Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Booneville's "Black Christmas"

On December 22, 1950, an explosion at the Booneville, Mississippi, Armory killed seven Mississippi National Guardsmen and seriously injured three others. The explosion apparently occurred when high octane fluid (possibly gasoline) being used to clean weapons was ignited by a nearby gas heater. The accident happened as the men were preparing for deployment to Korea in January 1951. Known as “Black Christmas,” the disaster was covered by newspapers across the nation, including the New York Times, and is considered to be the first domestic casualties of the Korean War.

The men were all members of Co. B, 198th Tank Battalion. On that day (a Friday), Booneville was filled with people hurriedly shopping for Christmas, while others were at the nearby gymnasium watching a basketball game (in 1950, the Booneville High School boys team was crowned the 1A-2A state champions). At the armory, Guardsmen were busy with vehicle maintenance, cleaning carbines, and routine paperwork in advance of deployment overseas. The explosion occurred in the washroom around 8:00 p.m. In an interview with the Commercial Appeal, Captain Fred Houston said “the whole room seemed to go up in flames.” Smith Goddard of Booneville was another soldier on duty that day. According to Goddard, one of the men came out of the armory and said “Those boys are burning up back there.” As he ran and looked into a window, he could see the fire burning out of control but was helpless to rescue anyone. “I have never felt any worse in my life,” he said. “I was only four or five feet away but could not do anything to help them.” Goddard would later serve as a pallbearer for two of his fallen comrades.

Killed instantly in the conflagration were two Booneville men: Sgt. Charles Owen Fugitt, 21, and Cpl. William Howard Duncan, 31. Four others died the next morning and the seventh soldier lived only until the night of the 23rd, long enough to plan his own funeral. In addition to Fugitt and Duncan, the other men who died as a result of the explosion were Hugh Thomas Weatherbee, 18, of Rienzi, Freddie E. Fulghum, 18, also of Booneville; and three men from the little town of Thrasher - Billy W. Mooney, 18, James Ray Robinson, 19, and Lawrence Sidney Burks, 30. Four other Guardsmen were injured, three of them with serious burns.

At least one of the men killed that night had been married just a short time. Annie Maurine Hill was thirty-four years old when she married William Duncan (above right) in 1949. A graduate of Wheeler High School, Mrs. Duncan (right) attended Blue Mountain College and became a teacher at the Hopewell School in the Meadow Creek Community. She became a widow when the explosion killed her husband, and she never remarried, as he was “the love of her life.” Mrs. Duncan passed away last year at age 95.

Despite the disaster, the unit still had to deploy, and on January 16, 1951, the surviving members of Co. B, 198th Tank Battalion boarded a train for Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and from there went to Korea, where they served for two years. There was little time to mourn the company’s loss. They have not been forgotten, however. To honor the soldiers’ memory, a monument was erected on December 22, 2006, fifty-six years after “Black Christmas.” Initiated by Coach William (Bill) Ward of Booneville, who was also on duty that day at the armory, the granite monument bears the symbol of the “Dixie Division” and the Mississippi National Guard. In attendance for the dedication of the monument was (above, L-R) former House Speaker Billy McCoy, former Adjutant General Harold Cross, Cecil Weatherbee, brother of Hugh Weatherbee (left), and the former commander of the 155th Brigade Combat Team, Brig. Gen. Augustus Collins. The monument is located at the site of the armory.

Photo sources: 
Unit photo:, originally published courtesy of Zandra Weatherbee Huddleston
New York Times:
Duncan and Weatherbee: (September-December 2006)
Maurine Duncan:
Monument: (September-December 2006) 

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