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The day a generation vanished: Survivors, others recount New London School explosion 75 years later

By Charlotte Stewart cstewart@news-journal.com
March 17, 2012 at 11 p.m.


NEW LONDON - Seventy-five years ago today, the March sky was lovely and clear, Bill Thompson says.

Thompson, then a fifth-grader, walked to school with a skip in his step that Thursday, because school was due to dismiss early for a PTA meeting, and what's more, classes weren't in session the following day because so many students were either involved in athletic competitions in Henderson or would be there watching.

"I don't even think I had a jacket with me that day," the NewLondon man said.

Now 88 years old, Thompson said for the first 65 years after theexplosion that killed almost 300 people at the school, he bore great guilt - and not just survivor's guilt.

"I was 12 at the time, and like just about any red-blooded 12-year-old boy, I liked girls," he said. He had been annoyed when school did not dismiss early, as scheduled, and was a little bored by the current events his teacher had the class reading from cut-out newspaper.

"There had been a lot of reports about Adolph Hitler over-running some places in Europe," Thompson remembered of that class.

His mind wandered from Hitler to the cute little girl two seats away. Taking action, Thompson asked little Ethel Dorsey to trade seats with him "so I could go flirt with Billie Sue Hall."

A few minutes later, Thompson recalled, he heard "one big boom."

"I can remember doing somersaults in the air," he said. He also remembers coming out of unconsciousness with so much debris and rubble on top of him that he was unable to move anything but his left hand - and feeling what he knew to be blood on his face.

"I thought the war in Europe had come over here and they had bombed us," he said, "you know, because of the current events in English class and all."

In the background, he could hear the screaming mothers from the PTA meeting.

"I could feel them walking on top (of the debris piled on) me. Then I heard someone say, 'I believe there's somebody under here.' And they dug me out and put me into an ambulance."

Though injured, Thompson didn't stay in the ambulance. He got out not once, but twice, and the second time was told if he was well enough to walk, the ambulance was needed for those more severely injured, and to get onto a school bus across the schoolyard.

"There was already a row of bodies laid out," Thompson said. "But I didn't recognize anyone."

Later, a high school boy took home the children in the school bus.

"Can you imagine the grief I saved my parents? If I had gone to the hospital in that ambulance, well, they wouldn't have known what happened to me … and would have been digging up debris all night looking for me or going from one makeshift morgue to the next."

When he was taken home, Thompson said his mother didn't recognize him.

"We were all gray, you see, from the dust of all that mortar that blew up. And I was bloody and pretty beat up," he said. He was taken to the hospital in Henderson, where he had to give up his bed to another student, "who didn't make it."

The three days in the hospitals were spent without sleep, yet still nightmarish, he said.

The London School was out for 10 days, he said, before school resumed in the gymnasium, which was unattached to the main building and remained structurally sound.

"They did a roll call. One name after another was called, and when one name got called, you either heard 'here' or 'he's moved away' or 'still in hospital' or 'dead,' " Thompson recalled.

He also remembered hearing the name of classmate Ethel Dorsey, who had traded seats with him, followed by the word "dead."

"That started a long trail of guilt for me," he said. "I had the feeling that everyone was looking at me, but they didn't even know (that we traded seats)."

Thompson said he has heard, and read, that no one talked about the explosion after it happened, but that isn't necessarily true.

"We talked about it amongst ourselves, to each other, of course we did," he said. It might not have been dinner conversation at the table, but the people who experienced it together did mention it, he said. "It was a sad, terrible, terrible, pain for us, so I don't know that anyone just sat around to gab about it, but it came up."

When he was 18, Thompson joined the Navy and left the area for six years.

"I got married a couple of times," he said of that era. He returned to New London and found himself close to the home of a former schoolmate, Margaret Hann.

"She was headed off to airline (stewardess) school. We saw each other about every other day or so, and she decided she'd rather get married," he said.

The two have been married for 65 years and have four sons and four granddaughters.

Thompson said he carried the guilt with him until he called the brother of Ethel Dorsey, asking for permission to buy a brick in her honor to go onto the walkway of the London Museum and Tea Room.

Thompson said the man guessed that he had felt guilty all those years, and told Thompson not to, because it had been the little girl's "time to go, not mine."

<strong>Rescue worker</strong>

At the age of 96, Marvin Dees still tries to make it to the New London Museum and Tea Room about once a week for lunch.

"Two reasons," he said. "One, good food. The other is those people have become like family to me."

Dees isn't what most people would consider a survivor of the great explosion that took the lives of as many as 300 of the 500 students and staff at the school that day. But he is, nevertheless, a survivor of the disaster.

Like Thompson, Dees remembers that day in 1937 as a lovely, clear one. Nice weather like that was a special treat for the men who worked outside in the oil fields, and not easily forgotten.

Also Like Thompson, he claims age has not dimmed his memory of the event. "I can remember it so clearly," he said, adding that for a long time it was something he thought about almost constantly.

Now a retired mechanical engineer, Dees wasn't at his usual seat on Wednesday this past week. He had fallen, he said, but fearing the sound of ambulances and fire engines in the neighborhood would cause "a ruckus," didn't use his emergency bracelet. It's the spirit of an old oil field hand, he noted, taking hardship. He is a bit battered and bruised, but will be at today's memorial service, he promised.

Dees, then 21, the youngest oil field worker for what would become Texaco, was about five miles from the school, he said, when in the mid-afternoon the workers felt an earth tremor and heard the blast. The tired crew was preparing for the end of its shift, he said, and thought perhaps a boiler had exploded.

Another worker had passed the chaotic scene of dust and rubble and had rushed to the oil field to get the equipment and men necessary to start a rescue mission.

"He told us the school had exploded and there were kids dead over there," Dees said.

"I can remember everything exactly as it happened, where I was, what I did, what it smelled like, everything about it," he said. "It was a horrible, horrible sight."

He saw the frantic parents, kinfolk and friends as they tirelessly dug for their children or relatives. "But you had to focus on what you were doing. You had to move debris," he said.

Dees never did find a living person, but he found a teacher whose head had been crushed. "I'll never forget that. It was a terrible sight," he said.

Along with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 other workers, they started moving debris. "When it got toward dusk, we brought in floodlights from the oil field and worked in the dark," he said.

What began as a day with beautiful weather turned miserable when a thunderstorm began pouring rain onto workers and debris. Dees said working in the slippery clay throughout the night didn't seem tiring to the young oilfield workers, but the days that followed were exhausting.

<strong>Museum docent</strong>

John Davidson can be found at the museum just about five days a week, sitting at a booth in the tearoom in between tours.

"This was what the school looked like on the morning of March 18, 1937," he said as he began a tour this past week for a mother with children out of school on spring break.

A little over halfway through the tour, he took his laser light to a group of high school girls in softball uniform, victims of the blast. Resting the red dot of light on one girl's face, he said "and this is Ardyth Davidson, my sister."

Davidson never met his sibling. He explains that had it not been for the explosion, "I probably wouldn't be here … She was an only child, and my parents didn't want any more children."

He was born three years after her death.

Growing up, he realized he had had a sister, but knew little about her.

"I've come to know more about her working (at the museum) for the past 10 years than I ever knew about her," he said. His parents just didn't talk about her, he said.

"Mother mentioned her here and there, what a good athlete she was, how pretty she was, but not conversations," he said. And his father went months and even years without mentioning her.

"But she was on his mind," he said. Each year on the anniversary of his 14-year-old sister's death, his father went to work, "But he never made it through the day … The memories were too much for him."

He goes to every reunion and ceremony he can, Davidson said, because there he has a chance to hear about the sister he has come to love. It seems that until recently, he heard a different story every time.

Many of the stories came from Dorothy (Wommack) Box, then Ardyth's best friend, who lived in the area for many years before moving to San Antonio to live with her son.

"Dorothy told me that she went to visit mother for a good while after (the explosion), but it was too hard for both of them. Mother would weep and ask her why God spared her but not Ardyth," he said, conceding it was the kind of question his mother might ask.

He once came across a wooden box nailed shut in a storage room. Upon opening it, he realized it was the coat and rest of the clothing his sister had been wearing the day she died. On top of the clothing in the box was her diary. She had been identified by her clothing, a cousin told him. The coat had a seared mark from the blast.

He didn't look at the diary, and the storage room itself was consumed by fire before he could bring himself to go through the contents of that box in detail, he said.

Davidson went on to graduate from London High School in 1958 and college in 1962. He married, had a son and a daughter and a career as a cost analyst with Kelly-Springfield in Tyler.

"You know what I know about her now?" he said. "It was a story that wasn't told until the museum opened."

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