A belated memorial to a U.S. sailor

R. Thomas Berner served in the U.S. Navy from 1963 to 1967.
R. Thomas Berner served in the U.S. Navy from 1963 to 1967. Photo provided

When we think of veterans who died while serving our country, we usually think of the men and women who were killed in action. Let me tell you about a sailor who died on duty and was probably promptly forgotten by most other than his immediate family.

I know this story because I was a radioman on a commodore’s staff, meaning I got to see a lot of the radio traffic not just for the flagship, but for the squadron.

It was 1967, my last year in the Navy. We were on a Mediterranean cruise and enjoying liberty, probably in Italy. A petty officer from another ship while on shore patrol was helping bring a belligerent (read: drunk) sailor back to the ship.

The sailor was in such shape that he had to be transported strapped to a stretcher. Since we were anchored in the bay rather than pulled up to a pier, this also meant the belligerent sailor had to be returned to the ship via a liberty boat.

(We were in an amphibious squadron so our liberty boats were the kind of landing craft you see in movies and photos of the invasion of Europe on D-Day.)

The sailors had managed to get the stretcher off the boat and were ready to haul it up the ladder (really more like steps). The petty officer I’m writing about was at the foot of the stretcher and as the sailors readied to lift the stretcher, the sailor on the stretcher gave a hard kick to the petty officer’s chest.

He died of a heart attack.

When I first saw the radio message about the incident, I figured the kicking sailor would be hauled up on manslaughter charges and be sentenced to brig time.

But the court of inquiry that was convened ruled that there was no way to prove if the kick triggered the heart attack that killed the petty officer. The court opined that the petty officer could have just as easily had a heart attack had he been walking around the ship.

Medically and legally, the court was probably right, but I always felt it was an injustice to the petty officer who was just doing his duty. I know he was a career man and had a family waiting for him and depending on him in Virginia. With one swift kick the family lost its breadwinner.

This is my belated memorial to a sailor whose name I’ve forgotten who was killed in the line of duty somewhere in a foreign land 49 years ago. He also served and he also gave his life.

R. Thomas Berner is a freelance writer and photographer, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1963 to 1967 and then used his benefits from the G.I. Bill of Rights to attend Penn State.