Sometimes officers don’t always seem to have a grasp of the situation at hand. You’ve probably seen it in the news like when a general got upset because Special Forces soldiers hadn’t shaved and looked grungy. Their mission required that, which was lost on the officer.
We had an officer in the battalion who wanted the entire battalion to be dress-right-dress. So our tents were lined up in neat, even rows. The distance between the tents was so close that the tent lines were tied to the next tent. Battalion headquarters in the row in front of us, and then my company, and then the remaining companies. It was hard looking at this after seeing World War II movies with strafing runs. Who knew what Iraq had? They could do a strafing run on us and take the entire battalion out without much effort.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the enemy we had to worry about; it was fire.
On January 14, 1990, I was in my platoon’s tent with some of sergeants when one of the soldiers let up a cry that there was a fire. We opened the tent flap and looked outside. The first tent in the battalion row was on fire, burning wildly. The tents are canvas, so they are flammable.
The wind was also blowing pretty good, whipping the fire around. There was a real chance that embers could blow to our row and catch our tents on fire. While my squad leader grabbed a fire extinguisher, I ran to the female tent next door to see if anyone was in there. It was empty.
Meanwhile, the fire crawled along the ropes tying the first tent to the next, and that one caught fire. The first tent was for the guard shifts; the second tent belonged to the battalion commander. He’d evidently left his weapon and ammunition in the tent, because the ammunition started cooking off once the heat reached it.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
That was it. Everyone ran for the nearest foxhole to take cover.
Several soldiers grabbed knives and cut the lines to the third tent, dropping it to the ground. In effect, it was a fire break. A third soldier hopped in the water truck used to fill the showers and brought it around. The water was used to put out the fire.
We learned afterward what had caused the fire. The battalion commander’s driver had taken the kerosene heater outside to fill it. We were supposed to wait about ten minutes before filling it because it takes that long for the flame to fully go out. The driver didn’t wait long enough. As he was filling the heater with a five gallon can, fire crawled up the nozzle. In a panic, he threw it into the tent.
All that was left the following day were the burned remains of the cots. They looked like skeletons.