The untold story of the men who died in the USS Saturn inferno — and why the Navy’s inquiry remained classified for decades
A new investigation of into the 1944 blaze that left 15 dead at Norfolk Naval Yard indicates that workers died battling not just the flames, but a 60-day deadline to return the USS Saturn to its service as a World War II supply ship
Waverly Sykes ran up the gangway into the billowing smoke at Pier 5.
“Chief, there are men trapped in that hold!” workmen on the deck of the USS Saturn shouted.
The Norfolk Navy Yard fire chief could hear the cries of the men below as fire hoses were laid on the deck. He grabbed one and descended the ladder behind his assistant chief, battling flames on his way down into the smoke and fume-filled atmosphere of the ship's third hold.
The firefighters knocked down flames overhead and on the bulkhead. A pile of cork about 6 feet high was on fire on the ship's starboard side. The flames there seemed more stubborn than the rest. They doused them with water and kicked the pile over with their boots until the flames were snuffed out.
Sykes made his way over to the port side of the ship where he stumbled against something soft. He switched on his flashlight and held it close to the object. It was a man.
Another fireman rushed over to help, turned on his light and discovered a second victim.
“Great God, chief! There are some more men over this way!”
All available ambulances were summoned from the city of Portsmouth, Cradock, South Norfolk, Portlock and Western Branch. By the time all the shipyard workmen were accounted for, 15 were dead and 20 injured.
They died battling a 60-day deadline to return the Saturn to its service as a World War II supply ship.
In the days that followed, a memorial service was held, the dead were buried and survivors went back to work. A few would testify in an inquiry at the Portsmouth facility, now known as Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
As the investigation began, the incident faded from the headlines, the news of the local deaths dwarfed by the quickening pace of the war leading up to D-Day.
Officials wanted to know immediately what caused the deadly blaze at the shipyard.
When the answers came, they were filed away and classified for another 66 years.
Many of those who survived, the family members of the dead, even the newspaper writers tasked with reporting the cause, would never know the details.
Through the record of the hearing, a memoir of a survivor and newspaper accounts, the story now is being told in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the greatest loss of life incident ever seen at the shipyard
USS Saturn, starboard quarter, taken in 1944 at the Norfolk Navy Yard, now known as Norfolk Naval Shipyard. On April 27, 1944, a fire in the hold killed 15 civilian workers and injured 20 others.(U.S. Navy photo)
Three hours of overtime
Dorsey Slaughter wasn't supposed to be on the evening shift on Thursday, April 27, 1944.
The cutter/burner third-class had agreed to work three extra hours for another man who had to be home after quitting time. Overtime wasn't unusual in the yard with the crush of deadlines to finish work on vessels needed for the war effort.
The yard's workforce had swelled to more than 40,000 people, a complement so large that trailer camps and other dwellings sprang up to house many of them. Slaughter and his family lived in Alexander Park in Portsmouth, neighbors to many other families whose loved ones worked in the yard to build, overhaul and repair ships.
The Saturn, a 423-foot cargo vessel, was built in Germany in 1939. It had barely entered service under the name Arauca by the outbreak of war in Poland. In December of that year, the ship was forced into Port Everglades, Fla., after a British light cruiser fired a shot over its bow. When the U.S. entered the war, the ship was seized, renamed and pressed into service carrying cargo for the Navy.
When the Saturn reached the Navy Yard on April 12, 1944, workers expected to convert it into a refrigeration ship in 60 days. More such ships were needed and officials wanted to speed the work. For that to happen, welders, burners, joiners, shipfitters and laborers all were authorized to work at the same time.
The risks, officials would later say, were well recognized.
But welding supervisor Clifford Short had not liked the looks of the job from the start. He complained to his supervisor “that they were making a fire trap there.”
Even fire chief Sykes would later admit that he, too, thought the working conditions were unsafe, despite the precautions.
But some officers believed they went above and beyond anything they had seen on other ships.
Men survey the damage on the third deck of the third hold of USS Saturn where a fire killed 15 men and injured 20 on April 27, 1944, at Norfolk Navy Yard. The camera was facing forward to get a shot of the starboard side where the fire occurred(National Archives)
The conversion job included installing a diesel generator room, with engines, refrigeration compressors and pumps. A partial deck would be built. The sides, or hull, would be insulated with mineral wool and sheathed in kiln-dried lumber. The decks would be covered in 8 inches of cork, covered in lumber and sheathed in metal.
By the time Slaughter reported to work on April 27, joiners, or carpenters, were cutting floor timbers and working on floor joists on the starboard side.
Nearby, other joiners were installing cork that had been prepared for installation.
That afternoon, painters had prepared the cork slabs with a primer that was part cutback asphalt and part mineral spirits.
Not all the men knew about the flammability of the chemicals used in the insulating process. Supervisors of the civilian workmen and the ship's command staff had taken advice on precautions from Sykes, the yard fire chief. They agreed that, while hazardous, the work would continue.
The ship's superintendent, Lt. Ernest D. Lennon, had followed Sykes' recommendations, including keeping a water hose extended down into the hold for quick firefighting should the need arise. Five-gallon pump water extinguishers were kept on hand.
Based on a safety memo already in force in the yard, the ship also had carbon dioxide extinguishers and one man from the ship was assigned to stand on deck, watch for fires and extinguish them, a position known as a fire watch.
The memo required a fire watch be assigned for each job undertaken by a welder, cutter or burner.
Lennon tried to accommodate any suggestion he was given. If yard safety assistants asked that trash accumulating in the hold be removed, he got right on it. When they previously noticed a lot of prepared cork in the hold and suggested civilian supervisors have it removed, the supervisors argued. The assistants appealed to Lennon and the cork was removed.
On the 27th, the joiners feared they would fall behind and asked that extra cork be prepared for them to install on the night shift. They had been using up the cork as fast as the painters could prepare it.
Some time after 2:30 p.m., a pile of cork slabs was slathered with primer and placed in the hold. Later, a fire marshal's inspection of the area found nothing except a little trash and a lot of hose lines in the bottom that posed a trip hazard.
A sailor assigned as fire watch came on duty that afternoon, along with another sailor whose job was to keep watch for sabotage.
A few days earlier, tacks were found driven into a cable used to affect the ship's magnetic signature and keep it safe from explosive mines. A discreet investigation led to the sabotage watch.
Before he left that afternoon, the painting supervisor told the man supervising the joiners about the prepared cork and mentioned that it was highly flammable.
About 6:10 p.m., Short, the welding supervisor, checked on the work in the hold before heading to an office to do paperwork.
Down in the hold, two men finished welding a bulkhead while another welded the deck.
Up above, a welder waited for a crane to lower a deck plate. He lit a cigarette and watched the others work.
Dorsey Slaughter was waiting to shut off his torch after working in the engine room.
He stopped and watched as fiery orange sparks rained down on the starboard side from the upper deck where others were welding.
It was about 6:20 p.m. when Slaughter checked his watch.
And then came the shouts:
“Throw some water!”
Several men spotted flames on the pile of cork on the starboard side of the deck in the Saturn's hold.
The fire watch ran toward an extinguisher, but the flames had taken off. He tried to douse it with a CO2 extinguisher, but there was no use.
One of the joiners ran for the ladder and tried to see his buddy through the smoke filling the hold.
The fire watch reached for a water hose leading to the deck below, but was blocked by flames. He put a coat over his head and ran for the ladder. Above, someone was yelling at the workmen to get out.
Dorsey Slaughter and Cabble Scott, a joiner, both tried for the ladder, but by then, flames swirling around the top forced them back down.
Scott went to the port side into a corner where men from the starboard side had run to escape the heat and flames. He grabbed one of the acetylene hoses hanging from above, swung out and climbed up to safety. He nearly passed out from the acrid smoke and fumes. But he held on.
As he looked back, he could see the men huddled against the hull on the port side.
The lights had gone out and he could hear someone hollering, “Throw some water!”
Slaughter, too, tried to climb up one of the hoses, but was forced back down by the fire. He went into the diesel room and dropped into a manhole.
At least two of the men climbed over some scaffolding to get out of the hold. Others figured the only way to survive was to get lower.
Some of the men soaked rags and covered their faces.\
A first aid kit can be seen in the third hold of the USS Saturn after a fire in the hold of the ship on April 27, 1944, killed 15 men and injured 20 others at the Norfolk Navy Yard, now known as Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The cameraman is facing forward, or toward the bow of the ship, on the port side(National Archives)
Slaughter was having a hard time breathing. His throat and lungs hurt. He tried to hold his breath as long as he could, but it was impossible.
By then the shouting had stopped. There was nothing but darkness and the coughs of other men. Slaughter started to climb out, but could feel a man's body stretched across the opening of the manhole. As he pushed the man aside, he heard a gasp. Then quiet.
“I knew that unless I got some relief soon I was going to die also.”
Slaughter, 32, had a wife and two sons. He crouched down in the darkness and buried his face in his hands. He had never been a religious man but decided to say a prayer. If he could be rescued, he prayed, he would be a different kind of man.
Soon after, Slaughter heard a noise and saw a flame shoot through the wall beside him. A welder was cutting a hole through the bulkhead from another hold in the ship. The torch carved a line about a foot long and then stopped.
Slaughter reached into his pocket for a wrench and threw it against the bulkhead.
The torch stayed silent.
Struggling to breathe, Slaughter felt along the deck and grabbed a piece of scrap metal. He banged on the bulkhead two or three times.
Suddenly, the torch resumed its work.
When the welder punched a hole through the steel, Slaughter could hear men calling to him. He saw a light and a hand and reached for it.
Then everything went black.
“It was awful”
All around him, yard fire Chief Waverly Sykes was looking at casualties.
The fire was out, but so much water had been poured into the ship that it began listing to one side.
While the crew worked to clear the ship's tanks of water, Sykes and others checked each unconscious man for signs of life and began artificial respiration. The men who were believed to have a chance would receive oxygen with equipment brought from the dispensary and by ambulances.
“We worked on the men right where we found them,” Pharmacist's Mate 3rd Class Edgar B. Johnson later told a reporter. Johnson, 21, rode to the ship on the ambulance from the yard dispensary and was among the first to begin helping in the hold of the ship.
Fourteen of the men who ran from the starboard side of the deck to the port side and huddled against the hull were found together in a corner.
When the Saturn's medical officer arrived, all 14 men were lying together, face up. None appeared to be burned, but their faces had the rosy tell-tale glow of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Six of them already were dead. Eight still had a chance.
They were given artificial respiration until, one by one, their hearts stopped. The last man was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m.
The 15th man who died was found farther down in the ship.
A crane lowered large trays into the hold to hoist out the injured and the dead. Those who survived were taken to the yard dispensary and transferred to the Navy's hospital in Portsmouth.
“It was awful,” pharmacist's mate Johnson said. After two straight hours of working on the men, Johnson, too, had collapsed and was taken to the dispensary where he was treated for exhaustion.
A half-dozen Navy chaplains were sent to inform and comfort the families of the dead. More than a half-dozen local funeral homes were called upon to handle the bodies.
Each man died from asphyxiation. The youngest was just 17, the oldest 67:
- George R. Austin, 42, joiner
- Willie Carr, 33, rigger
- Eugene T. Harper, 44, joiner
- John E. Ives, 31 shipfitter
- William H. Jones, 43, joiner
- Robert E. Lee, 22, welder
- Jeremiah Malone, 43, joiner
- Arthur R. Pumarlo, 50, joiner
- W. Irvin Sink, 40, joiner
- Howard E. Sprinkle, 37, welder
- Armistead H. Tharpe, 20, shipfitter
- Thomas G. Whitley, 67, joiner
- Chesman S. Wike, 28, joiner
- Joseph C. Williams, 17, laborer
- James Satterthwaite Willis, 47, shipfitter
A memorial service to honor them in the yard was planned for the following Monday and was to be broadcast over the facility's loudspeaker system.
When Dorsey Slaughter awoke, the morning after the fire, he found himself in the Navy hospital.
“When I began to regain consciousness, I was under an oxygen tent …” Slaughter later wrote. He looked around and saw the 19 other men who had been rescued from the ship.
Someone brought in the morning Norfolk Virginian-Pilot where Slaughter learned the details and tried to come to grips with what had happened.
Later, Slaughter learned that the man who had used a torch to cut a hole in the bulkhead and pull him to safety had found a worker dead beside him. As the men pulled Slaughter through the hole, one of them turned on the oxygen on his acetylene torch and let the air blow into Slaughter's mouth and nose as they placed him on a stretcher.
Slaughter was discharged from the hospital the morning after the fire and would later testify at an inquiry that began that morning.
A few days later, Slaughter went back aboard the Saturn to see the hole that was cut to free him. He used his own torch to cut a rectangular outline of the hole and took it with him.
The ship, in general, was undamaged by the flames.
The total estimate, including the cost for repairs: $23,900.
Several days later when Slaughter returned to work, the co-worker whose place he had taken for a few hours of overtime the night of the fire approached him.
“I just don't know what to say other than you took my place and God only knows what the outcome would have been if it had been me instead of you.”
It hadn't dawned on Slaughter until then that he nearly died in another man's place.
And there were so many questions yet to be answered:
Had the blaze been caused by a discarded cigarette? Did the sparks he saw falling on a pile of cork spark the flames? Was is sabotage?
Carbon monoxide, often called the invisible killer, leaves few, if any, marks on its victims.
The colorless, odorless gas, produced when fuels don't completely burn, binds with the hemoglobin in the bloodstream, taking away its ability to carry oxygen.
At least 10 of the men who died on the Saturn had a carbon monoxide blood hemoglobin concentration of 55% to 95%, far more than enough to kill, the yard Dispensary's doctor testified at the inquiry.
Why weren't they able to escape?
The workmen likely had 4 to 8 minutes before they would begin to feel confused or lose consciousness.
In those few moments, they found themselves trapped trying to escape the heat and flames.
In the panic and confusion, could the men have simply balked at going through the smoke to escape?
The testimony of each of the workmen during the inquiry into the fire showed that their thoughts had first turned to escape.
They were stopped at every turn.
Two permanent metal ladders were attached to the hull of the ship in the third hold, one forward and one aft. Temporary wooden ladders were rigged between levels, one per level.
The men later said they couldn't use the permanent ladders because one was blocked by a temporary wooden scaffold and the other had a scaffold on one side and a steel deck plate blocking it on the other.
Aside from the ladders, there was no other way out of the hold.
Dorsey Slaughter had tried to get to one of the fixed ladders but saw it was blocked. He tried to get around a scaffold, bruising his arm in the process. He tried to go up the wooden ladder, but by then flames that seemed to spring up “everywhere almost instantly” forced him back.
When the fire took off, the heat and flames that blocked men from using the wooden ladder also kept them all from climbing up electrical lines and hoses that carried oxygen and acetylene for the welders.
Some of the men knew that the boards in the makeshift scaffolds at the permanent ladders could be removed, but others didn't. In the commotion, apparently no one tried.
Several workers testified that they felt the way the ladders were arranged was dangerous. But no one complained to the ship superintendent.
What was a routine way to traverse the decks of the ship during the everyday course of work became the very thing that trapped them.
Theories of a cause
The Court of Inquiry convened at 9 a.m. Friday, April 28, 1944.
Rear Adm. Felix Gygax, commandant of the yard, inspected the damage after the blaze was extinguished and ordered the inquiry. A three-man panel that included a captain, commander and lieutenant, would get to the bottom of the cause of the fire and determine who was responsible. They also would try to discover why the men didn't escape.
They closed the hearing to anyone who wasn't directly involved. That meant no spectators or reporters.
Their first task was to visit the ship to see where the men died, view the damage and get an idea of the layout of the areas affected by the fire.
In the afternoon, the panel set out on the grim task of visiting the funeral homes in Norfolk and Portsmouth that had received the bodies of the dead.
One by one, each body was identified. One man had burns on both wrists. Another had a bruise over his left eye. A special note was made by the court reporter that, otherwise, all of the bodies were unmarked.
Over the next nine days, 25 men would testify.
The first was chief Sykes, who had been fighting fires at the yard since late 1933.
The judge advocate asked Sykes for his opinion on the cause of the fire and the source of the fumes.
“From all appearances down there the fire started in the large pile of cork and it spread very rapidly. The fumes and gases were evidently caused by burning cork and bitumastic enamel and primer coat put on the cork.”
Sykes, who gave a detailed account of his actions and observations at the fire, ended his testimony without giving his opinion on what sparked it.
Accidents, fires and other incidents were not uncommon in the yard where dangerous work was done continuously.
But the Portsmouth facility's safety record had been slightly better than other Navy shipyards. In the previous eight years, 37 deaths had been recorded, all single incidents. The Navy's shipyard in New York, by contrast, had seen 39; Philadelphia, 43; and Pearl Harbor, 44.
The work on the Saturn presented a challenge. To get the job done in two months, workers whose tasks posed hazards to each other, such as wood workers and welders, would have to carry out their assignments together, often near one another.
On this ship, that meant welders were working near lumber or cork insulation that had been smeared with primer made from asphalt and petroleum spirits, a highly flammable mixture.
The ship's commanding officer questioned the wisdom of such a plan at the start. He discussed the dangers with the ship superintendent.
He felt the demand outweighed the risk.
Inspections were carried out and, at times, the safety marshals would ask for trash piled up in the hold to be removed. Sometimes they felt that too much cork was stacked up, despite protests from the civilian supervisors that the extra materials were needed to supply the men installing it.
At times, military personnel clashed with civilian supervisors. But the work went on.
A yard memo issued two years earlier specified that welders receive fire-resistant equipment, such as asbestos blankets and gloves. A few said they were issued the gear, but others said they were told routinely that the equipment wasn't available.
The memo also required personnel be assigned to stand and watch for fires at locations on the ship where welding and other work could cause a fire. Welders were expected to ask for one at the start of their shift.
Some of the supervisors said they believed it was OK for one fire watch to patrol a work area, instead of individual jobs. Others admitted they didn't ask for a fire watch or protest when they saw too few watches.
Some of the men testified that they believed there were two fire watches in the third hold the night of the fire.
The sabotage watch also was told to be vigilant for fires and the men who saw him on a lower deck the night of the fire likely were unaware of his true assignment.
The possibility of sabotage as the fire's cause wasn't thoroughly explored during the hearing.
The ship superintendent went a step further than the memo, consulting with Chief Sykes on additional steps to prevent fires.
Saturn, Sykes said, was one of the few ships in commission “that the ship superintendent has requested the Fire Chief to assist him in prevention of fire by yard workmen.”
They were “precautions which to my recollection and to my experience in navy yards and civilian shipyards on the east coast were beyond the precautions taken in any other instance that I know of,” said Lt. Cmdr. Thomas A. Marshall Jr., Saturn's commanding officer.
Could something as simple as a carelessly discarded cigarette have caused the deadly fire?
After all, it wasn't uncommon to see workers grabbing a smoke during breaks in the work or even on the job.
There was no yard regulation preventing it, according to the safety officer. As far as he could recall, his marshals never noted smoking on their reports.
The exploration of a cigarette as the cause of the deadly fire was limited.
A fourth theory of a cause was posited by the assistant to the yard's shop superintendent who also served as test officer.
Lt. Cmdr. Cecil Sterne received a science degree in 1916 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before the war, he served as vice president and chief engineer of a chemical company.
After the fire aboard the Saturn, he was the one who collected samples of the cork, primer and an enamel painted on the deck. He testified about their flammability.
He had his own theory:
“It is possible that the fire might have been caused by a dust explosion in some section from cork dust in the air in the section.”
Who was responsible?
The three men who took the blame for the deadly fire aboard the USS Saturn appeared to have little in common.
They hailed from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, but each man found himself at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth during World War II.
Lt. Henry Porter Gill, the acting commanding officer during the fire, had spent more than a dozen years as a merchant marine, becoming an officer, joining the Merchant Marine Reserve.
After Gill became the Saturn's executive officer, the 38-year-old Massachusetts native was recommended for temporary promotion to lieutenant. Early in 1944, his superiors put him up for another promotion to temporary lieutenant commander.
Gill was in command of the ship when its commanding officer went on leave on April 18. Three days later, his fitness for duty report showed excellent marks.
Nine days after that, the deadly fire broke out aboard the Saturn.
Lt. Ernest Lennon, a conscientious engineer, came to the Navy reserves through the ROTC at Davidson College north of Charlotte.
By all accounts, the 35-year-old North Carolina native was well-regarded by his superiors.
He worked in the yard's Production Division, Industrial Department as the Saturn's superintendent, overseeing all the work.
Clifford Short had been a welder in the yard for four years and was made a supervisor in June 1943. It's unclear whether he had joined the workforce for any reason other than the war. Nothing else is known about his background. During the inquiry, he made sure the court knew he had raised concerns about the danger of the work aboard the Saturn.
All three men became defendants during the 12-day Court of Inquiry delving into the fire. During such hearings, interested parties and defendants may present evidence, call and question witnesses who testify under oath.
All three men took advantage of their opportunity to ask questions. Short and Lennon also called several witnesses of their own.
Gill appeared to take a different approach, questioning a few witnesses, but calling none.
Short was the only one of the three called by the judge advocate to testify.
Each man, during questioning, attempted to show his own efforts to ensure safety and guard against fire on the Saturn.
When the court delivered its findings, all three men were found responsible for the deaths and injuries — Short directly; Gill and Lennon indirectly.
Gill and Lennon both were guilty of neglect. But “in view of the present state of war,” and their “status as a reserve officer no proceedings should be taken against” them, the court wrote. Each man received a letter of admonition from the Secretary of the Navy in his personnel file.
The court recommended that Short be charged with neglect of duty. He was charged by the Navy Yard's manager and found guilty of negligence for failing to provide a fire watch for each welder working at the time of the fire. He received the minimum penalty: a warning.
In October 1944, Rear Adm. D. McD. LeBreton, commandant of the Fifth Naval District, wrote his own opinion, taking issue with some of the court's findings.
In his view, the court should have named additional defendants in the incident. Safety had lapsed at every level, from workmen to officers, LeBreton wrote.
“Experience shows that familiarity with any work, no matter how dangerous, is apt to lead to carelessness … ” LeBreton wrote. “There was a relaxation of vigilance at the Navy Yard. The result was this disaster.”
And if workers had gotten careless on the Saturn job, that changed. Immediately after the fire, welders began requesting more fire watches. Smoking was prohibited throughout the ship.
“Following the tragic fire, safety precautions were at the forefront of employees' minds and led to a strengthening of the yard's safety organization,” said a March 2019 statement from shipyard spokeswoman Terri Davis. “That emphasis remains today with a daily shipyard commitment of 'No one gets hurt today!' “
After the fire, the work on the Saturn continued, although officials didn't expect to meet their 60-day deadline.
Gill remained as the executive officer of the ship until 1945 and was discharged from active service that year, though he remained in the reserves. He went back to a private cargo firm where he worked before the war.
But he failed to keep in touch with the Navy. After numerous attempts to contact him in 1950, the service honorably discharged him without his signature. He died in 1954 at 49 and is buried in Beverly National Cemetery in Beverly, N.J. His cause of death is unknown.
Short's personnel file was not available and it's unclear whether he stayed in the shipyard or what happened to him after the war.
His personnel details at the yard were not available. Records show he lived in Portsmouth and at least one account says he lived on Deep Creek Boulevard at the time of the fire.
Lennon continued at the shipyard and left active service in March 1946. He went home to Lumberton, N.C., where he worked in the private sector, his son, George, said. Lennon retired as a captain from the Navy Reserve in 1963.
While he talked about his World War II service at the shipyard, George Lennon doesn't recall his father ever discussing what happened aboard the Saturn.
While he was at the Portsmouth shipyard, he had received orders five times to be transferred, his son said. But always, his superiors found a way to keep him at the yard.
“He thoroughly enjoyed the Navy,” George Lennon said of his father. “Being a ship superintendent is what he did. And apparently did it quite well.”
Lennon died in 1990 in North Carolina. He was 80.
“He always believed it was an accident.”
It's unclear, after the Court of Inquiry rendered its findings and opinion, how much if any information was shared with the families of those who died.
Several extended family members of the workmen who died said their surviving relatives had only vague details.
Even survivors and those who helped at the scene didn't discuss it.
Jo Johnson said her father, Pharmacist Mate Edgar Burgess Johnson who was hailed as a hero for his efforts trying to save Saturn workers, held on to a press clipping that detailed his efforts. “He kept it, but he didn't talk much about it.”
“The experience of being in World War II was very different for everyone,” Jo Johnson said. “There's a psychological wound for having to deal with any situation that they did.”
Her father had been a volunteer fireman before the war and resumed his service when he got home to Buzzards Bay, Mass., rising to the position of deputy chief. When he died in 2004, his body was carried to the cemetery on a fire truck, Johnson said.
“I think in his mind, he did what any firefighter was supposed to do, what any pharmacist's mate was supposed to do,” Jo Johnson said. “I don't think he considered himself a hero.”
The son of the Portsmouth shipyard's fire chief, Waverly Sykes Jr., grew up in the yard.
He recalls going to fire calls with his fire chief father, also called Waverly, riding on the fire engines. He wore a firefighter's helmet when he played outdoors during World War II. He remembers the blackout curtains in their house, about 200 feet from the fire station.
Waverly Jr. was about 5 when the Saturn fire happened, but he doesn't remember it. And his father, as far as he can recall, never talked about it.
His father retired from the shipyard department in 1976. He died in 1989. A few months later, the Waverly E. Sykes Environmental and Fire Fighting Response Training Center was dedicated at the shipyard.
It could be that the elder Sykes, who didn't share his opinion during the 12-day inquiry on what started the blaze, felt he shouldn't share what he knew with his family because it happened during war time.
The record of the Court of Inquiry wasn't declassified until 2010.
There was at least one man who never stopped talking about the fire. He even wrote a booklet, “Through a Wall of Steel,” about it.
Dorsey Slaughter lived up to his promise to become a changed man after his rescue from the ship's hold.
His days of smoking or having a beer were finished. He started attending church with his wife and sons.
When a group from their church, Highland Baptist in Portsmouth, would visit the city jail on Sundays, Slaughter went along to share his story of being rescued.
“He would carry his cutout he had to talk to the inmates about his salvation and about there being hope for them because of what he experienced,” said Hope Slaughter, his daughter-in-law.
For several years, she also went on the visitations to the jail and played a pump organ.
“It was very inspiring to me to know that he had carried this with him since 1944,” Hope Slaughter said. “And it was so much a part of his everyday life. He walked his talk and when he told about his salvation, you could tell that he had really had an experience.”
She and her son, Rob, still have the steel cutout, etched with the date of the fire.
In the booklet, Slaughter wrote that he believed his choice to take another man's place for three hours of overtime changed the course of his life.
“I still go back in my memory to that day — April 27, 1944 — when because of my circumstances, the Holy Spirit of God changed me and gave a desire for a new direction and purpose for my life,” he wrote.
Slaughter died in 2009 at age 98, having never gotten any official word on what caused the blaze.
“He always believed it was an accident,” his daughter-in-law said.
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.