Radford Arsenal tragedies claimed 39 lives between 1940 and 1991

By BROOKE J. WOOD

brooke@southwesttimes.com

Dennis Kitts dared to ask the question no one wanted to answer: “Who was the last person to die running this machine?”

Kitts “felt the heat six different times” while operating the even-speed machine at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant between 1987 and 1988, and he says those fires “left a lasting impression on me.”

In 1988, an explosion and fire at one of the arsenal’s rocket motor machining buildings resulted in the deaths of Terry Crawford and Kenneth Rollins, both of Radford. As a consequence of that explosion and a subsequent board of inquiry review, he says “word went out for every area of the plant to find and analyze their normal malfunctions, because a normal malfunction is what caused the explosion in 1988.”

Kitts explains fires were the normal malfunction on the even-speed machines, a piece of equipment he compares to something many remember: “Imagine your grandmother’s wringer washing machine turned over on its side and, instead of rollers being about 2½ inches in diameter, magnify them up to about 14 inches in diameter and about 30 inches wide.”

There were 2,772 fires in the rolled powder sections of the plant in 1987.

A 1988 review of the fire that claimed the lives of Crawford and Rollins resulted in an intense review of techniques and “normal malfunctions,” a process that involved Kitts. The outcome was truly life-changing – or life-saving. There were only 12 fires the next year.

“Now, it’s gotten to the point where, if they have two a year, it’s an extraordinary event. So, what you have there is an extraordinary improvement in safety. You’ve had extraordinary improvement in quality because you’ve reduced your variability,” Kitts points out.

Thirty-nine lives were lost at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant between 1940 and 1991, with Pulaski County and Radford sustaining the heaviest losses. More is known about these men and women who died because of Kitts, who worked at the plant from 1987 until his retirement last year.

His first job involved taking sheets of propellant, about the size of car floor mats, mixing them with other pieces of propellant, and rolling the combined material into what he describes as a “a 30-inch-wide roll of craft paper about 15 to 18 feet long.”

But his experiences with the even-speed machine’s “normal malfunction” got him to thinking.

“I asked the question probably in 1987 and 1988, ‘Who was the last person to die running this machine?’ And I would get what I patently refer to as ‘the cow looking at a new gate’ from the old timers. At best, I would get, ‘Well, we don’t talk about such stuff’.”

But his interest never stopped, even after he went on to become a training manager at the arsenal.

“Fast forward to 2010,” he says. “One day I was having a conversation with a gentleman that I had known for years, Marcus Robinson. We were talking, and I was lamenting over the fact I never got an answer to my question.”

That’s when Robinson told him his uncle, Olen Robinson, died in a fire while working at an even-speed machine.

So, Kitts began perusing arsenal newspapers to find information about Robinson who had been exposed to a fire on one of the even-speed machines Kitts actually operated. “If conditions went awry, [the material] could ignite as it was going through the rollers,” he says, comparing the resulting flash to lighting a 20-pound book of matches.

Finding Robinson triggered Kitts’ earnest inquiry into uncovering the names of all who died at the arsenal, originally built to manufacture 30-caliber bullets greatly needed by troops during World War II.

Pointing to a map showing the location of German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean following the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kitts says, “This just gives you an idea of what the greatest generation was dealing with when World War II began.”

He calls the men and women who lost their lives at the arsenal “the hidden warriors.”

“These are the hidden fatalities. These are the patriots. These are the ones who died in pursuit of supporting the war fighters. They’re every bit the patriot that someone wearing a war uniform is, and their names have been hidden for too long.”

In 2012, at the behest of BAE Systems, who replaced ATK at the arsenal’s contractor, Kitts got a Radford University intern to help him uncover the hidden heroes. RU history major Amy Walters spent the winter of 2012 researching the plant newspapers and corroborating that information with local newspapers, death certificates and other records. Her research uncovered 39 fatalities in 25 separate incidents in the arsenal’s history.

Kitts has made it his mission to find the burial sites of everyone who died working at the arsenal, and place an American flag on each grave marker.

The arsenal’s first human loss was Walter S. Doyle, a West Virginian who died Dec. 19, 1940. Although Walters’ research didn’t determine the cause, Kitts discovered he had been “T-boned by the plant locomotive.” Train tracks were built at the same time as the arsenal to transport supplies in and ammo out of the arsenal.

Three died of electrocution in separate 1941 incidents: Thomas Vaughn of Radford, Norris Ross of Bassett and William Rhodes of Palmyra. Floyd Saylor of Saxton, Penn., died from a blow to the head the same year.

A July 1942 fire caused by “local overheating and spontaneous combustion” claimed four lives: Carlis Harris of Floyd; Echols McClure of Richwood, W.Va.; William Moore of Willis; and Tennessean Lawrence Gaut.

Five different employees died in separate accidents in 1943: Eli Neal died from a head injury, Theodore William Jones of Dublin died in an explosion/fire, Guy Smith of Dublin died in a fire, Leslie Vinton Jones of Floyd drowned and Ballard French of Narrows died from head injuries.

A 1944 fire on three buggies being pulled behind a Jeep carrying 7,500 pounds of M2 multi-base for 105mm Howitzers, took the life of Howard Craft, of New Castle.

Three lives were lost in a 1945 explosion/fire: Lester Cochran of Carroll County, Marcel Semones of Dublin and Gladys Hunt of Roanoke. A July 1946 fire claimed three more: Alvin Earles and Oliver Stone, both of Radford, and Alva Edwards of Christiansburg.

Kitts shares that finding Edwards’ burial site was one of his “dear God moments.” The headstone next to Edwards’ belonged to the son he never met, the child his wife was carrying when he died in the arsenal fire. The child was born Sep. 8, 1946 and died two days later.

West Virginian Grover Davis died in 1948 from injuries he sustained in a fall. Ralph Hypes of Radford perished October 1951 from suffocation. A 1954 detonation accident took the lives of Thomas Cole of Pearisburg and Arnold Lovill of Hillsville.

An August 1970 explosion/fire killed Gilbert Killen of Dublin and Wallace Doyle of Christiansburg. A fire in the same month of the next year took two more: Randy Johnston of White Gate and Charles Whitaker of Dublin. An explosion took the lives of Christiansburg native Glen Richardson and James Pearman of Max Meadows on Jan. 6, 1978.

Hiwassee native Rufus Marshall died in a 1982 explosion/fire. He was one of seven Pulaski Countians to die in arsenal accidents. Two more plant workers died in a February 1985 explosion: Galax resident Earl Ray Burcham and James Brookman from Roanoke.

Terry Crawford and Kenneth Rollins, both of Radford, perished in a 1988 explosion. Six Radford citizens died in arsenal accidents.

The arsenal’s last fatal accident occurred October 1991 as a result of ether poisoning, an accident that claimed the lives of Ivery Adams Boysaw of Dublin and Mary Scott Duncan of Blacksburg.

Kitts attributes most of the accidents to contractors “learning to make certain types of sheet propellant, flying by the seat of their pants because it was new technology, all the way to refining the process to people doing dumb stuff.” Looking at the big picture, he points out that the arsenal is currently in its longest period between major incidents.

Kitts is a virtual cornucopia of arsenal history, with knowledge about everything from materials to romances, and he’s been slowly building a history of the arsenal as he creates his presentations. The last presentation, given during Pulaski County’s July 4 remembrance ceremony, shared the history of the Radford Arsenal’s bagging plant in Dublin. He calls the 78-page history of the Radford Arsenal and its Dublin bagging plant the “outline” for the much larger book he plans to write starting in 2018.

In the meantime, he’s spending a lot of time walking and sweating through cemeteries looking for the graves of the fallen. He says when he finds one and plants a flag, he steps back to “take a look” at the hidden warrior’s grave and comment: “Thank you. Your and your family’s sacrifice will never be forgotten now.”

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