Monday, September 12th, 2011
People’s District is sad to report the passing of Deputy Fire Chief John P. Breen on September 10, 2011. In honor of his life and legacy, you can find his story below.
“I was born in Washington on December 25, 1922. My parents were both immigrants from Ireland. They came in the early part of the century and met and got married here. We lived at North Capitol and K in an area that was called Swampoodle because it used to border a swampy creek. My father worked for the Navy Yard as a clerk. My mother, in between having children, worked for the land office here.
“I had a number of jobs in this city before I joined the fire department. I worked for the city highway department and then went to the Navy Yard to work in the supply department when the war started. I stayed there until I joined the Army in 1943. I did three years in the air corps and was trained as a radio operator and aerial gunner. I was a tail gunner in a B-24 bomber in the Pacific with the 7th Air Force. I completed 40 bombing runs, and I managed to come back alive though I lost my hearing from sitting too close to the propeller on the B-24.
“When I got back to Washington, I immediately applied for an appointment to the fire department. I’m the little boy who wanted to be a fireman, and grew up to be a fireman. Being Irish, it was in my blood. I was in the fire department about three months when the K St Market on 5th burned down. The second floor had 55 bowling alleys and it caught fire one night. That was the biggest fire I had ever seen up until the riots. We stayed there all night until we were relieved by the day shift. It was quite spectacular.
“A month before the 1968 riots, I was promoted to battalion chief. We had heard rumors that something was going to happen that summer, but things were precipitated by the assassination of Dr. King. It was a pretty wild time as you can imagine. The National Guard had to provide us protection as we went up-and-down 14h Street putting out fires. I remember coming to work in the mornings and finding National Guard soldiers sleeping on the floor or pool tables, wherever they could find place in the fire house. It shocked me that my city was under martial law.
“It was also shocking for me as a fireman because in D.C., the fire department had grown into a well integrated place. When I first started in 1944, there were black fire fighters, but they were in separate companies. In 1961, Fire Chief Sutton took the bull by the horns and wrote out an order to integrate the companies. There was no fussing and fighting. Some individuals got their noses out of joint, but it worked out very well overall. I worked with quite a few black fire fighters at that time and I never found one who was not good to work with. Now, the question doesn’t even come up, and it shouldn’t.
“After the riots, I was transfered downtown to the fire marshal’s office. They took me off of chasing fires and put me behind a desk. It was probably the best thing for me as fire fighting is a young man’s job. Two years later, the fire marshal was promoted to fire chief and I was promoted to his job as fire marshal at the rank of deputy chief. I stayed there for the rest of my career. I retired in 1978 at just short of 33 years in the department. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the fire department. It was a dangerous job, but I loved it.
“After me, my three sons all went into the fire department, too. I never pushed them, though. They had to make the decision on their own because it is a risky business. All three of my sons are retired now, but I have a grandson who is a fireman in Prince George’s County. Fighting fires runs in the family. It is in our blood.”