'This has been forgotten:' Survivors of maritime crash that killed 49 sailors, Marines hold memorial
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 21, 2017
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — On Jan. 17, 1977, 18-year-old Navy engineman Bud Sanders peered from his launch boat into a Barcelona, Spain, harbor.
Through the early morning gloom – “it was so, so dark” – he saw the bottom of another liberty launch boat, its propellers in the air. The boat, carrying servicemen to the USS Guam and USS Trenton, had collided with a 380-ton Spanish freighter around 2 a.m. and capsized, pitching almost 130 men into the sea, according to Virginian-Pilot archives.
Some were trapped; others made it back to shore.
Forty-nine sailors and Marines from the Norfolk-based ships died.
The military replaced the men, sent home the bodies and “moved on,” Sanders said Thursday.
For 40 years, he didn’t speak a word about it.
“Nobody ever talked about it. Veterans (often) talk about war. This peacetime loss of lives is the hardest. … There was no glamour.”
On Thursday, Sanders stood at the front of a chapel at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek and told his story in front of a few dozen Guam and Trenton veterans, friends and family members gathered to remember the men who died in Spain that night.
“My main question is why did it take 40 years?” said Reggie Mitchell, who was serving aboard the Trenton at the time .
There’s no clear answer, other than people just moved on. Today, word would have spread faster through social media.
After the 1977 tragedy, family and friends of the sailors and Marines donated a carillon to Little Creek that’s still at the chapel. And the Navy put up a small plaque inside the building with the names of the men who died.
Mitchell, who lives in Virginia, was irate that the plaque was tucked in a back corner, unknown to most, including the chaplain, Lt. Dave Peterson.
He first heard about the accident when Mitchell contacted him in the last few years.
“This has been forgotten,” Peterson said. “These sailors and Marines have been forgotten. And their families and friends have been adrift.”
Lamar Thomas, a 19-year-old Marine on the Guam at the time, was on the boat that capsized and recalls being the first to surface.
“I remember … seeing all the dead bodies floating in the water,” he said at the memorial. “I remember starting to pull men from the water. I remember … friends that didn’t make it.”
Thomas and his wife, Lisa, started a Facebook page last year, “USS Guam Trenton 1977,” to highlight the ships’ history and connect with other veterans. The couple, who live in Texas, and a few others traveled to Barcelona in January to mark the 40th anniversary in a ceremony with the Spanish government.
Charlease McCauley Hatchett went to honor her father, boatswain’s mate Charles M. McCauley, who died in the accident when she was 11.
It was the first time she’d returned to the chapel where her father’s funeral was held. She grew up in Hampton Roads but lives in Texas.
“I struggled for a good 10 years,” Hatchett said. “He left and just never came back.”
But now she’s OK, she said, especially after traveling to Barcelona and learning more about what happened.
Her mother, Helen McCauley, remembers her daughter running to her when two men in uniform knocked on the door of their Chesapeake home in 1977.
“The feeling went right through my body,” the elder McCauley said Thursday. “It took a while (to recover), and every now and then it kind of comes over you.”
A prayer garden dedicated to the 49 dead will be constructed at the chapel, Peterson said. It will include a monument with their names and a brief description of the event.
Sanders, who traveled from Minnesota for the service , said: “It’s been 40 years and I haven’t brought it up. You see the Januaries come and go. … I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.