Wednesday, June 3, 2020

WWII Accident Highlights Heroes Often Overlooked

Every spring, the government of the United States observes the last Monday in May as Memorial Day, a day on which to reflect upon and honor members of the U.S. armed forces who have died while serving their nation. Many of these heroes died in combat. Often overlooked, however, are those who died in training accidentsThey, too, are heroes 
During WWIIa group of soldiers, who were training in Arkansas, made the ultimate sacrifice. 

The United States Army organized the 66th Division, nicknamed the Black Panthers, in 1943They trained first at Camp Blanding, Florida, then transferred to Camp Robinson in Pulaski County, ArkansasThe purpose of the division was to serve as the rear guard in the Allied invasion of France and to end any remaining Nazi occupation in northern FranceTo accomplish this goalthe division would need to be well versed in aquatic warfare 

For training, the Army chose Lakewood, a real estate development located a few miles east of Camp Robinson. Beginning in 1932, developer Justin Matthews had created a series of manmade lakes in the hilly area.  On the shore of one, Matthews erected a concrete recreation of a stone grist mill, best known as the Old Mill.  The Army chose “Lake No. 2,” near the Old Mill, as an amphibious operations training ground. For months, the Army successfully staged aquatic maneuvers at the lake without any problems.  

At about  5 p.m. on the afternoon of March 16, 1944, a group of soldiers from the 66th Division were finishing up a long day of trainingThe soldiers were traveling across the lake on two steel bottomed boats that were lashed together and propelled by an outboard motor on a trailing boatAs they neared the shore, one of the boats capsized, throwing the soldiers into the waterThen the other boat capsizedThe soldiers, heavily weighed down with combat gear, began to swim the 50 yards to shore in icy watersSeveral soldiers, however, struggled with their heavy packs strapped to their backsMany soldiers also were trapped under the heavysteel-framed boats 

Seeing several of their fellow soldiers struggling to stay afloat in the cold water, men on the shore peeled off their gear and dove into the waterAfter several minutes of rescue efforts, it was clear some soldiers had gone under the water and had not been rescuedThe area of the lake became crowded with boats as soldiers, who hoped to rescue their lost comrades, rowed out to the place where the soldiers had toppled into the waterSome stripped to their underwear and dove into the icy waterOne put on a diver’s skin-diving suit and was lowered into the waterUnfortunately, his suit began to leak, and he was forced to return to the surfaceAs the soldiers continued to attempt to rescue and revive the accident victims, T.D. Johnson of the Little Rock Fire Department called for ambulances and respirators. 

As the rescuers found bodies, they laid them out on the shore where relays of soldiers worked to revive the menEven with the respirators, many of the victims could not be revivedThis did not deter many of the rescuerswho refused to stop resuscitation effortsEventually, medical staff had to force the soldiers to stop. The bodies were loaded into the ambulances and driven to Ruebel Funeral Home. 

As many as a 100 rescuers, exhausted and cold, started brush fires some distance from the lake to get warmThe beach was littered with shoes, clothes, weapons and other discarded items from the drowned victimsCivilians flocked to the area to watch the rescue mission but were held back by local police who had arrived to help 

This had been a tragic week for the trainees at Camp RobinsonOnly days before, during a training mission involving landmines, a mine accidentally detonated, killing 12 and injuring several othersIt was the first major accident since Camp Robinson was designated as a training camp for soldiers fighting in World War II 

In the end, there were nine bodies located on the day of the boating accidentand two others were found laterWhile the drowned soldiers did not die in combat, it is important to recognize their sacrifice in upholding and defending the U.SThe honor roll of these heroes are: Joseph S. SmithPatterson, New Jersey; Emmerson D. WashburnCorinth, New York; Ralph R. Juarez, Hutchinson, Kansas; Charles Barrow Clough, Jr., Patterson, New Jersey; Marvin BlumbergBronx, New York; Leonard G. GreigChicago, Illinois; Edward H. DeGrasseNorth Scituate, Massachusetts; Carl R. Schnarr, Robertson, Missouri; Norman H. RandallMarshfield, Massachusetts; Arpad S. Stabo, Cleveland, Ohio; and Robert W. SwellieWest Springfield, Massachusetts 

For more information on Arkansas history, call 501-682-6900 or email state.archives@arkansas.govThe Arkansas State Archives is open to the public in a limited capacity and by reservation. Some research services are available by calling the Arkansas State Archives or by visiting