Fitzgerald crash brings back memories for local veteran

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The deadly collision of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald last month brought back vivid memories of a similar life-changing event that occurred during a Mineola area veteran’s Naval career.

Last month’s collision of a Philippine container ship with the Fitzgerald off Japan’s coast cost the lives of seven U.S. sailors, including one from Weslaco, Texas whose funeral was held Thursday. George Morrow of Hainesville has an acute interest in the news reports on the matter.

Morrow retired out of the Navy in 1981 with 21 years. He was on the U.S.S. Kearsarge when its crew went to the rescue of the Destroyer Frank E. Evans in 1969 that was sliced in two by Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. Morrow read a recent story in the Monitor about a survivor calling attention to the 74 shipmates who died in that tragedy by riding in the Mineola Metric 100 bicycle ride. That survivor is working to spotlight the fact those sailors who had given their lives were not recognized by the United States government as casualties of war. Morrow read that article with great interest and now says last month’s collision is bringing back memories, and nightmares, of that crash 48 years ago.

In 1969 Morrow was stationed in the 6th helicopter anti-submarine squadron.

“It was my last floating time trip in Vietnam,” Morrow recalled. “I’d been over there from ‘67 through ‘69. And we were out in a flotilla - I was aboard the Kearsarge – a mixed squadron of ships from all over the world. We had Japanese, Filipinos, ourselves and Australians.

“And it was about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning but I got called to get up and get all the squadrons, airplanes, in the air. I did the flight schedules and got the crews together. It was my responsibility to get ‘em in the air.” He was an AW1 at the time, an aviation anti-submarine warfare technician first class.

“And what happened was the HMAS (Her Majesty’s Australian Ship) Melbourne, which was a carrier, had cut the USS Evans in half.”

Morrow said his squadron got nine of their 12 helicopters in the air to rescue people and was in the air himself. He recalls it was “a dead calm sea, just slick as glass. And you got two halves of the ship sitting out there sticking up in the air. And it was like you took a meat cleaver to an animal and cut its limb off and the veins and the cartilage and stuff were sticking out – all pipes and tubing and electrical stuff. Just sticking up in the air.”

Morrow said the rescuers had to be very careful. He explained when the helicopter blades were spinning around about 10,000 volts of static electricity formed and when the cable was let down, “You get a pretty nasty spark.” So rescuers contended with that as well, taking care where oil slicks had formed from the destroyed ship.

Through their efforts the rescuers heard “some stories.” He was told there was a man on the bridge of the Evans and when the ships collided, the impact knocked him on to the hangar deck of the Melbourne. Morrow, a devoted garage sale fan, recently ran into another veteran at a garage sale who told him the survivors have a reunion every year. He had learned the man who was knocked on the Melbourne’s deck “was in bad shape. This was in ‘69 so you can figure how bad he was hurt.”

He heard other stories, about a father and son both perishing in that crash. And there was another story about a heavyset chief getting caught in a “scuttle,” an emergency exit that is nothing more than a pipe, too big to go through and he and all the fellows behind him drowning.

“You have an accident at sea, you don’t have a lot of options,” he said. “I’ve seen big fires and stuff like that. Where you going to run to?”

With the insight of someone who’s been there and done that, Morrow is waiting to see what is learned from investigations of the Fitzgerald crash. “I haven’t quite come to judgment on what actually happened there, but the more the story goes on, the more intriguing it gets. It was on auto pilot, they call it Iron Mike.” His theories involve who was on the Filipino ship and what the people on the Fitzgerald who were supposed to be watching were doing at the time.

“There’s a lot of questions there,” said the veteran. He retired after as an OTC, ocean systems technician chief. He actually retired four times, he points out. First was the Navy, which was followed by Motorola, the Dallas Morning News as a pressman, and finally the Hainesville Volunteer Fire Department. Grinning, he said, “The chief at the fire department said he’d double my salary if I’d stay.”

At this point in his life, Morrow reflects on his years and deems, “Life has been good to me. Life has been real good.”

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