By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer
On a quiet day in eastern New Mexico, Nov. 30, 1944, a train of 81 cars was traveling west out of Clovis. One of the crew members had detected a hot box under a fuel oil tanker car and the engineer was slowing the train to a stop west of Melrose in the Village of Tolar.
As the train was slowing, the fuel oil tanker broke off and jumped track along with 36 other cars, starting a fire that spread quickly though the wooden box cars. Somewhere on that train was a car full of bombs heading for military operations in World War II.
The scene was set for disaster.
Before the end of the day, much of Tolar would be destroyed by the tremendous munitions blasts. One man died, and panic permeated the area on suspicions the Japanese had sabotaged the train.
• The events
Editor’s note: The following events are compiled from newspaper accounts from the Amarillo Daily News and the Clovis News Journal and interviews with area residents who had relatives at the scene.
There were only six of the 30 Tolar residents in town that day. Most had gone to do errands out of town and the children were at school in Taiban.
Jess Brown had been shopping about 50 yards from the train wreck when it exploded. He was struck in the head by a piece of iron shrapnel and died about an hour later.
His son, Melvin Brown, is one of the four or five people still living in Tolar today. He was at school with the other children in Taiban when the bombs went off. Even though he was only 8 the day his father died, he still remembers the details.
“We handled it the best we could,” he said.
Melvin Brown said he still lives in the house his father built in 1942. The day his father died, a train axle flung by the blast crashed through the family house.
He said there was an exodus from Tolar following the explosion, and many residents moved to Melrose or Clovis. But Melvin Brown’s family remained in Tolar because his mother had a job driving the school bus to Taiban.
Also at the scene that day was a Clovis railroad conductor named Darry Winn. His grandson Dennis Winn said the first generation Clovis railroader found a phone and called the dispatch in Clovis, asking for another engine to be sent to pull the cars at the train’s rear away from the wreckage.
The fuel car was burning now, and Darry Winn knew bombs were on board. He just didn’t know where they were, his grandson said.
The old wooden boxcars ignited quickly, Darry Winn recalled in a 1965 interview with the Amarillo Daily News. In one of the wrecked cars, beer bottles were exploding from the heat of the fire.
The fire reached the bombs as Darry Winn was walking along the side of the train, and a tremendous explosion blew the entire scene to smithereens, shooting debris high into the air, breaking windows and caving in the roofs of nearby homes.
A train inventory later showed 165, 500-pound bombs had been on the train, bound for the Pacific theater. Around 46 tons of high explosives went off 100 yards from the center of Tolar.
The blast knocked Darry Winn off his feet and threw him under one of the cars. When the explosion happened, the conductor was only three cars away from the bombs, his grandson said, and was very lucky to be alive.
Almost every house or building in town was either destroyed or damaged substantially. One resident had to jump out of her store as a 1,500-pound axle hurtled toward her, crashing through the roof of her store and out the back.
Dennis Winn, a railroader himself, recalls what his grandfather said about the amazing explosion rising in the sky. One car destroyed was carrying mattresses bound for California.
“He said it just looked like fireworks,” Dennis Winn said. “Those feathers, when it blow’d up, they just caught on fire and tricklin’ down.”
In the 1965 interview, Darry Winn said “The pieces looked to be several hundred feet up in the sky. Each piece was floating straight down and smoking. They looked like little stars on fire.”
As far away as Hereford, Texas, some say they heard the explosion. A motorist on U.S. 60-84 had all four tires blown out when the shock wave hit him driving on the highway. There were reports of dishes rattling 52 miles away in Farwell.
Clovis’ Johnny Eastwood said his parents were in Tolar the day of the blast.
“The town practically vanished in that period,” he said.
• The speculation
The story appearing in the Dec. 1, 1944, edition of the Clovis News Journal ran alongside a story entitled, “Seventh Japanese Convoy Destroyed.” Even though most of Tolar was wiped out in the disaster, the main headline on the paper that day was “Gains Are Made by Three American Armies.”
World War II was on, and the bloodiest sieges of the war were taking place. The article appearing in the News Journal the day after the explosion was laden with military imagery.
Journalist Alabam Sumner led with the line, “Indirectly bringing the war into our own front yards, so to speak, the catastrophic fire and subsequent explosions on the Santa Fe tracks at Tolar Thursday gave folks a small idea of what the majority of the world’s nations are now undergoing as an outcome of this, the second World War.”
Some residents of Melrose believed the explosion was the result of a Japanese raid on the air base outside of Clovis, according to the Amarillo Daily News.
Responding to the general paranoia, Sumner wrote, “Tolar was not a target of an enemy bomber … This is only a small portion of damage in the eyes of people who have undergone bombings for years.”
It may not have been as catastrophic as Tokyo or Dresden, but Tolar wasn’t a target, either.
Government authorities started thinking the train may have been sabotaged by someone who didn’t want the bombs to get out to the Pacific. They began questioning those at the scene, including Darry Winn.
Eastwood recalls the short period of speculation that followed the explosion.
“There was some caution about that. They ruled that out totally, it was a hot box,” Eastwood said. “I think that was just medium talk the first day.”
The government didn’t give up the investigation too quickly, however.
Even into the 1960s, Darry Winn had to deal with occasional inquiries by federal law enforcement, his grandson said. Even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing by the railroad and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, over the years Darry Winn was questioned at least five times by federal agents about the cause of the explosion, his grandson said.
“I was still in (Viet)nam, but when I come back he told me they asked him about it (again),” Dennis Winn said.
Darry Winn was born in 1900 and he began working for the railroad in 1922, his grandson said. He died in 1986, and even in his later years he talked about the explosion in Tolar that nearly took his life.
As a child, Dennis Winn would listen to his grandfather tell stories about the explosion under a tree at the old family house on the south side of Clovis.
“He just laughed about it,” Dennis Winn said, “how he was lucky to walk away from it.”