A Memorial to Two Servicemen at the Airport

Late in the afternoon of January 17, 1944, two young servicemen died in an accident at what is now the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. But in those days it was the Martha’s Vineyard Naval Air Facility, a base for training newly commissioned carrier pilots, carved out of what was then a bushy plain of scrub oak in the middle of the Island. The story of the accident led the front page of the Vineyard Gazette four days later. But it would be another forty-five years before it became clear what the paper had left out of its account – perhaps from ignorance or perhaps at the Navy’s behest.

We start with the man who saw what actually happened, was seriously injured trying to save a friend while the tragedy played out, and was then quickly and quietly transferred from the base, along with others who witnessed the events, only a few days after they occurred.

Edward Krikorian Jr., who enlisted in the Navy in March of 1942 at the age of seventeen, had grown up during the Depression in Paterson, New Jersey. The family home had no electricity and was heated with coal salvaged from passing trains. Ed Krikorian started working around the age of thirteen, packing and labeling cans in a dog food factory at night, and he never graduated from grammar school. In an interview with Linsey Lee of the Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in July of 1999, he said of his boyhood, “There was no work. There was nothing.”

Stationed on the Vineyard a month before his eighteenth birthday in 1943, he worked as a fireman first class, shoveling coal in the boiler room at the naval air base. One year later, around four o’clock in the afternoon of January 17, he was waiting for his friend Richard Joseph Holden to relieve him when he learned that Holden and another man, Donald Everett Goodwin, had volunteered to descend into a large gasoline tank, just across the way, to measure it.

Holden and Goodwin were wearing oxygen masks, but the tank was chest deep with gas and the fumes quickly overcame them. When Krikorian arrived, Goodwin had managed to climb back out but Holden had not, and a third man, William Thomas Ping, had gone down to try to rescue him. But the fumes quickly disabled Ping as well. “For some reason, there was a line, a rope, on the ground,” Krikorian told Linsey Lee in 1999. “I don’t know who put it there or why it was there. I grabbed the rope and I tied it around me, and I handed it to somebody, I don’t even know who.”

Without oxygen, “I went in the tank and I held my breath,” Krikorian said. “I kicked around the bottom of the tank, and I kicked somebody.” It was Holden. “He was soaking wet with gasoline, so he was quite heavy. I finally got him up overhead and somebody said, ‘I got him.’”

Unable to hold out any longer, Krikorian took a deep breath and passed out. Above him, the men pulled on his rope, and when he came to, “I was on the ground, there was doctors over me, and the whole bit.” Lying on the ground next to Krikorian was Goodwin, still alive but badly hurt. Holden, the friend whom Krikorian had pushed up to daylight, was dead. And “Ping, the other kid, I understand they got him out with a grappling hook afterwards. So two died. Goodwin lived and I lived.” Richard Holden was twenty-one, William Ping twenty-seven.

Krikorian was hospitalized at the base, sick from the fumes, with his eyebrows and hair burned away temporarily. For a year afterward the smell of gas made him sick, and nearly half a century later he remembered those few moments when he was still conscious in the tank: “I never thought I could hold a breath that long. I know one thing – gasoline is the coldest thing in the world; it’s worse than ice water.”

When the story of the disaster appeared on the front page of the Gazette, it left out the fact that the tank was chest-deep in gas, saying only that fumes had disabled and killed the two men. “Anybody that knew anything about it got shipped out of here,” said Krikorian, who was married to an Island woman, Gloria Smith Rogers; she had just become pregnant. After serving as a pall bearer at Richard Holden’s funeral, Krikorian was swiftly transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and then served as a water tender in the boiler room of the destroyer USS Harry E. Hubbard, which saw action in Okinawa.

After the war, Ed Krikorian returned to the Vineyard, where he and Gloria had three children. After his first marriage ended, he married another Island woman, Shirley Peters. He became an entrepreneur, building and running the Ocean View Restaurant in Oak Bluffs and the Lampost, a bar on Circuit Avenue. Later in Vineyard Haven he opened Island-Wide Realty, now an office of Century 21.

For many years, the legacy of what officials at the air base apparently tried to keep from the public wore on in painful ways. Donald Goodwin, severely hurt, fought for a pension that he only won from the Navy after Krikorian provided him with a copy of his own medical records and a letter explaining what had really happened. And so reluctant was Krikorian to speak of the accident that it wasn’t until Richard Holden’s parents were in their eighties that they finally learned, indirectly, it was Krikorian who had helped lift their son from the tank, endangering his own life.

“I don’t know why they didn’t have the blueprints or why they didn’t just fill it up – empty it, pump it out, and then fill it up to see how much it would hold,” Krikorian told Linsey Lee in the summer of 1999. He added that someone had once asked him why he risked his life in that way: “You don’t know why. You just do it. If I had to think about it, I don’t think I would have done it....I just regret that fellow that – you know Holden, which was a friend of mine too – that he didn’t live.”

All told, sixty-eight servicemen died on or around the Vineyard, often during train-ing accidents, and generally in plane crashes and ship sinkings. Richard Holden and William Ping are the only two servicemen individually memorialized on the Island. A plaque commemorating their deaths can be found near a walkway leading to the airport restaurant, not far from where the gasoline tank once stood. It was arranged and paid for by Edward Krikorian, who died at Massachusetts General Hospital on December 15, 2004.

One in a series of articles by Tom Dunlop on people from the Vineyard’s past who have been memorialized around the Island. Sources for this story include the Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Martha’s Vineyard Times.