The Santa Ana winds died around 2:00 p.m. October 2, 1943. Hershel Higgins could finally drive his D7 bulldozer down into Hauser Canyon, where a 113-Marine crew was fighting what was about to become one of the United States’ “tragedy fires.”
The winds had been at the Marines’ backs. They were scraping a strip of ground to mineral soil. Then someone lit a backfire behind them. The wind died, and the main fire sucked the back- fire into it, detonating like a bomb. Everyone tried to dig in but the ground was too hard. Fueled by its own convection winds, the tempest engulfed the men with a fury from hell.
Higgins, a member of the U.S. Forest Service, didn’t know about the backfire, or who’d order one in such a tight canyon with side draws like natural chimneys. When the explosion rocked Hauser’s slopes, its magnitude meant either a blow-up — a manic increase of the fire’s intensity — or the birth of a volcano.
Bulldozer operators suffer heavy casualties in wildfires because they refuse to leave their vehicles until too late — and they love to tread where angels fear. Higgins gunned his ’dozer into the smoky blur. James Stephenson, of the state division of forestry, followed in an Allis-Chalmers.
Blackened bodies had risen from scorched terrain. Those who could walk had helped the injured to an open, unburned area near Cotonwood Creek. Then, as if by design, the fire stormed over a ridge on the northern slope and assaulted them again.
The bulldozers and a tanker arrived after the second onslaught. Higgins and Stephenson saw a smoldering charcoal carpet. Webs of smoke spiraled from crackling manzanita and the skeletons of trees. Waiting for the ground to cool, burn victims huddled together: blood-shot eyes, charred faces and limbs, trying to cough the carbon from their lungs; many unable to move, three would never move again.
After the tanker watered an area to cool it down, Stephenson unrolled a 4’x8’ service canvas on the ground for the worst casualties. A man lowered to the canvas screamed, “Kill me! Kill me!” Part of a kidney poked through torn fatigues.
Debris cluttered the truck trail east to Campo along Cottonwood Creek. Higgins and Stephenson’s first job was to clear it, so ambulances from Camp Lockett could get through. As they revved their engines, they heard, “Knock that off! That’s my buddy! Kill him and I’ll kill you!”
Just before the fireburst, a Marine had crawled into a cavelike rock formation. A bull rattlesnake, thick as a balled fist, followed him. Man and snake had shared the cave, waiting out the havoc together. After the blaze went through, the snake went one way, the Marine another.
Now he shouted when a fellow Marine threatened to bludgeon the reptile with a shovel. The rattler slithered off.
As “spot fires,” explosions of flame caused by flying embers, flared on nearby slopes, Higgins and Stephenson lowered their ’dozer blades and went to work. The heat was so intense their soaked gloves often slipped off the wheel. To build a driveable road up the canyon, they moved rocks, clusters of burnt brush, even small trees. Bluish-black smoke puffed from exhaust stacks.
By four p.m. a fire camp was set up on Campo Road, a few miles south of Highway 80. Not long after, service and civilian ambulances brought Army medics as close as possible to the victims. Lt. William Hastie and members of the 10th Cavalry followed in a convoy of four-wheel-drive cargo trucks and “cattle cars,” horse trailers modified to transport troops.
The 10th and 28th Cavalries formed part of the famous “Buffalo Soldiers.” On July 28, 1866, the United States allowed African-Amer- icans to serve in the Army — in segregated regiments. These “mounted men-at-arms” rode the worst horses and defended the most dangerous outposts in the Old West. Later, they fought at San Juan Hill and Italy in WWII. A buffalo sits atop their regimental crest.
They had quickly earned the name because their overcoats were inadequate for harsh plains winters. Hondon Hargrove: “The men killed buffalos and made huge robes, some of which covered them from head to toe. To Indians who had never seen black men, they did indeed resemble buffalos and proved to be most formidable in battle.” Indians gave them the name.
Thirty-five-hundred Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at Camp Lockett, the last cavalry base built in the U.S. They were segregated even at Lockett. Meredith Vezina: “Although blacks and whites went to the same movie house, there was separate seating. At the post hospital, white soldiers — regardless of rank — were assigned to private rooms separated from the black troops. There was a hospitality house for visiting girlfriends or wives, but for whites only.”
Black soldiers coming to the rescue of fire-blackened white Marines must have been one of the most colorblind moments of World War II.
“We were the first contingent to get them evacuated after the tragedy,” Hastie recalled. They drove fairly close, but still had to “dismount” and walk hundreds of yards to the victims. “What a shock it was to see these guys.”
Others recall “a grisly sight” and “sagging flesh.” Medics field-dressed Marines with a Vaseline-like petroleum gel, wrapping them with triangular gauze bandages. The severest casualties sped off in ambulances. Tenth Cavalry soldiers carried the ones who couldn’t walk, or had passed out, on stretchers. The bodies of Ralph Peters, Norman Shook, and Ismael Wesson, who had tried to run through the inferno, were last to go.
Hauser Canyon became the county’s fourth major fire of the season. In September, 4000 acres burned at Potrero, 1000 at Viejas, and 4100 at Indian Creek, the latter two caused by “careless” smokers. The Hauser Fire grew into a five-day, 16,000-acre conflagration the state forestry office, at the time, called the worst in California national forest history.
On Sunday, ashes fell like snow as far north as Escondido.
The canyon’s so remote, only one structure — a cabin in Bronco Flat — burned. The reason 113 Marines were called and 622 men fought the blaze: Hauser Canyon links Morena and Barret Reservoirs, which gave San Diego much of its water in 1943. Before and after the holocaust, Buffalo Soldiers patrolled the region like a military target.
That Saturday afternoon, Army Captain Robert Calahan and wife Ritchey Fay, and Lt. James Willis and wife Anne, went horseback riding. As they sat on a bench near the Camp Lockett stables, washing away dust and 90-plus-degree heat with cold beer, a thundercloud of smoke loomed in the west. They hadn’t had “a mere mention of rain” in such a long time, Anne observed. “Everything is completely dry and parched.”
The couples went to dine at the officer’s club in dusty orange darkness. James told Anne, “Better hold your breath. I might have to go out with my troop on this awful fire-fighting.”
Army nurse Lt. Ruthelma Daughtery just finished her shift at the Camp Lockett hospital, which housed only 30 or 40 patients, not enough to keep the staff’s four doctors and eight nurses busy. Colonel Herbert Dameron, in command of the medical facility, had closed Ward 4.
Campo sits in a giant bowl, a mile from the Mexican border, and 7 ½ miles southeast of Hauser Canyon. Open space and 2600-foot elevation permit sounds to travel far. Around 6:00 p.m., frantic, unmistakable blares speared through the valley. Sirens: so many, so persistent; disaster must have struck.
Daugherty ran outside. She saw ambulances streaking toward her, followed by a caravan of trucks, jeeps, and scout cars “carrying Marines whose hands had been burned, standing up in the backs of the trucks.” They waved their hands in the air to cool them.
On instinct, the Calahans, Willises, and two other couples lept from the dinner table and ran to the hospital. Ritchey Fay Calahan saw “bedlam,” as the staff tried to care for the “moaning injured.” More trucks slammed into the compound, skidding across gravel. “Pandemonium and confusion were holding sway.” The numbers seemed endless — the human equivalent of a blow- up. The wives rushed to Ward 4. Willis and the others put their hair up, cleaned the polish from their nails, and pitched in. “Some of the girls felt too squeamish to do the worst, and I don’t chide them. Willis found herself “in the thick of it,” lancing “enormous blisters,” “cutting away flesh,” and “thanking heaven my few years in a doctor’s office had fortified me, in a mild way at least.”
The overwhelmed staff and volunteers waged war against pain. “You can’t imagine,” says Willis, “burns of such a nature that I just cannot describe.”
Officers, soldiers, and the wives of both became stretcher bearers, orderlies, clerks, telephone operators, messengers. All worked ceaselessly, freeing medical personnel for the eruption of casualties.
“Bandages went on as fast as we could cut the gauze,” recalled Ritchey Fay, whose task was “getting the sand, gravel, and charred material out of palms, hands, knees, wherever.”
Everyone “walked miles that night.” Since her new riding boots didn’t fit well, Ritchey Fay’s heels began to blister. “Someone pulled them off finally and I continued shoeless.”
More trucks. Lockett’s assistant Red Cross director, N. Fred Blozan, made an urgent appeal to the San Diego chap- ter. Nurses and medicine arrived late Saturday night, along with two cars of Red Cross volunteers, service doctors, and hospital corpsmen from other camps.
Anne Willis had been at it several hours when her husband came to Ward 4. Although James had no medical training, he and Captain Calahan had been in Ward 1, site of the most serious cases. Anne: They “gave plasma to men burned so badly if they came out of the morphine they would have died at once.”
Some required six times the usual dose.
A majority had burns on their back sides. One was so disfigured a nurse couldn’t find a place for an intravenous tube. Robert Calahan found a vein in the ankle. As they tried to turn the man over, “His back liter- ally came off, being stuck to the sheet he was wrapped in.” He died later that night.
A Marine who had been at Guadalcanal told Ritchey Fay he’d rather fight the Japanese “any day to this.”
Anne: “I can’t begin to describe the horrible sight and the magnificent bravery of those wonderful Marines — such appreciation for every little thing we would do for them. And so often: ‘Work on my buddy first, please, he’s so much worse off than I am,’ when the speaker would actually be in torture.”
Ambulances transferred 15 men in critical condition — the ones who could move — to Navy Hospital in San Diego. Two of them, Pvt. Frank Rogers and Pfc. George Lehman, died later from their “accidental burns.”
Though supervised, volunteers weren’t prepared for the human toll. “This sort of thing was so new and different to James,” says Anne Willis. Her husband “got so attached to the men he was fighting desperately with them to save their lives.”
He bonded with Elmer Winkleman, one of the worst victims. James gave the 27-year- old corporal oxygen and prayer. When Winkleman died the next morning, James became deeply “distressed.” Anne: “That was his idea of a great, courageous fellow.”
Privates Robert Kirkpatrick and Wilbur Rossen and Pfc. Lowell Whetsel also died at Camp Lockett. Various news- paper reports list the injured between 72 and 85. But no one who fought the Hauser Canyon Fire — or the battle for life at the hospital — came away unscathed.
“Completely weary,” Anne Willis wrote the letter to her mother on Wednesday, October 6, 1943. “The fires are still raging. The clouds are over- hanging as if we would have a terrific rain, but, alas, I know they are only from the awful smoke of the fires.
“Honestly, in all my life I have never witnessed such suffering and agony. But my work was nothing. At such a time you are entirely oblivious of how you yourself feel and only face the great job to be done. [Later,] you feel and think, ‘I have walked with death.’”
Next time: Cold-trailing
- Anne Booth Willis: “It all goes to show that a man overseas is no worse off than some at home. When the time comes, it’s just there.”
- Bob Salee: “You’ll never be able to understand why you lived and other people died. You can’t understand that. You can’t put Christianity in it, can’t say I prayed and God spared me.”
- John Maclean: “Living in fire country today is like having a grizzly bear hibernate in your back yard; it’s a thrill, but at some point the bear wakes up.
- Hargrove, Hondon B., Buffalo Soldiers in Italy: Black Americans in World War II (North Carolina, 1985)
- Hastie, Retired Colonel William, letters to Jim Hinds
- Higgins, Hershel, interviewed by John Loop
- Hinds, Jim, “When Death Stalked the Mountains — the Tragic Hauser Canyon Brushfire,” Mountain Heritage, winter/spring 1993; interview
- Loop, John, California Department of Forestry, interview
- Maclean, John, Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire (New York, 2003)
- Massey, Ritchey Fay Calahan, letter to Jim Hinds
- Vezina, Meredith, “Defending the Border: The Cavalry at Camp Lockett,” Journal of San Diego History (winter/spring, 1993)
- Willis, Anne Booth, letter to her mother (courtesy of Mountain Empire Historical Society)
Part two of three. Read: Part 1 | Part 3