Past Times

1942 explosion wiped Johnston community off the map

Daylight brought the previous night’s damage into view.
Daylight brought the previous night’s damage into view. N&O File Photo

In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a disaster closer to home had Johnston County residents wondering if we were next. In 1993, N&O writer Dennis Rogers reminded readers about the “Blast of ‘42.”

In 1942, the little community of Catch Me Eye was a wide spot in the highway on U.S. 301 between Smithfield and Selma. The community was little more than a rest stop on what was the major north-south route on the East Coast. The Talton Hotel, Gurkin’s Tavern, Luke Capps’ filling station and a few homes were scattered around the crossroads near what is now the intersection of U.S. 70 and U.S. 301.

Shortly after midnight, a truck loaded with 30,000 pounds of military explosives collided with a car driven by Minnie Lewis of Raleigh. Both vehicles immediately caught fire. Bernard Rosenberg, a Marine and backseat passenger in the Lewis car, managed to escape from the burning car. He realized that Lewis’ two small sons were still in the car, so he went back into the flames to rescue them. He went back to the car to rescue Lewis, back again to get her husband, Odie, and back yet another time to save a fellow Marine passenger.

The woman and her children were taken to the Talton Hotel, where they were treated for their injuries and allowed to rest. Firefighters went about the business of putting out the fire that had engulfed the truck and car.

But the fire wouldn’t go out, and the flames licked closer and closer to the deadly explosives. A highway patrolman warned people to move back and some did, about a hundred yards to Gurkin’s Tavern where they gathered in the early Saturday morning hours to watch the excitement.…

The explosion broke almost every window in Selma, 900 of them in one cotton mill. The blast was heard 50 miles away in Fayetteville and 30 miles away in Raleigh. A hole the size of a railroad boxcar, 20 feet by 50 feet, suddenly appeared in the intersection. Parts of the truck were found a mile and a half away. The N&O March 16, 1993

The morning after the blast, The N&O carried this account by writer Charles Barrett.

Thirty thousand pounds of munitions in a blazing truck and trailer between Smithfield and Selma exploded with a thunderous roar early yesterday and killed three persons, left two missing, and injured more than 50 out of a crowd of hundreds of spectators who were bowled over like ten-pins.

The blast, which was seen and heard 50 miles away, occurred at 2:57 a. m., two hours after the munitions truck collided with a sedan and both vehicles caught fire. In addition to those killed in the explosion, Mrs. Minnie Lewis of Raleigh died from burns received in the automobile wreck.

The truck was packed with black gunpowder, hand grenades and other explosives to be delivered to the Army. The blast wrecked nearby buildings, dug a large crater in the concrete highway, and shattered window panes more than three miles away.…

Many persons in nearby communities, waked by the explosion, called into Smithfield to ask whether there had been an air raid. Ambulances screaming through the streets led many persons to believe “the enemy is here.”

The same edition carried a first-hand account by eyewitness Dexter L. Freeman.

I saw the explosion a second or two before I could feel it, a great eruption of flame and smoke and sparks that swirled hundreds of feet into the air. It was like three or four fireworks displays done up into one big spout of brilliance. For just one moment everything was as bright as day; then I ducked.

I didn’t start diving soon enough. The concussion wave caught me about shoulder high and the next thing I knew I was flat on the ground, scrambling around on my stomach. In the next second everything and everybody around me seemed to be choked into complete silence.

Still lying on the ground, I looked up and could see a gigantic shower of sparks and debris of all kinds settling back to earth. Then the noises – thousands of them – broke loose. People started screaming and I could hear a woman crying…. The N&O March 8, 1942

Read more stories from local and state history on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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