61 Years Ago: Basement Fire Takes the Life of Fireman John Herbert

Saturday, March 20, 2010 |

A host of uniformed firemen stood in silent respect near a bronze casket covered with an American Flag. They were there, with other friends, to bid a final goodbye to a colleague, while affirming their eternal support for his young wife and orphaned children.

As the last words of prayer dropped from the Minister's lips and as rifles were raised toward the Heavens in a final salute, a brisk breeze whipped up the Colors into a military snap and stirred the flowers, as the minds of many drifted back just three days prior...

At ten o'clock in the morning of Sunday, March 20th, 1949 the spacious new fire station at 800 North Main Street was unusually quiet. Churchgoers passing by the new facility - opened less than 90 days prior, looked in on an apparatus floor, deserted except for the waiting fire apparatus and the lone LAFD member on floor watch.

LAFD Station 4 circa 1949

A close observation however, could have detected a hum of activity behind one of the nearby doors. Clearly and concisely, one member of a group which formed an attentive semi-circle was reading aloud from a Department manual: "Article 3, Section 43...A rope life line shall be secured around members before permitting them to descent into shafts, deep pits, etc. The following line signals will be used: one jerk signifies All is Well, two jerks...Advance, three...Take up, four...Help."

As the reader continued on, the collective thoughts of each fireman listening was varied. To some this was material for coming civil service exams, to others it was a routine drill. Some of the newer men pictured emergency situations wherein such knowledge would be vital...older men remembered times when it was. The voice rolled on.

Not a one however, with all their varied thoughts, could have pictured what was to occur within two short hours...

John H. Herbert
Los Angeles Fireman John H. Herbert, 'Herbie' to his friends, was born in Great Britain...Swansea, Wales, to be exact. Five years as a paratrooper for Uncle Sam gave him plenty of opportunities to get his sights on the enemy that threatened his birthplace. He enlisted in Los Angeles as a member of the Reserves before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

In a short time, Herbert found himself in the middle of the fracas in Europe sporting an Army Officer's insignia and terrific pride in the fighting group which he commanded, a part of the famed 101st Airborne Division. Dropped out of the sky on "D" Day near Normandie - deep behind German lines, Herbert led the dogged advance of his group for five days against the enemy.

On the sixth day the Germans had his outfit pinned down on two flanks. Staying under cover was of prime importance. But Herbert spotted one of his men who had become unknowingly exposed to enemy gunfire. He left his own protection to crawl out and pull the man to safety when an enemy mortar shell hit near his position. Killing two of his men, the explosion sent him reeling back with a shattered jaw and a body torn by shrapnel.

In a bleeding and dazed condition he started a miraculous trek...a walk to a first aid station which took him across a railroad trestle in full view of enemy snipers and along a route infested with entrenched Germans.

Yet amazingly, he wasn't shot.

Much to his loved ones relief, Herbert returned after five years of military service with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and his own slice of a Presidential Unit Citation...not to mention a body full of shrapnel - and an effervescent will to become a Los Angeles Fireman.

Which brings us to that Sunday on North Main Street...

At 11:10 AM, the new tapper at Fire Station 4 began sounding its alarm, feeding out inches of alarm tape. As the crews dropped their work and ran for the rigs, they counted the bells 1...2...3...6! The Captain jerked the tape from its tapper and held it under the corresponding number on the running card.

Third and San Pedro. "Truck only".

As the second and third rounds of bells came in, the Engine Company Captain pushed the control buttons and sent the modern marvel of automatic doors sliding open and soon with siren and air horn blasting, the big aerial truck swung out onto Main and then Aliso enroute San Pedro at 3rd.

It was there that Fireman John Herbert came to face dark, dense and ugly smoke that boiled up... (read more...)

To learn more about our Brother John and others who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their service to the City, we encourage you to visit the Los Angeles Fire Department Museuem and Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Hollywood.


Submitted by Brian Humphrey, Spokesman
Los Angeles Fire Department

1 comments:

Nancy Rigg said...

Thank you for remembering Fireman John H. Herbert, who died heroically in 1949, and for remembering all who have made the ultimate sacrifice. They are never forgotten...

Nancy Rigg

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