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Situated near Officer’s Loop, the T-2278 Barracks Fire Memorial honors the Soldiers killed during an early morning barracks fire at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) on Dec. 10, 1947. This was the only structural fire in the history of Fort Drum that resulted in fatalities. (Graphic by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Fort Drum community members pay tribute
to fatal inferno that still affects Soldiers today

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (May 5, 2023) – In the winter of 1947, a fire destroyed an officers’ barracks at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) and took the lives of five Soldiers who were temporarily stationed there for a training exercise.

Today, the T-2278 Barracks Fire Memorial stands at the incident site near Officer’s Loop as a reminder of the tragic event.

Exercise Snowdrop, the 82nd Airborne Division winter maneuvers at Pine Camp, commenced in November 1947 with roughly 2,500 troops engaged in simulated warfare scenarios on the training grounds. The four-month exercise also tested how military equipment functioned in winter conditions and the logistics of aerial supply drops to isolated battlefield units.

At 2:30 a.m. Dec. 10, a fire broke out inside a two-story wooden barracks where 15 officers slept. Four died in the blaze, five were injured and six others escaped unharmed. One officer, Capt. Francis H. Turner, would die two weeks later from his wounds.

Turner had only just arrived at Pine Camp several hours before the fire engulfed his quarters. He was assigned as a technical adviser for the Quartermaster Corps to observe how the equipment performed in winter maneuvers.

While some of the officers were escaping the inferno, Turner selflessly stayed inside to evacuate others from the building.

One eyewitness on the scene said that “occupants leaped out of the window” and “two of the escapees had to be restrained when they sought to re-enter the burning building to save their buddies.”

Turner’s wounds were so severe that he couldn’t be moved from the camp hospital. He died Dec. 28, 1947.

The four who died instantly in the fire were Reserve Army Capt. Robert L. Dodge; Lt. Rudolph J. Feres, with the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division; Lt. Robert D. Manley, with the 38th Infantry Division; and Lt. Wallace H. Swilley Jr., 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division.

Although there have been speculations about its origin, the cause of the fire was never publicly released, and the location of an official investigation report is unknown.

What is known is that this was the only structural fire in the history of Fort Drum that resulted in fatalities. The incident also made history as it set legal precedent when some of the victims’ families filed lawsuits against the government. Four cases were dismissed in district court, but the case brought by Bernice Feres reached the Supreme Court in December 1950.

The court decision became known as the Feres Doctrine, which prevents active-duty military members from collecting damages for personal injuries sustained while on duty. It also bars family members from filing wrongful death suits when a service member is killed. While this doctrine now has a long-established precedent affecting Soldiers and their families today, it is still routinely challenged in court.

Many years later, the barracks fire was all but forgotten at Fort Drum until the daughter of one of the fallen officers made inquiries and was permitted a site visit in 2010. This led to a coordinated effort between the Fort Drum Environmental Division’s Cultural Resources Section and the Army Corps of Engineers to research the fire.

The work resulted in the publication of a historical pamphlet in 2011, authored by a team from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory. Then in June 2012, an excavation of the site yielded thousands of artifacts for the team to analyze.

The archaeological investigation ultimately led the Fort Drum Memorialization Committee to approve the establishment of a historic marker at the former barracks site. Members of the Fort Drum community and invited guests attended the plaque dedication ceremony on Aug. 27, 2013.