The New Exchange

You are not logged in. Would you like to login or register?

7/28/2017 3:50 pm  #1

Virginia Beach veteran to honor 134 sailors who died on USS Forrestal

Virginia Beach veteran to honor 134 sailors who died on USS Forrestal in 1967

When Chief boilermaker Bernard Willis heard an explosion on the USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967, his first thought was “we probably took a hit” from the Vietnamese.

He later learned that a missile had accidentally fired from a jet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier and triggered a blazing inferno, killing 134 of his comrades off the coast of North Vietnam.

Willis, 84, is paying tribute to these men on the 50th anniversary of their deaths with a memorial display at his Kings Grant home. He has written their names, ranks and departments on 134 three-by-five-inch American flags, which he will plant in his front yard. He will also display a remembrance banner and signs with the POW-MIA, Navy, and Forrestal crests.

The New York native from the Bronx joined the Navy on March 17, 1951, at age 18. “I figured I’d do four years,” he said. But, “I was offered a lot of money to stay in – $60 a year,” he said with a grin.

So, he re-enlisted for six more years.“That gave me 10, so I said why stop now?”

Throughout his 20-year career, he served on five ships, mostly in the Mediterranean Sea. The Forrestal was his final deployment at age 34, although the crew was “fairly new” with sailors as young as 18 or 20, he said. About 5,000 sailors served on the carrier, which Willis called “a small city.” They had just begun a six month deployment when the accident occurred.

Ken Killmeyer, a historian of the USS Forrestal Association, was 20 years old when he served on the ship.

“It happened so fast,” the Northern Virginia resident said. More than 40,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled onto the ship’s more than four-acre deck, he said. Hearing the words “this is not a drill” was surreal, he said.

Flames spread quickly, and bombs ignited, creating holes “bigger than your living room,” he said.

The burning fuel spread below deck, where some of the night crew slept. Some planes were destroyed – including one piloted by Sen. John McCain – and pushed overboard before they exploded. To this day, many survivors are still haunted by loud noises, Killmeyer said.

Willis’ wife, Genevieve, who passed away three years ago, was back home in Long Island with their three young children. She suspected something was wrong when her father-in-law came to see her alone, Bernard Willis said.

“He never came over without mama.”

He told her to turn on the TV. She didn’t know if her husband was alive until he called later that evening after the ship reached the Philippines.

Willis didn’t personally know any of those killed in the accident. The men who died too soon should be remembered for their sacrifice, he said.

“They’d be in their 70s or 80s now,” he said. “I just think they should be remembered.”

The ship underwent major repairs and returned to service the spring of 1968. The carrier was decommissioned in 1993, and in 2014 was towed to Texas and scrapped.

Willis’ memorial will be on display at 3345 Edinburgh Drive through July 30.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

Board footera


Powered by Boardhost. Create a Free Forum