analysis of,” Quates said.
Since being contacted by Leps, the Cultural Resources Branch staff has been able to piece together an account of the events of Dec. 10, 1947.
Soldiers who perished that morning were training at Pine Camp as part of Exercise Snowdrop, the largest over-snow airborne maneuver conducted by the Army at the time. Around 2:30 a.m., Capt. Francis H. Turner, who had arrived at Pine Camp just eight hours earlier, awakened to find the building on fire. He raised the alarm to evacuate the building and then ran down the hallway, ensuring all of the officers had heard his shouts.
“Turner could have escaped at that point, having done his duty to warn his fellow Soldiers, but he did not,” said Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, Fort Drum garrison commander. “Ignoring his own safety, Capt. Turner chose to remain in the building to ensure each officer heard his alarm and to help the wounded among them to escape. Only after every wounded man was out of the building – which by this time was completely engulfed in flames – did he turn his attention to his own safety.”
“Tragically, in his attempt to leap from a second-story window, his wedding ring became entangled in some debris, which trapped him in the flames,” Rosenberg continued. “Turner remained there until the Pine Camp fire department pulled him free.”
Six officers escaped unharmed, while Turner and four others were injured in the blaze. Four officers did not make it out of the building alive.
While the other injured Soldiers were treated and sent home, Turner remained at Pine Camp hospital receiving care for 18 days before succumbing to his injuries.
Rosenberg said he was struck by the fact that, in all likelihood, Turner did not know the men whom he sacrificed his life to save.
“We stand here today to remember this sacrifice and commemorate this tragic history,” he said. “In the words of historian John Hope Franklin, of the National Park Service, ‘The places that commemorate sad history are not places in which we wallow, or wallow in remorse, but instead places in which we may be moved to a new resolve, to be better citizens.’”
“It’s my eternal hope that this is such a place, for that truly would be a fitting honor to those who died here that day,” he concluded.
Rosenberg, accompanied by Turner’s two surviving daughters, Leps and Elizabeth Barbee, unveiled a marker dedicated to the memory of the men who lost their lives in the barracks fire: Capts. Robert Dodge and Francis Turner, and Lts. Robert Manly, Wallace Swilley and Rudolph Feres.
After the barracks fire, the Families of three of the deceased pursued legal action against the United States. The result was the adoption of the Feres Doctrine, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the United States is not liable for injuries to members of the armed forces sustained while on active duty and resulting from the negligence of others in the armed forces. The Feres Doctrine, named for Lt. Rudolph Feres, is still in effect to this day.
Barbee and Leps both said that they were honored to be a part of the historic marker ceremony, and they felt that their father would be proud to have been remembered along with the other officers who died in the fire.
“It means the most to me to be able to provide them with something that’s so valued,” Quates said. “They know that what their father did was worthwhile, but they now know that other people and the Army recognize that as well.”