Join Date: Mar 2010
Location: Amarillo, TX
Burial At Sea Reprise
Burial at Sea Reprise
News of Neil Armstrong’s burial at sea brings to memory two separate and diverse burials at sea.
My only shore duty tour was as assistant Public Information Officer for Admiral Frank Brandley, Chief of Naval Air Advanced Training at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. I reported on board in October of 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My duties were varied and interesting. I wrote speeches for the good Admiral, acted as his Aide on a few occasions while the “Real Aide” was in transit for his stint as the Admiral’s Dog Robber. I attended all the graduation ceremonies for the Newly designated aviators, ensuring good photos of the event for the family and friends of the new aviators, wrote press releases for the new pilots, even handled press for the few accidents that occurred.
One of the more offbeat events was the death and burial of a veteran aviator from the Pacific War. The vet was a survivor of heavy action all through the Pacific Campaigns, earning a hat full of medals. After the War, he became an independent Oil Man of some repute, fairly prominent, and upon his untimely demise from a cardiac, his request for burial at sea was placed upon my desk. Requests such as this required a bit more paper work so a flurry of messages began between several commands, including Chief of Naval Air Training, Chief of Information ending at the Chief of Naval Operations. Approval was handed down, and the ceremony was scheduled for the next arrival of USS LEXINGTON for Carrier Qualifications for Advanced Training Command, about six weeks hence.
Come the appointed day, the local funeral home delivered the body to the Naval Air Station, while I gathered the two sons of the deceased. We boarded a helicopter with the boys, the body in a metal container and flew out to LEXINGTON, some 50 miles out in the Gulf to comply with the regulation that burials only take place beyond the 60 fathom line.
Upon arrival at the carrier, I directed the sons to the island to meet the Executive Officer and his ceremonial detail, a squad of Marines to fire the volley, a photographer to record the event and a small combo for the music. During this time, the body was removed from the metal container, having been enshrouded in canvas with a heavy weight at the feet. Since the flight deck was about 50 feet above the water line, the ceremony was conducted to the deck edge elevator, lowered to the Hangar Deck level. The flag covered corpse was readied for burial, the band played the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father Strong to Save”) not Anchors Aweigh, the camera flashed, the chaplain delivered the eulogy, the Marines fired their volley and the body was committed to the deep.
After a brief visit with the Chaplain and the ship’s XO, we boarded the Helo for the return to NAS Corpus. I wrote a brief release for the local newspaper and called it in to the Military Writer, Bones Pearson, the local “Go To” guy from the paper for all things military.
A week or so later, Bones came out the NAS for some ceremonial business, and I took him to lunch at the Officer’s Club. Over lunch, he related another burial at sea some years earlier that had created quite a stir. The death of a local Wino, Old Shorty, found deceased near the high bridge near downtown, caused his pals to decide that Old Shorty deserved to be buried at sea. One of his pals elected to call the Navy at NAS to do the deed for Old Shorty. “Was this person a Naval Veteran?” was the first question. “No, but he always admired the Navy” was the reply. At this point, the Navy basically said “Not No, but Hell No!!”
Shorty’s pals decided that this was very one-way for the Navy to treat one of their drinking pals, and since Old Shorty had been a deckhand on one of the gambling boats out of the “T Heads” there on the bay front, perhaps he should be given last rites from the “Skipper K.”
On the elected day, the funeral home delivered Shorty to the Skipper K, several of his pals loaded the metal coffin on board, and with several rounds of drinks, the party set off for the briny.
It is quite a distance from the bay front and the T Heads near city center, so it took over an hour for the boat to pass Port Aransas, and make way out into the Gulf. The party was feeling no pain when they stopped the engines about 4 miles out in the Gulf, drinking away their sorrow and toasting Old Shorty. After a beery ceremony on board, the coffin was committed to the Gulf (not terribly deep at this point) a few more toasts and “Hey, he’s not sinking!” “It don’t seem decent to leave him up on top of the water like that” and a few more observations of the apparent dilemma.
After trying to ram the coffin a few times with the bow of the Skipper K, one of the more lucid members of the party said “Hey, I have a rifle we use to shoot sharks, let’s shoot some holes in the box, and that should do it.” They took turns shooting holes in the metal coffin and finally, it sank. All hands took another turn at the bottle and headed back into port.
About two weeks later, Old Shorty floats up near the High Bridge, not far from where he was found dead some weeks earlier. Lots of Red Faces, and other embarrassed blather occurred regarding the barnacles and bullet holes in the coffin, but Old Shorty was hauled out and delivered to a local cemetery.