Charge of Quarters happened to exchange shifts every eight hours in the barracks. And at six Master Sergeant Goodwin handed Tommy the keys to the building, the logbook and went home. It was up to Tommy to make the rounds of the building. He leafed through the book to take note of how others had made their rounds.
The pattern was nearly always the same. Walk through the floor from which your bunk assignment was located then walk around the outside of the building. Of course, Tommy decided to be different.
His bunk was located right next to the outside door. If a person were coming in that door his room was on the right.
Tommy had one more stripe than everyone else. That made him the odd man out and he ended up with a room to himself. He stepped out into the hallway and face up the hall. “CQ, CQ, CQ, I have charge of quarters until 0200 hours.” That was the tradition for this barracks. With that Tommy turned and walked outside.
Texas evenings in the summer are hot, muggy affairs. This night was no different. It just seemed muggier. The skies were cloudy as well and there seemed to be a slight breeze blowing in from the south. “Thunderstorm,” Tommy said to himself.
After walking completely around the building and finding nothing out of the ordinary he headed up the outside stairs to the third floor. Men were not allowed on that floor, as it was a women’s dorm. He knocked on the door and asked one of the ladies if everything was okay. “Yes,” was her one word answer.
Then it was down the same set of stairs to the second floor. He entered the hallway and announced, “Charge of Quarters.” Several doors closed upon his announcement. “Whatever’s going on, I don’t care,” Tommy said to himself. Then he added as an after thought,” just as long as the building doesn’t burn down or blow up while on my watch.”
The same happened as he announced himself on the first floor. He walked through the length of the hallway and entered his room.
He sat down at his study area, opened the journal and wrote down, “1814 hours, nothing remarkable.” That was his entire log entry.
The next two hours were the same: nothing remarkable.
An hour later that would change. It was a couple minutes after nine when the base emergency siren sounded somewhere in the darkness. The wind had picked up and some rain fell. It evaporated as soon as it struck the hot pavement. The sky had a nasty dark pall to it.
The siren meant tornadoes.
The wind whipped Tommy’s hat away as he stepped outside. He started to chase after it but it disappeared into the shadows of the night. He continued on his fourth round.
The rain that fell, felt good. It cooled Tommy off in the heat of the evening. He could tell that a major storm was head their way. Then the lighting struck. It was a blinding flash of white light that left him temporarily without sight. The roaring boom of a thunderclap followed it closely.
He stood still waiting for his sight to adjust. Then he noticed that it was pitch dark. The lightning had struck a power pole on the other side of the mailroom and knocked out the electricity.
Still the siren wailed in the distance.
Tommy’s eyesight started to return, adjusting to the darkness of his surroundings. He headed up the outside steps towards the third floor.
Snap, buzz, pop!
Those were the three distinctive sounds he heard just south of where he stood. He looked in their general direction. What he saw caused a wave of alarm to rush over him. A cold sweat and a sick feeling in his stomach over took him, as he could hardly believe his eyes.
In the distance, cutting a wake of destruction were three funnel clouds. They were clearly out-lined in the cast of light of the power lines they snapped in half. They appeared to be getting closer.
Tommy bound up the stair well and pounded at the door. No answer. The tornadoes grew larger as the flashes silhouetted them. He knew he had to act.
The window shattered under the impact of his boot. Tommy reached inside and unlocked the door. He pounded on each individual door. Women poked their heads out of their rooms in disbelief that a man had come into their barracks against lawful orders. Tommy shouted at them to get to the bottom floor as quickly as possible.
“Tornado, tornado!” he shouted. “Get out now! Get to the first floor. Take cover!” he called out again and again.
Tommy ran down stairs to the second floor and repeated himself. There was a rush of activity. Men were racing for the nearest exit. He could hear the echoing of their boots on the steel grate step outside. He followed close behind.
The wind was vicious and unforgiving. He found it hard to breath and even harder to get the door open to the bottom floor and safety.
“Everyone, in the hallway,” Tommy screamed as loud as he could. The roar of the wind nearly drowned out the sound of his voice as he continued to shout instructions, “Lay down, now!”
All around them, they could hear glass shattering and wood breaking. Tommy could hear someone saying, “The Lord’s Prayer,” in the huddled mass of humanity hiding on the hallway floor.
Then the barracks shook as if the wind had picked each brick up one by one in rapid succession and laid them back down. The building heaved, and then it groaned.
Then there was silence
They remained huddled in the cramped hallway in complete silence and the darkness of the night. Soft crying and whispers could be heard.
“O’Gorman, Smith?” Tommy asked, breaking the silence.
“Yeah,” answered one of then the other.
“Keep everyone right here—I’m going for help,” Tommy directed.
“Okay,” O’Gorman with his soft Irish Brogue called back as Tommy headed for the exit. He had to push hard as the steel frame of the stairs had been ripped away from the wall and partly blocked the door from opening. He slipped passed the twisted metal.
There was a beam of light in the distance. “Over here,” he called out,
“Tommy! Is that you?” A voice replied back
“Yes sir! Frank?” Tommy responded. It was Sergeant Joseph. He rushed up to meet him.
“You okay?” he asked.
Tommy nodded his head yes to the question. “We’re all down on the first floor. The stair way is damaged,” I reported.
He told Tommy to turn around and take a look at the building. He lifted his flashlight up and ran it along the top of the building.
The lump in Tommy’s throat made it hard to swallow. The third floor was missing and the middle section of the second floor was torn away and lay in a pile of rubble on the ground stretching out into the parking lot.
Later that week, a Board of Inquiry was convened. They wanted to know if any lawful orders had been violated when Tommy entered the women’s dormitory by force. He stood before the Board and admitted that he had kicked in the window and had run through the third floor. Tommy also told the Board that he knew he was forbidden from entering that floor.
Upon his admission, the Board had no other choice but to request two Article Fifteens, which is non-judicial military punishment. The first one was for willfully damaging and destroying government property. The second one was for disobeying a lawful order from a superior officer.
“You know I don’t want to do this to you,” Captain Smith said as he laid the paper work out on his desk.
“Yes, sir,” Tommy said.
“If it was up to me I’d give a commendation for saving those women’s lives,” the Captain continued.
Again, Tommy said, “Yes, sir.” Then the Captain handed Tommy his pen. He quickly signed the Articles and came back to attention.
The Captain cleared his throat and shouted “Attent-hutt!” Everyone snapped too. Then he said, “I salute you.” With that he raised his right hand to the brow of his eye.
Momentarily puzzled to have an officer salute him, Tommy looked over to Sergeant Joseph who had turned and was saluting as well.
Tommy raised his hand in full salute and shouted “Sir, thank-you, sir!”