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First Hand Account of the 1945 Hurricane that demolished NAS Richmond

By Arch H. McCleskey Jr.

Hurricane Demolished NAS Richmond

September 1945, we heard that there was a hurricane in the Caribbean moving into the Atlantic and heading in our direction. First, all the blimps were moved into the hangars with the portable mooring masts. Next, all the military heaver-than-air (HTA) aircraft in the area parked in the hangar "for protection." Next, they parked all the government vehicles in the hangars. Then, they allowed all the base personnel to park our private owned vehicles (POVs) in the hangar "for protection." I had a beautiful 1940 Mercury that I had bought from my brother Fred. I had customized that thing so that there was not another one like it in the world.

Due to the Florida heat, the plastic trim on the dashboard had deteriorated and looked bad. I replaced all the trim with marbled plexiglass that I had made at night in the plastic shop. It really looked sharp. So, I was very happy to get it in the hangar "for protection." There was still a little space in the hangar, so the Navy allowed some civilians to put their privately owned planes in the hangar "for protection." In addition to the blimps, there were a total of about 300 other aircraft and 100 cars and trucks.

On 15 September 1945, I had the Officer-of-the-Day duty in Hangar #2. We kept listening to the radio and plotting the hurricane course. At one time it was headed for Miami, but off the coast from us it turned due west. I advised folks that it was headed straight for us. We still felt pretty secure being we were in a "hurricane-proof" building. Then it hit! I had never heard such a noise. We were watching a wind speed indicator until the wind reached 175 mph. At that time the anemometer blew off. I don't know what speed the wind gusts actually reached.

At that time, I could see breaks in the roof, and I headed for the radar shop, which was on the side of the hangar a short way from the duty office. About that time "all hell broke loose." I and my fellow technicians dived under a large heavy duty workbench by a four-foot brick wall at the side of the Hangar. That terrific wind ripped that huge arched roof, which made up 90% of the building, to pieces. Unfortunately we were on the lee side of the building, so the falling structure came our way; however, most of it went over us and piled up outside. At that time, the side walls of the building, up to the top of the shops, were still standing.

 

 

 

 

 


NAS Richmond after the 1945 HurricaneAfter the hurricane and fire. This is what was left of the debris that I had to climb over.

Picture courtesy The city of Surfside, FL


After the majority of the hangars blew down, that terrific wind started blowing the blimps, autos and airplanes all over the place, causing gas tanks to be ripped apart spilling gasoline all over the deck. Then, the gasoline ignited, probably due to the metal scraping the concrete producing sparks.

While this was happening, we were under a heavy workbench and my fellow chief was really praying out loud. I was doing some praying also, but mine was silent. It was pitch dark and so noisy you couldn't hear yourself think. I crawled out from under the bench to try and see what was going on. One of the technicians asked "What can I do chief?"

I answered "For now, get back under there and help the chief pray." Then "POW!" the whole hangar lite up in flames. I told the men who were with me "Guys, you are on your own, I'm going to try to get the hell out of here. Good luck!" I threw a chair through the window and started climbing out, while the other chief discharged a fire extinguisher toward the door of the shop keeping the flames back.

Being on the lee side of the hangar that blew down, broken hangar beams from the main structure of the building fell on that side. I started climbing over that wreckage. At one point, I fell down through that wreckage. The sharp splintered beams cut me to pieces; however, that didn't bother me at the time. In fact, I hardly realized I was cut; my thoughts were on getting out of there. I still remember some of the thoughts that came to my mind at that time. I was wearing an ID bracelet on my right wrist. I visualized my right arm sticking up above the wreckage and rescuers coming by the next day identifying my body by that ID bracelet. I thought, "Because I have no wife or children, it's not as bad for me as for some of the other guys who do have wives and children."

Anyway, I managed to work my way up to the top of the wreckage again and across the debris and wreckage of the building. By that time I was out to the runway and felling the full blunt of the storm. The rain drops felt like shots or small pebbles hitting my body with great force. Then, "swash!" a gust of strong wind actually lifted me off the runway and was blowing me through the air like a leaf. I remembered hearing about winds so strong that they could drive a straw through a tree. I could just see ole' Arch being driven through a tree at the end of the runway. I knew I had to do something to get down. So, I arched my body like going into a dive and dove to the ground. This may have been when I broke my hand. I may have landed on it. I was now laying on the runway listening to the roar of that terrible wind and still being hit by flying debris.

Due to lightning or the light from the burning hangar, I saw a mound of dirt beside the runway so I rolled behind that mound of dirt. This protected me from the wind and flying debris. I watched large pieces of wood and other junk fly over my head. I was downwind from the hangar; so, as the fire from the burning gasoline, aircraft, autos etc. increased, so did the smoke coming my way. The smoke became so intense that I had to give up my safe haven behind that pile of dirt. There were some woods nearby, so I worked my way over to them. The wind had broken most of the trees off about two feet from the ground. I crawled behind the largest stump that I saw. Then with the flashing of lightning, I saw a larger stump and worked my way to behind it. I repeated that several times until I found a tree stump that was large enough to protect me from the fury of the storm. I stayed there until the eye of the hurricane arrived.

Suddenly the howling winds stopped blowing and it became deadly still and calm. There wasn't a breath of air stirring. I came out of the woods to see what was going on. The hangars were engulfed with flames; I didn't want to go back there. About that time six other guys who had been weathering the storm in the woods came by. One of them knew where the ammunition dump was and said that we could find safety there for the other part of the hurricane. That sounded good to me, so I was happy to join them. To get to the ammo dump, we had to leave the base by the back gate. Of course, there was no guard on the gate at this time. Starting down this road we passed a home that was still standing. This was a low, flat roof, wooden building that was well built and had previously been a store. It had withstood the first half of the hurricane and the family was out surveying the damage when they saw us in the road. They insisted that we come in and ride out the other half of the storm with them. They took one look at me and said "Oh my God! We must do something for you." They started cleaning my cuts and bruises. They cleaned the cuts with hydrogen peroxide and bandaged me up stopping most of the bleeding. This was done using a flashlight and a kerosine lamp for light. They put me to bed, gave me some medicine for pain and I don't remember much about the other half of the hurricane except for the noise and feeling the building rock.

As the wind subsided, base rescue personnel were out looking for survivors. They put me into a jeep and rushed me to the base hospital, which was still standing and using emergency power. To my surprise, there were not a lot of injuries, only thirty-eight, and only one death. Sailors on the opposite side of the hangar from us were able to get into the stairways of the hangar's concrete pillars for protection from the storm. The death was a civilian fireman who was out in the hangar inspecting the early roof damage, when the whole thing came down. Falling timbers got him.

Soon after I arrived at the hospital, two bus loads of volunteer doctors and nurses arrived from Miami. But, due to the relative small number of casualties(32), the Navy didn't need a lot of help. The chief surgeon started working on me. He was working using emergency lights and power, but that didn't slow him down. He was displeased that the nice people at the farm house had used hydrogen peroxide to clean my cuts, but I was happy that they had. He gave me a shot and knocked me out. Then, he cut away some of the torn skin and tissues and sewed up all my serious cuts. They found a large bone broken in my left hand; so, they put a cast on that.
The above is what was left of the debris that I had to climb over.

After a few days in the hospital, I learned that our Chief's Club, which was in our barracks, was going to close and needed to get rid of all our stock. To do this, they had decided to open the bar to all chiefs - free drinks! Anything, any time we wanted it until the stock was gone. When the doctor came by I asked him "Being that I'm just lying around here doing nothing, why can't I do the same thing in the chief's quarters?" He said "O.K. Chief! If you will promise to just lie around, take it easy and come back here once a day so we can check you over." Then he laughed and said "You probably won't need as many pain pills there." He was right and that was a much nicer atmosphere for recovering than lying around in a hospital.
The following weekend I went on liberty, even if I did look like a mummy. My hand was in a cast, both arms and both legs were bandaged up and one knee bandaged so I couldn't bend it. Of course, I couldn't drive, but I didn't have anything to drive anyway, because the hurricane and resulting fire had completely destroyed my Mercury. I rode a bus and my family was shocked to see me in that condition.

Auto insurance became an interesting issue. In the spring of that year while I was still in Houma, La., I took out auto insurance with Government Employees Insurance Company (now known as GEICO). About a month later, I received a notice stating that I had taken out collision and liability but not comprehensive. They recommended that I add comprehensive for a cost of only $4.50 a year. They included a form to check if I wanted it, and said I would be billed later. I checked the form and mailed it back but never was billed for it.

When the car was destroyed by the hurricane, I filled a claim. The company wired the adjuster that I was not covered by comprehensive. When I told them about the form that I had sent back six months earlier, they apparently found it and wired the adjuster to pay for the total lost. I decided that GEICO must be a pretty good company to pay on such a thin claim; so, I have been with them ever since and never disappointed.

Some reports years later stated that the hangars withstood the hurricane and all the damage was due to fire. Well, I'm here to tell you "that isn't so, as I was in one of those hangars I know that the hangars blew down then the fire started." Perhaps the discrepancy was due to a report that stated "just the roof blew off." The way that hangar was made, the roof was the hangar.

TOTAL DAMAGE:

One fatality and 38 injuries
25 blimps
212 navy aircraft
21 non-Navy U.S. Government aircraft
125 privately owned airplanes
An unknown number of privately owned automobiles
(Most all of us on the base that owned cars)

One chief couldn't get his car started to get it in the hangar.

I think that it was the only privately owned vehicle left on the base after the hurricane.

The hurricane which hit South Florida in September of 1945 devastated NAS Richmond. Shown here is the debris surroundings what was left of Hangars One and Two.

Picture courtesy The city of Surfside, FL
Source of information on this page is from http://www.kilroywashere.org/003-Pages/Arch/Arch.html