McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

March 22, 2013

McAlester veteran recalls fatal mortar explosion accident

By Rachel Petersen
Staff Writer

McALESTER — In the wake of the deaths of several Marines in Nevada after a mortar round exploded during a training exercise, a McAlester veteran recalls a similar accident he experienced in 1944.

David Martin, 87, of McAlester, served in the United States Army from September 1943 to April 1946, he told the News-Capital Wednesday afternoon.

Martin said the recent deaths of several Marines reminded him of a similar accident he experienced in 1944. On Monday, the explosion that killed at least eight Marines and injured several others occurred at the Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada’s high desert, the associated press reported. A 60 mm mortar round exploded in its firing tube during a mountain warfare training exercise, said Brig. Gen. Jim Lukeman during a news conference at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He said investigators are trying to determine the cause of the malfunction.

When recalling a similar accident, Martin said, “It was the winter of 1944 in Camp Fannin, Texas. We were practicing with 60 mm mortar out on the firing range and one of the mortar shells blew up just as it left the firing tube.” Martin said the explosiono killed two or three men. “I forgot how many; it’s been so long.” Martin said the explosion also wounded several other soldiers.

Martin said he was lucky to have survived the explosion. “I had a piece of shrapnel hit me,” he said. “But it did not penetrate my overcoat.”

In the recent explosion in Nevada, it was not immediately clear whether more than a single round exploded, a Marine Corps official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn’t authorized to speak about an ongoing investigation.

In the meantime, the Pentagon has issued a blanket suspension of 60 mm mortars and their associated firing tubes. The Pentagon earlier had suspended use of all high-explosive and illumination mortar rounds that were in the same manufacturing lots as ones fired in Nevada, the associated press reported.

The Pentagon expanded this temporary ban to prohibit the military from firing any 60 mm mortar rounds until the results of the investigation can determine their safety, the associated press reported.

The Marine Corps said early Tuesday that seven Marines were killed. But John Stroud, national junior vice commander in chief for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, began a memorial event in Hawthorne on Tuesday night by saying “one of the critical has passed,” bringing the death toll to eight.

“We honor the eight brave Marines who gave their lives to their country,” Stroud said. “When the call of the country was heard, these eight young Marines answered.”

Stroud said he spoke with Marine officers from Camp Lejeune who told him about the eighth death before the ceremony. Capt. Binford R. Strickland, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, said in an email late Tuesday that he could only confirm that seven were killed and eight were injured.

The identities of those killed won’t be released until 24 hours after their families are notified.

“We send our prayers and condolences to the families of Marines involved in this tragic incident,” said the force’s commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond C. Fox. “We mourn their loss, and it is with heavy hearts we remember their courage and sacrifice.”

Contact Rachel Petersen at The Associated press contributed to this story.

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