A Memorial Day Tribute

Monday, May 30th, we celebrate another Memorial Day. Well, those of us who have served in the United States Armed Forces understand that “celebrate” is not an  appropriate way to mark this day of reflection and thanks for those who have given their lives in the service of our country.

Memorial Day originated as in 1868 as “Decoration Day,” a solemn occasion for placing flowers on the graves of Union soldiers killed in the War Between the States. The name was later changed to Memorial Day, held each year on the last Monday of May.

For many Americans, Memorial Day is simply enjoyed as a day away from work, a day for burgers and hotdogs or other culinary fare prepared in the backyard or in picnic grounds. Still, the solemnity of the occasion remains, with the goal of honoring the sacrifices of those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.

When most Americans think of Memorial Day, it is those who died in combat who are remembered. Yet, lives are also lost in non-combat roles. These men and women, too, should be remembered and honored for their sacrifice.

I enlisted in the United States Navy in 1962. As an Aviation Electrician’s Mate, I was assigned to VA-81, an air squadron assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. During my years with the squadron, we deployed for two 9-month Mediterranean cruises, two or three Caribbean cruises, and shorter “carrier qualification” cruises designed to for pilots to practice take-offs and landings on the pitching deck of the carrier.

My responsibilities necessitated long hours working on the flight deck during take-offs and landings. Often, this was done at night with illumination only from red – not white – lights. During my time in the Navy, it was recognized that aircraft carrier flight deck duty was the second most dangerous job in the world; the most dangerous job was steeplejack, those brave souls who climbe to the top of skyscrapers, flagpoles, and other altitudinal structures for painting or maintenance.

The Forrestal lost men on each of my 9-month cruises. Pilots went down with their planes; men were blown or otherwise fell overboard; and others were victims of accidents resulting from carelessness or indifference of their shipmates.

During one day-time operation, one of our pilots lost his life. He was a promising 26-year-old lieutentant. He was also extremely popular with his fellow officers and with enlisted men. He and I had played together on the squadron basketball team, and I developed a special fondness for him.

Planes were preparing to launch. As he throttled his plane toward the catapult, his rolled through a patch of fuel spilled on the flight deck. His plane began to skid sideways toward the ship’s port (left) side, and began its plunge toward the water below. Following his training, he pulled the ejection lever and with his seat still attached, was propelled away from the ship. Sadly, his angle of ejection was too low, and he and his seat hit the water with tremendous impact. He likely died instantly. A young man whose contributions to the Navy and beyondwere never to be realized.

A pilot from a different squadron taxied toward the forward elevator, which had just lowered a plane down to the hangar bay. This pilot’s plane began to fall into the elevator shaft; he, too, ejected. But as he rocketed skyward, his legs struck a crossbar of “Tilly,” the industrial crane used to lift cargo and aircraft onto the ship. He, too, was lost.

I worked the night shift on my second and last Mediterranean Cruise in 1965-66. One afternoon, the Forrestal was taking on fuel from a tanker alongside. This work party required several sailors, many wrestling heavy fuel hoses while standing on the elevator which was lowered to hangar deck level.

Standing at the edge of the elevator on the flight deck, I watched in horror and sadness as the flight surgeon, the medical doctor assigned to the ship, stooped to pick up fragments of bone and flesh from a sailor who, an hour earlier, was doing his duty in service to his country. The victim had been crushed by a hydraulic jenny, one ton or so in weight, that had broken loose from from its mooring on the flight deck. As the ship pitched and rolled with the waves of the northern Atlantic, the jenny gained momentum as it rolled and plunged downward, ultimately ending the life of the young man serving his country.

I share the stories of these men and their sacrifices to remind readers that Memorial Day is, to our nation, a time to reflect upon and honor those whose lives were lost in military service.

On this and every Memorial Day, please hold in your hearts and minds the lives of all who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in our armed forces.  Our nation perseveres because of these men and women to whom we owe a heartfelt and humble “Thank you.”

Jack Bernhardt, Hillsborough, NC, May 27,2016

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