Published: 06:00, 12 July 2020
A little known post-war tragedy took the lives of four servicemen but it was caused entirely by accident.
Four men of the 509th Port Battalion of the US Transportation Corps were at Walmer Railway Station filling a petrol tanker with fuel salvaged from a wrecked ship off Deal on September 12, 1945.
Somebody nearby was smoking a cigar and vapour ignited with a spark.
The tanker exploded and a huge fire broke out at the goods shed, but the four men, who had been based at the nearby village of Ringwould, did not stand a chance.
All four, who were African Americans from Carolina and Virginia, perished. Another nine were badly burned.
Saturday, September 12 will mark the 75th anniversary of the tragedy and plans are in place to remember those who died.
Historian Phil Eyden is leading the commemorative project which includes a plaque unveiling and publication of an information brochure. But because of coronavirus and social distancing, the unveiling service has been put back to the same day in September 2021.
He has extensively researched the incident and revealed: "The Deal Fire Brigade turned up in minutes and managed to contain the fire within an hour.
"The bodies were taken off to the local Royal Marines barracks and five days later given a send-off by a US Army preacher.
"Two of the men were buried in Cambridge in the UK and two were repatriated back to the US."
All four of the men were been identified as:
Mr Eyden said: "Their unit had been created in July 1943 and given basic military drill and combat training. However, their role was primarily dock off-loading duties and they were not expected to enter into combat.
"They arrived in Britain in February 1944 and worked at the docks at Clyde and then to Swansea in May. "Following D-Day on June 6, they landed in Normandy on June 25 and worked on manhandling goods and fuel from transport ships to be transported to the front lines a few miles away.
"From August 1944 they spent the war at Rouen port undertaking Stevedore duties.
"After VE Day, in the summer they were brought to Ringwould near Deal, and housed in a US army camp near Oxney Bottom.
"There they were employed shifting fuel from the wrecked Liberty Ship SS James Harrod to Walmer Station, and that’s when the disaster happened."
The story of the SS James Harrod is also tragic, says Mr Eyden.
Launched on March 3, 1943, she was transporting goods from Southampton to Antwerp when on January 16 1945 she collided with another ship anchored in the Downs off Deal.
An explosion happened and four men were killed, three seamen and a gunner.
The ship was towed towards Kingsdown where she beached, but a day later a storm blew her to the Malm Rocks off Deal Castle.
She remained lay as the salvage operation took place, culminating in the Walmer station tragedy.
Mr Eyden hoped to have a memorial service at Walmer Station on the 75th Anniversary in September and started a crowdfunding campaign for funds towards purchasing the 3ft memorial plaque.
But because of earlier uncertainty about mass gatherings and quarantine arrangements for people entering the country to pay their respects, the gesture has been put back a year.
Fundraising continues and Mr Eyden added that the plaque at the station and the specially written publication will cover both the Walmer Station and the Liberty Ship SS James Harrod tragedies.
"Contributions have already been received from Walmer Parish Council, the American Legion, Southeastern Trains and the Walmer Lions to fund this, but any donations from the public are welcome," he said.
Donations can be made by clicking here.
Phil Eyden is a researcher and tour guide for the Dover Western Heights Preservation Society.
He has written on subjects ranging from Dover's Forgotten Commando Raid (Operation Abercrombie), and Dover's Western Heights in the First World War.
In 2016 he was voted winner of the People of Dover Awards for outstanding contribution to understanding local heritage by public vote.
More by this authorBeth Robson
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