Families Remember Those Lost On Iowa "In One Way It Helps A Great Deal. On The Other Hand, It's Like It Just Happened," Said The Mother Of One Sailor.

Posted: April 17, 1994

Ila Lane looked up at the bridge of the USS Iowa and tears filled her eyes. ''He always loved boats," she said softly to no one in particular.

Lane was speaking of her son, Todd, one of 47 sailors killed in a gun- turret explosion aboard the battleship nearly five years ago. Yesterday, about 120 relatives of the sailors gathered on the deck of the Iowa, which has been decommissioned and put in storage at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, for a ceremony honoring their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers.

"It brings back memories of when I visited him here," said Lane, of Manheim, Pa.

A gun-metal gray sky turned clear and sunny in the afternoon for the nearly two-hour service, highlighted by prayers, poems and songs from the families, who represented 35 of the 47 sailors. They came from across the nation to honor the enlisted men and officers, gunners and electricians' mates and seamen killed as they loaded the barrel of a 16-inch gun turret during a firing exercise off the coast of Puerto Rico on April 19, 1989.

"In one way it helps a great deal," said Sylvia Johnson of Cleveland, mother of Reginald L. Johnson Jr. "On the other hand, it's like it just happened."

But that was the purpose, to remember the fallen sailors. After the speeches, the freshly starched Iowa crew honored its shipmates with Navy traditions. A memorial wreath was tossed overboard, then the names of the dead were read, followed by a 21-gun salute. Finally, the U.S. Navy Band played ''Taps" and each family member was given a red rose.

The ceremony ended sorrowfully with broadcasts of actual news reports of the disaster as the song "Wind Beneath My Wings" was played.

"I'm happy and sad all at once," said Susan Backherms of Akron, Ohio, the widow of Robert Backherms. "It's nice to come back on ship and remember them. It's sad that we haven't found an answer (to how the accident happened). It's been five years."

Sheila Foley of Dallas brought her 4 1/2-month-old son with her. With the death of her brother, Tyrone D. Foley, "my son's all that I've got left," she said.

The memorial was part of a weekend of activities that began Friday in Philadelphia and will end today in Norfolk, Va., where a monument to the sailors will be dedicated.

On Friday night, the families' grief was replaced by anger during a meeting to discuss a nearly $200,000 fund from the Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society, which gives loans and grants to sailors and their families in emergencies. Relatives squabbled over who should get the money, according to several people who attended the meeting.

Under the society's agreement with the families, the money - donated by sailors and private benefactors - is to be used for "education and needs- based assistance" for spouses and children. About a dozen of the sailors were married.

But many of the relatives say they think the money should be distributed evenly among the families.

"The money was collected for the families. The families didn't get it," said Mary Welden, whose son, Steve, was killed.

Wanda Foley, mother of Tyrone, said she did not know about the fund, which was established in late 1989, until a few months ago, when she got a letter

from another family member. She said people who donated to the fund were told all 47 families would be compensated.

One of the few people who does not want to tamper with the agreement is Susan Backherms, whose college education is being paid for by the fund. She said the money was intended to help widows become self-supporting.

"The widows lost their breadwinners," said Backherms, who plans to attend law school after graduating from the University of Akron next year.

The families decided to wait two months to vote on whether to request a change in the agreement, according to relatives. Whether that is possible remains to be seen. The Navy declined comment.

Backherms said she feels the weekend was marred by the bickering.

"I came for an anniversary. I didn't come for a treasure hunt," she said. ''They're all looking for something for nothing."

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