Imagine being just a young child and losing a parent, a loved one and having the details of what happened be cloudy at best. But it was the "never give up" attitude of one family that helped uncover the details of their father's death back in 1947. As our Brian Dwyer reports, what they and Fort Drum experts found out, led them to the story of how their father died a hero.
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- "Throughout my life, there were times I could talk about the fire and it didn't bother me at all, but then all I did was look at the pictures in the Watertown newspaper and burst into tears," Carolyn Leps said.
Leps was just one. She was a baby entering the world as her father was leaving it.
In 1947, Captain Francis Turner was visiting Pine Camp, now known as Fort Drum, to observe training for an exercise called Snowdrop. But the early hours of December 10th, fire breaks out in his barracks building. Turner starts running to each soldier, warning them, waking them up, trying to help them get out. Four die, but he's able to help save 10 lives. In the process, though, Turner suffers massive burns and 18 days later, he dies.
It's a tragic story, with true heroism, that somehow, sort of, got lost. In fact, so little history on it, that Fort Drum's own archaeologists didn't know about it until three years ago, when Carolyn Leps, Turner's daughter, called hoping to finally visit the site. They brought her here and together unraveled the history.
"I assumed there would be a huge building built over the spot. When I saw it sitting there empty, between two barracks, it was like, 'This is like the corner of the fort that time forgot," Leps said of her first visit.
But over the course of the three years, details and history were not only learned, but found, literally. Some site digs uncovered numerous artifacts from the building, including a typewriter that is believed to have belonged to Captain Turner.
"I think that means the most to me," Fort Drum Federal Archaeologist Dr. Duane Quates said. "To be able to provide them with something that's so valuable that they know that what their father did was worthwhile."
Now everyone who drives or walks by will know as well. Tuesday, the Turner family was back on Fort Drum to help unveil a historical marker that will remain at the site forever.
"Those young men that are going to come through here and see his name, I hope it gives them courage and inspiration to live up to what he and the men then did," Leps said of the monument.
For all of Turner's family, no matter how hard it was or still is, it's a small bit of closure some 66 years later.
"My mother never would have come here," another daughter of Turner's, Elizabeth Barbee, said. "It upset her so much all her life. I like to think of the two of them here holding hands and saying, 'It's alright, it's alright.'"
The family still doesn't have any official report of the fire from the Army, but says getting something is what they'd like to do next.
In the aftermath of that fire, the wife of Lieutenant Rudolph Feres, another one of the soldiers who died, lost a lawsuit she filed against the government for wrongful death. That now famous ruling, we know as the Feres Doctrine, has kept any soldier or family member from ever being able to sue for wrongful death.