Huntsman Chemical in Port Neches owns the last fully operational 1943 American LaFrance fire truck out of 11 built that year.
Volume 25 Summer
During World War II, even the manufacture of essentials such as fire apparatus was set aside in favor of war needs. Only the most vital industrial facilities merited a new fire truck – such as the Neches Butane butadiene plant built in 1944 in Port Neches, TX.
Sixty-seven years later, the emergency response team for Huntsman Corporation’s Port Neches propylene oxide-MTBE and olefin-oxide plants is the proud owner of the last fully operating fire truck of the 11 that American LaFrance built in 1943.
“There is one in the American LaFrance museum in North Charleston, SC, but it isn’t operable,” said Tom Colwell, Huntman’s Port Neches fire chief. “It’s just a show piece.”
Because of its proud history in aiding the war effort, the Port Neches ERT refer to the truck as the “Victory Wagon.”
“It’s dedicated to the World War II vets,” Colwell said. “It goes to a lot of their functions.”
Originally, the Neches Butane plant was built by the government to convert butadiene to synthetic rubber, one of the most valuable commodities during the war. The plant was designed to produce 100,000 tons of butadiene per year but actually produced nearly 170,000 tons annually.
After the war, Texaco purchased first a part interest and then, in 1980, the entire Neches Butane facility. In 1994, Texaco sold its chemical interests to Huntsman, including the Port Neches plant.
Jim Gillespie, one of three full-time responders on the current Huntsman ERT, used the old American LaFrance to fight fire before it was retired in 1983.
“It originally came with a V12 engine and had dual everything,” Gillespie said. “It had a 500 gpm pump and a vacuum under the hood for drafting.” At night, emergency responders on duty passed the time by polishing the brass, he said.
The last big fire that the Victory Wagon responded to was Christmas Day 1983 at a nearby rubber plant, Gillespie said.
“We had a six-inch hydrocarbon line blow out,” Gillespie said. “That truck was used that morning and all day. That was before it was refurbished.”
As a finishing touch to that refurbishment, the CEO of American LaFrance donated two chrome fire axles with the company logo to place on the sides. The only setback in restoring the truck to its original glory was the decision to sacrifice the V12 engine.
“That has gone away because trying to get parts for it was just unbelievable,” Gillespie said.
Even without the V12, the Victory Wagon is still ready, willing and able to deliver water with the best of them.
“I bet you could still go out with that old truck and pump it,” Gillespie said.