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Local Lore: Forgotten blast from La Jolla’s past

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(WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The most remarkable La Jolla stories ever told

The biggest explosion in the recorded history of San Diego is almost entirely forgotten. And credit for that goes to the heroism of fire captain Ray Ramage and his crew. On Dec. 18, 1945, they saved 1,000 La Jolla residents from almost certain doom and the history books.

It was 2 p.m. on what civilian John Ayala thought would be an average Tuesday when he noticed the fire in the back of the truck he was driving. This had significance far beyond his own personal safety, since his truck’s payload was 20 tons of live ammunition.

World War II ended three months earlier, and the U.S. Navy was removing ammo from its destroyers to decommission them. Ayala was driving to the Fallbrook Naval Ammunition Depot, but only got as far as the top of Highway 101’s Rose Canyon Grade (now Gilman Drive and Osler Lane on the UC San Diego campus). He abandoned the burning vehicle in the intersection and sprinted to a nearby café, where he phoned the police and fire departments.

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Most La Jollans are familiar with the intersection of Gilman Drive and Osler Lane, but not with the horror and heroism that happened here on Dec. 18, 1945.
(COREY LEVITAN)

The Axis Powers couldn’t have planned this better if they tried. This ticking near-nuclear time bomb was parked smack in the middle of 300 housing units for officers stationed at the Camp Matthews Marine artillery range and nearby Camp Callan U.S. Army base (where Scripps Green Hospital and Torrey Pines Golf Course now sit).

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When Capt. Ramage arrived from San Diego Fire Station 13 (now the Shepherd YMCA Firehouse), he and his crew (engineer L.R. Lineville and horsemen H.M. White and A.J. McCoy) shouted “clear out fast!” as loud as they could and knocked on every door. Mostly women and their children answered. (The men were either still overseas or at their duty stations.)

Calmly, the firefighters waited as mothers loaded strollers with children and pets, and shopping carts with photo albums and clothing. They were then herded down Biological Grade (now La Jolla Shores Drive), including a few who panicked and escaped into the woods and had to be coaxed out.

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Miraculously, the first explosion didn’t occur until 90 minutes later, at 3:30 p.m..

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“But nobody knew they had that much time,” said Ray Ramage III, the hero’s grandson, whose grandfather would regale the family with the story over holiday dinners at his house on West Muirlands Drive.

“My grandfather wasn’t scared because that wasn’t part of his character,” Ramage said. “But he said he almost had a stroke trying to get some of the women to leave their houses.” (One mother refused to leave until she could heat up some baby formula on the stove.)

Three separate blasts — BOOM! BOOM! B-O-O-O-O-M!!! — did irreparable damage to 90 percent of the structures within a mile radius. The detonations could be heard 90 miles away on Mt. Palomar and knocked out windows as far away as downtown — not downtown La Jolla but downtown San Diego! A mushroom cloud bloomed over all of San Diego and reddened the sunset for days.

The next morning’s Madera Tribune quoted witnesses describing the area as “like a battlefield.”

“Flaming rockets scorched a path up the hill to the housing projects, where some houses were flattened,” the newspaper reported. “Refrigerators and stoves in others were blown through walls or folded like boxes. A car parked a quarter of a mile away from the explosion scene was crushed flat.”

Some of the homeless evacuees were taken in by compassionate residents of The Village. Others sat outside in La Jolla Shores all night, their babies wailing from hunger, watching the glow from secondary fires (including one caused by the rupture of the main gas line from Manhattan Beach to San Diego). The La Jolla Red Cross set up stations offering food and clothing.

About 30 people suffered minor injuries from flying glass and being knocked over, but not a single life was lost.

Capt. Ramage was promoted to battalion chief for his heroism shortly thereafter and finished out the rest of his career in Ocean Beach.

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“He just did what he had to do,” his grandson said. “That was his job.”

A portion of the 10-foot-deep blast crater remained at the side of Gilman Drive until the early 1980s, when it was paved over to become a campus parking lot. (Capt. Ramage’s grandson recalls riding his bike inside of it when he was a kid.) Ever since, nothing has remained to remind La Jollans of what happened there — or, more accurately, what didn’t happen there thanks to Capt. Ramage and his brave crew.

— If you live or work in La Jolla and have a truly bizarre story you would like considered for “Local Lore,” e-mail clevitan@lajollalight.com


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