Newspaper Story From 1987

Fallen Naval hero and crew to be honored


ST. MARYS - Seventeen years ago, Richard A. 'Rick' Herzing of Grandview Road in St. Marys was among seven Navy crew members lost during an operational mission aboard the USS Nimitz.

On July 13, Herzing's parents Dennis and Janice, will travel to Fort Meade, Maryland to attend a dedication of the U.S. Navy EA-3B Skywarrior Aircraft, a replica of the jet that Herzing spent his last hours aboard.

The ceremony, hosted by the National Security Agency, will take place at the National Vigilance Park. Those being honored include:

AT2 (Aviation Electronic Technician 2nd Class) Richard A. Herzing

LT Stephen H. Batchelder - 2 kids

LCDR Cmdr. Ronald R. Callander - 3 kids

CT13 (Cryptologic Technician 3rd Class) Patrick R. Price

CT13 (Cryptologic Technician 2rd Class) Craig R. Rudolf

LT James D. Richards

LT Alan A. Levine

In 1982, Herzing, a junior at St. Marys Area High School, decided to join the Navy. Despite protests from his parents, he began basic training in San Diego, CA, shortly after graduating high school.

The oldest of three children, (his siblings are Lori Hartman of Pittsburgh and Craig Herzing of State College) Herzing was serving his fifth year in the Navy at the time of his death and had recently signed up for his second enlistment.

He completed additional training in Tennessee and was then assigned to Rota, Spain. Herzing's specialty was as an electronic warfare operator; in laymen's terms, he worked on monitoring and breaking codes, among other things.

His mother, Janice, explained that when he and his fellow midshipman arrived in Greece for a stopover they were nearly killed in a bomb explosion. While at a local bar, a terrorist had plant two bombs under the countertops. Fortunately, one failed to detonate, but the other managed to level the entire bar. Herzing walked away with a temporary loss of hearing.

Herzing was 10 years old when his cousin, David Fritz of Straub Avenue, St. Marys, died in a plane crash off the Nimitz. An A-6 Intruder had flamed out after takeoff. The pilot and Fritz safely ejected into the water but landed square in the middle of the spreading fuel stain from the sunken jet. In his excitement to mark their location, a Nimitz deckhand fired a flare into the sea. The fuel erupted into flames and the men died. Three years later, Herzing announced he would follow his cousin's footsteps and join the Navy. No plea on his mother's part could change his mind. "Give college a try for one year anyway, Rick," she urged him. "Mom, you'd be wasting your money. I want the Navy," he said.

He was one of those natural leaders, friends recalled, whether for a trip to the shore or just a quick beer. He had a thing about carrier deployments and was constantly looking to add to his number of "Cats and Traps" - catapult takeoffs and trapped carrier landings. Herzing, 22, was not supposed to be aboard this flight. At the last moment another crewman was bumped and Herzing was pleased to take his place. January 25 was to be a special flight for the St. Marys native. It would qualify him for the Centurion's Club - it would be his 100th "Cat and Trap."

Two by two, Naval notification officers made their rounds. They wore dress blue uniforms and a few carried bibles. The Herzings were notified in the evening.

A military service was held at Queen of the World Church for Herzing. A Naval reserve unit from Altoona attended and as his father, Dennis, recalls the unit was very impressed with the St. Marys Servicemen's Burial Detail, which also attended the service.

The EA-3B was in service for more than three decades in the U.S. Navy's secret reconnaissance war against the Warsaw Pact. Conceived at the dawn of the Cold War as an aircraft carrier-based nuclear bomber, the A-3 Skywarrior was the largest aircraft ever designed to operate from an aircraft carrier, hence its nickname, "the Whale." Navy personnel found the nickname appropriate because of the plane's swollen belly and skin the color of molted gray.

The aircraft was an ideal platform for electronic reconnaissance, a mission it fulfilled around the globe beginning in 1956. Designated the EA-3B in 1961, the aircraft and its crew of seven, offered the fleet unique electronic reconnaissance capabilities that served the Navy well in numerous Cold War-era conflicts and crisis, including the Vietnam War.

Simply put, the EA-3B is a spy plane. A converted 1950s bomber, it is equipped for sensitive missions. The crew included intelligence analysts and two linguists trained to eavesdrop on Arabic and Soviet voice and electronic messages.

At the time, the crew of the EA-3B were members of one of only two units in the entire regular Navy to still fly the whale.

The U.S. Navy retired it last EA-3B from service in October 1991.

The U.S. Navy's contribution to the park will bear the markings of aircraft that Herzing and his crew members perished in. The aircraft, on loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Fla., will be dedicated to the memory of all the U.S. Naval aircrews that gave their lives in secret electronic reconnaissance missions around the world in defense of freedom.

Whether in war or in peace, landing a jet plane on the deck of a carrier at night is arguably the most dangerous job in the world. The following is an account of the happenings on that fateful January night.

The squadron was based in Rota, Spain, a small sunny air base located strategically near the Straits of Gibraltar.

Their patch was of a giant bat with lightning bolts zapping underneath its arched wings serves as the squadron's calling card, The Electric Bats.

The crew were all well educated, mature and saw their work as a career, not a job opportunity. Four out of the seven were married. Two members left children behind, Batchelder had two children and Callander had three.

A normal mission would last four bone-numbing hours. On reaching an operational altitude of 38,000 feet, the plane would usually fly in an oval racetrack pattern and quietly vacuum up all the vice and electronic radio signals within its horizon.

The airways were full of signals. Sometimes "the whale" itself would be used to bait the Soviets. The plane would make an elaborate series of tracks in the sky to draw attention to itself. In a war, such a target would be very tempting to enemy fighter pilots.

The plane, a EA-3B Skywarrior jet, home-based in Rota, Spain, was participating in 6th fleet exercises from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

The flight of Jan. 25 was a reconnaissance mission near Libya to help keep tabs in Moammar Gadhafy's forces and what was on the minds of a traveling Soviet Udaloy destroyer. The call sign for the mission, Ranger-12.

The men were dressed in regulation winter gear. In addition to flight suits, the crew wore a heavy, rubberized set of watertight coveralls called "Poopsie suits." These would protect them for awhile from hypothermia in the event they bailed out. Over that they wore a life preserver, tucked inside it was a homing beacon, a strobe light, medical supplies, a knife, fish hooks and line and a parachute.

Herzing sat back-to-back with the pilot. His control board was a set of dials and screens to scan the airways for electronic signals.

Around 6 p.m., after the fighters and other attack aircraft took off, the EA-3B "Whale" waited its turn.

After working for about three hours and 45 minutes, the routine flight, began its return to the Nimitz at 10:30 p.m. "The Whale" did not have ejection seats, rather, on the roof of the cockpit and the four-man bay, two hatches were popped open, these were the escape hatches in the event of a bailout over water.

Mechanically, the plane was in good shape, the problem was human. The pilot, a young man to the squadron, had become rattled. Five times he had tried to land on the deck of the waiting aircraft carrier. Each time he had brought the plane in too high, shoving the engines to full throttle at the last moment to circle again.

To bail out meant darkness, cold water and uncertainty. Given a choice to stay with the plane or parachute into the Mediterranean Sea, the crew chose to stay with the plane.

After three attempts the plane was low on fuel and was ordered to head back and land at the naval base on the island of Crete. First it needed to refuel. The refueling attempted failed, so now only a carrier landing was possible.

Following a fourth failed landing, there were discussions about parachuting from the plane into the sea, but the crew decided to stay with the plane, a fatal decision.

As the carrier steadied into the wind, the ship prepared for a final, desperate maneuver. A two-story high nylon barricade - much like a giant tennis net - was rigged across the deck. The idea was for the plane to fly straight into the net and be jerked to a halt. The plane roared toward the carrier at 130 miles per hour, a blur of metal and flame. She was high and flat again. The plane's front wheel caught the top of the net, snatching her nose-first from the sky. In a shower of sparks, the jet slammed onto the aircraft carrier and skidded across the deck, twisting in a long metal-on-metal scream, and over the edge of the ship, a 60-foot drop.

In the water, the plane broke apart. Within moments, the wake churned by the carrier's four bronze propellers washed over the wreckage. All that remained for rescuers was a wisp of steam and bubbles on the sea.

The time was 11:28 p.m. on the last Sunday in January, or as Herzing's parents recall, Super Bowl Sunday.

The USS Nimitz searched for her seven lost sons for three days. She found no bodies and no significant wreckage. At that point, the Mediterranean is more than two miles deep.

On Jan. 28, the search was called off. The public was informed of the loss in a one paragraph statement issued by the public affairs office at the Pentagon. A few newspapers ran the story, but most did not.

EDITORS NOTE: The above information is pieced together from a three-part series written by Jim Stewart of Cox News Service that ran on May 6-8, 1987 in the Daily Press, in addition to new information.

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