“FIRE!”

Wednesday, April 24, 1968

As Sumo and I relieved Reb from his night baker duties, he mentioned that one of our burners wasn’t working properly.  The fire unit had been placed outside the back door.  It wouldn’t fully light up and burned with a low flame.  I checked the unit, released the pressure and turned it off.

After breakfast was cleaned up, I decided to do maintenance on the faulty burner unit and tested it to be sure it was cold.  Technically we were supposed to use a non-flammable solvent to clean this type of equipment, but there was no solvent.  I poured a small amount of gas onto a stainless steel sponge and started scrubbing the unit down to dissolve cooked-on debris.  In an instant the sponge in my hand caught fire and lit up.  I tossed it to the ground and yelled, “FIRE!”  I shook my burning hand to put out the flame, but it stayed lit so finally I put my hand under my left armpit and smothered the fire.

It was a serious burn, the worst of it being in the palm and fingers on the underside . . . all the outer layer of skin was burned and drooping.  I went to Sick Bay, and Doc Furman sat me on a stool and elevated my arm on the exam table.  H covered the wound with a damp dressing and loosely wrapped it with a protective outer wrap.  He gave me four pills “for pain,” but they didn’t help.  Furman said, “The Battalion Medical Officer, Lieutenant Clark, will treat your wound.”

Convoy Road to Da Nang was 20 miles of dirt and full of bumps.  My hand was throbbing and had to be held high (above my heart) to ease the pain.  I was dropped off at the Battalion Dispensary and check in for treatment (Furman had filled out a medical tag attached to my collar).

Lieutenant Clark joined the Navy out of medical school and had graduated from USC.  After unwrapping the bandage and exposing the burn, things had changed . . . all the skin on the back of my hand and fingers was one huge blister.  Calmly, Clark debrided the palm of my hand while talking about O.J. Simpson and the Rose Bowl victory in January.  The procedure was tedious, and the removal of dead skin took over an hour.  He carefully wrapped each finger in a wet dressing and covered the blisters as well.  A protective wrap finished the ordeal.  I was ordered to stay in Battalion Headquarters for the night and to keep my hand elevated.  Clark ordered “Drink water and stay hydrated.”

Lunch was almost over, and I went to see Gunny Sampson in the mess hall.  After explaining what had happened, the Gunny looked grim.  He went into the galley and brought back a mug of chicken broth.  I wasn’t hungry, but he told me to drink it anyway (it was salty).  When lunch was finished, he set me up in his hooch with a cot and told me to lie down until dinner.  I managed to elevate my hand while I rested.

During dinner Sampson lectured me about “Article 15” (also known as office hours).  Apparently I was at risk of being charged with negligence.  An Article 15 offense would go in my record book and hurt my chances for promotion.  His words were, “If there is an inquiry, you will need to defend yourself and not admit guilt.”  He added, “No one has solvent, there isn’t any available.”  This would be my defense.

Next Edition:  Solvent Supply Order Receipt

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