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.
Soldiers in uniform called on everyone to remain calm, but they were drowned out by the screams of women, some with hair ablaze. All I could think of was this can’t be happening to us. We nearly passed out. Then, almost immediately, firemen, coming from the outside, forced open the locked exit by our table. An icy blast of air revived us and we dashed for the door and into the cold night.
Outside there were bodies piled everywhere, living and dead. The firemen doused them with freezing water. We were divided into groups, depending on the severity of our injuries. I had serious burns on my hands, arms, and ears, but the ambulances were reserved for the most critical cases, so Virginia and I went to Boston City Hospital in a taxi. When we got there a doctor had to peel the burnt skin off my hands and ears. He said it would hurt but that some patients had died from the sedatives and pain killers and he would not give me any. Virginia did not appear to be seriously burned but had suffered from respiratory problems as a child. She died the next day of smoke inhalation. It was through the intervention of her father, however, that I became a patient of Dr. Kazanjian.
He was famous for his innovative surgical procedures, but was totally focused on his patients. Whenever he visited my bedside there were a dozen army and navy doctors there to learn from his techniques and insights. On one occasion a physician on his staff peeled back a piece of my bandage to show others how the wound was healing. Dr. Kazanjian angrily turned to the doctor and reprimanded him. Whatever could be learned from this, it was not worth the pain and the risk of infection to the patient.
For four weeks my head was covered in bandages, with only an opening for a small feeding tube. I had been in such pain, and perhaps shock, when I had arrived that I couldn’t remember how well I could see. And I knew there was some chance that infection had gotten to my eyes. When a nurse finally took off the bandages, she apologized because tissue was coming off my ears. I said, “That’s okay. I can see!” The fire killed 492 people. But a report in the Springfield Daily News that I was “near death” turned out to be an exaggeration. I was one of the lucky ones.
Improved surgical technique was not the only good that came out of the fire. Thereafter, revolving doors had to be flanked by side doors that opened outward. And 11 years later I received a check from the settlement of the class action suit. The amount: $146.John Heyman, 93, a retired agent for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, lives in Wilbraham.