TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE — As young man, Robert Dittmer was present when the first aircraft landed at Travis Air Force Base. It landed on the runway he helped provide the gravel for in 1942.
As the base’s assistant fire chief at that time, Dittmer was there the night the bomber carrying Brig. Gen. Robert Travis crashed near the front gate on Aug. 5, 1950.
The retired, 93-year-old fire chief got a tour Monday of Travis’ present fire station and its flight line tower, and met with the base’s current firefighters to help them build a history of their department.
“It is our honor to have him here,” said Travis Fire Chief John Speakman. He said Dittmer served as a firefighter in the 1940s when they were equipped with little more than a book of fire codes and fire boots.
Dittmer spent the day with the Travis firefighters, marveling at their modern equipment, saying “it’s all first-class now.” He also talked with Speakman and others to help them fill out a history of the Travis Fire Department that is being compiled.
“It’s hard to believe all the equipment you have in here,” Dittmer said of the engines and firefighter gear.
He even posed for photos with the current Travis firefighters and on a Seagrave fire engine, one of the few that survived the explosion of Gen. Travis’ bomber that wiped out much of the area’s other fire equipment.
The Seagrave was at another part of the base, refilling with water, when the bomber exploded, killing six airmen and injuring 60 other airmen and local firefighters.
Dittmer’s family has been in Green Valley since 1854. His father was one of those who helped establish the Cordelia Fire Protection District in the late 1920s by hitting up every farmer and rancher in the area to buy a fire truck.
That fire truck may still be around somewhere in the area, according to Speakman.
Dittmer was waiting for notification of being accepted as an air cadet in 1942 when he took a job at the base’s south gate, weighing Nelson Hill gravel that was being used to build Travis’ first runways.
“A Piper Cub flew down from Sacramento,” Dittmer said of the first aircraft to land at the base.
He watched it land and saw the officers get out, ask where the construction supervisor was and, once they talked, climb back into the Cub and take off.
Dittmer wasn’t there too long after. He was accepted as an air cadet and eventually sent to serve as a bombardier in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber over Europe for 35 missions.
After the war, Dittmer went to college for awhile. When he heard in late 1946 that there were job openings on the base fire department. He got the job the same day that another future Travis fire chief, Dave McCready, did.
Dittmer described the base’s first permanent fire station as a concrete building surrounded by tar-paper shacks.
“We had a lot of engine fires and that sort of thing,” Dittmer said of the work. “There was a warehouse fire that was arson, a GI set it.”
Some of the biggest challenges came from the fire equipment itself, which Dittmer described as worn-out, including one fire engine that had to be towed to get the engine running. The firefighters kept the engine running all day, topping off the fuel when needed so that it was ready to respond, and then turning it off at night.
“It was a real contest to get that running,” Dittmer said.
McCready talked Dittmer into taking his shift the night of the crash that killed Gen. Travis because McCready wanted to go to a party.
“He had a party he wanted to go to and he asked, ‘How about come work for me’, ” Dittmer said.
Dittmer’s first indication that something was wrong came with a call from the tower alerting the fire station they had an aircraft that had lost an engine.
The airmen in the tower could see the flames of the crash, initially thinking that the NCO Club was on fire, Dittmer said.
By the time Dittmer and the firefighters responded, eight or nine people from the front of the plane had been evacuated to the base hospital, “but no one reported a plane crash.”
Armed with a crash kit that consisted of a canvas satchel and included an axe and a hand saw, Dittmer and five others started cutting into the rear section of the burning aircraft to get to more survivors.
“We had started to cut into it when that son-of-a-gun went up,” Dittmer said of the explosion caused by the nuclear bomb on board that luckily did not have a detonator but was cooked off by the fire.
Wreckage hit him across the legs. The blast picked him up, threw him through the air and into a hole. He was the closest person to the explosion to survive. The injured Dittmer was taken to a hospital in San Francisco for treatment with about 30 to 40 other wounded firefighters.
It killed five firefighters as well as injuring 60 other airmen and firefighters. One man was found across the field, wrapped in some of the aircraft’s wreckage, but still alive and relatively unhurt, Dittmer said.
Six years later, on Dittmer was on the flightline in April 1956 when he watched a C-124 that had taken off for a test flight after its wiring had been worked on, crashed.
“It went up and then down on one wing,” Dittmer said.
Dittmer and the other Travis firefighters were right on the scene, pulling out the pilot and co-pilot “who was kind of burned,” but they were unsuccessful in trying to rescue the two other crewmen who died in the crash.
Dittmer said stayed with the Fire Department through the mid-1960s. He later started two glass companies in the area. He stayed at his ranch in Green Valley until last year when he moved to Paradise Valley Estates, where he lives now.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.