Remembering USS Forrestal's 'Valor Under Fire'

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Since 08-02-02

Republished from the Washsington Post, 1 August 2002

Remembering USS Forrestal's 'Valor Under Fire'

By Steve Vogel

Thursday, August 1, 2002; Page AA04

A bell rang 134 times Monday on the east knoll of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, each peal in memory of a sailor who died aboard the USS Forrestal 35 years ago.

The aircraft carrier was in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 29, 1967, preparing to launch combat missions into Vietnam, when a jet accidentally fired a rocket across the flight deck. Thousands of gallons of jet fuel spilled and a fire ignited, cooking a 1,000-pound bomb and setting off a disastrous chain reaction.

A crowd of more than 100 people, including dozens of veterans from the ship, attended the memorial service. The hot, humid morning, one speaker said, was reminiscent of the Forrestal's fateful day. Speakers told of the bravery of those who lived and of those who died.

"They fought a raging fire that fought back, and they saved that ship," said Kenneth V. Killmeyer of Arlington, who was a 19-year-old sailor aboard the Forrestal. He now serves as the historian for the USS Forrestal Association.

"It was truly valor under fire," said retired Rear Adm. Frederick L. Lewis, who was an F-4 pilot aboard the Forrestal.

Detailed personal accounts of the crew's courage are recounted in a new book about the Forrestal disaster, "Sailors to the End," by Gregory A. Freeman.

The Forrestal is now in mothballs at the Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island. Veterans are hoping to save the ship from the scrap heap, but they face funding shortfalls. One plan would bring the ship to Baltimore, where it would serve as a floating museum, said Forrestal veteran John F. "Jack" Lawler Jr. of Glenwood.

Before the ceremony, Forrestal veterans clustered around their former captain, retired Rear Adm. John K. Beling, eagerly waiting to shake his hand.

Beling, 83, an Arlington resident who uses a wheelchair, read aloud a prayer, the same one he read to the Forrestal sailors 35 years ago: "We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. . . . Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and to reman our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice."
YNCS Don Harribine, USN(Ret)