It was the war that brought me to Boston on the day of the Cocoanut Grove fire, November 28, 1942. I had trained with the ROTC (Cavalry) at the University of Massachusetts from 1937 to 1941, and in the summer of 1939 had learned to fly in a government program designed to increase the number of officer candidates with flight experience. On that Saturday, I traveled from my home in Springfield to Boston’s main post office to take the final exam that would qualify me for naval aviation training.
I was to be sworn in the following Monday but never made it. Instead of flying planes off a carrier, my biggest contribution to the war effort would be as a patient receiving experimental surgical procedures developed by Dr. Varaztad Kazanjian, procedures that not only saved my life, but those of countless pilots and other victims of the war.
After the exam, Virginia McLaughlin, my date that day, and I attended the Boston College-Holy Cross football game. Undefeated BC was heavily favored, but Holy Cross prevailed 55-12. The BC supporters cancelled their victory celebration — which was scheduled for the Cocoanut Grove that evening. A few hours after the game Virginia and I made our way to the nightclub.
We were sitting at a table at street level, but at around 10 p.m. we moved to the lounge downstairs where a band was playing. The lounge was dark, but when a bulb was pulled from its socket, perhaps by a couple desiring privacy, it became even darker. I watched as a busboy struggled to replace the bulb just 10 feet in front of me. He could not see in the dark, so he struck a match, which immediately ignited both the artificial palm tree holding the socket and the palm fronds above the tables. The cloth ceiling caught fire and flames exploded upstairs almost instantaneously, spreading choking smoke and heat everywhere.
We made our way slowly up the wide stairs. No one panicked until they saw the main entrance, a single revolving door jammed shut by bodies pressed against it. We went back toward our table, which was only 15 feet from an exit, but it was locked to prevent patrons from leaving without paying. Other exits opened inward and were blocked by the panicked crowd. We were trapped.
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