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'Never thought I'd see you again': Navy pilot reunites with sailor who rescued him almost 60 years ago from Mediterranean Sea

SALEM — They met only briefly almost 60 years ago, and can’t recall even saying a word to each other.

Yet they embraced each other like long-lost friends when they reunited in a Salem restaurant.

“I love you, man,” Marshall Beard told John Hebbe as they hugged, two men in their 80s, sputtering out words as they choked back tears.

“I love you, too,” Hebbe replied.

They weren’t nearly so loquacious at their earlier meeting, which occurred in the chilly, choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea, in the small hours of a February night in 1960. Beard was in his underwear; Hebbe was in deep trouble.

Hebbe was a Navy pilot whose prop-driven AD 6 Skyraider attack plane tumbled into the sea after colliding on takeoff with three parked jets on the darkened deck of the carrier USS Saratoga. Beard, a Navy rescue swimmer and boatswain mate 2nd class, was awakened aboard the destroyer USS Benham, which was nearby as it escorted the Saratoga.

“They passed the word: ‘Pilot in the water!’” Beard remembered of the 3 a.m. wake-up call. “We were all bunked in.”

The whole episode was laid out nicely by my colleague Jeff E. Schapiro in a special section this month honoring military veterans (“Nearly 60 years later, flier and diver reconnect — on land”).

Schapiro’s story covered how Beard spotted Hebbe, struggling to stay afloat and surrounded by a wall of flame from high-octane aviation fuel set ablaze by the burning phosphorus from a flare, and leaped into the sea to save him, wearing only his long-underwear bottoms.

Beard’s crewmates pulled Hebbe aboard, and the men never saw each other again: After a brief visit to the ship’s sick bay, Hebbe was fetched by a helicopter and returned to the Saratoga, which later sent over 3 gallons of vanilla ice cream and a flight jacket to Beard in gratitude for his heroism. Beard, who grew up in Southwest Virginia in a family of moonshiners and railroad men, brought the jacket back to the States and gave it to his father, who wore it out while hunting. All that was left of the jacket was the fraying patch of Hebbe’s squadron, which Beard came across while sorting through his history at his Salem home for an upcoming move to the Richmond area to live with his daughter, Lisa.

Beard gave the patch to Lisa and told her the story of how he came to have it — something he had never told anyone.

“The way he is, he feels like everything he did was just part of his job, and he never felt like it was special,” said Lisa Beard. “So he didn’t talk about this stuff.”

Based on her father’s recollection of the pilot’s last name, his daughter did some online sleuthing and within a couple of hours had found a number for Hebbe, who lives in Fairfax Station.

Beard placed a call to Hebbe. “If this is the Lieutenant Hebbe I went swimming with in the Med in 1959 or 1960,” said Beard, as he began to leave a voicemail before an excited Hebbe couldn’t grab the phone fast enough to confirm he had the right number. The men enjoyed a long-distance get-together a few weeks ago and made plans to meet in Salem for a face-to-face reunion.

That’s where Schapiro’s story ended because the special section was printed before the reunion at Mac and Bob’s Restaurant, a Salem institution near the campus of Roanoke College. So photographer Bob Brown and I drove to Salem to witness the reunion.

We arrived at the restaurant 45 minutes before the scheduled noon meeting, and Hebbe and Carol, his wife of almost 50 years, were already there. A raconteur of the first order, Hebbe, 86, happily told the story of his rescue to a television news reporter filming an interview, other diners and an appliance repairman who had worked on Beard’s stove a few days earlier, heard about the upcoming reunion and thought to himself, “I have to come over and meet this guy.”

“It’s an honor to meet you,” J.R. Salyards said as he shook Hebbe’s hand.

“I am so happy to be here,” Hebbe replied, returning the enthusiasm.

Hebbe is a gregarious sort who served in Vietnam and worked for 34 years as a pilot with United Airlines. He also still has a lot of energy, as he works as a substitute teacher at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County.

“I still love it,” he said.

When Beard and his daughter Lisa walked through the door, Hebbe jumped up to greet a man he didn’t really know but whom he considers a literal life-saver.

“How are you, my friend!” Hebbe said, grasping Beard’s hands.

“You look better than the last time I seen you,” Beard replied with a laugh.

While Hebbe acknowledged he’s told the story of their “midnight swim,” as Beard jokingly refers to it, many times over the years, the more reserved Beard never mentioned it. Never even told his wife. It was only after finding the patch and sharing it with his daughter that he began talking about it with her (and, a few days later, the appliance repairman).

“Never thought I’d see you again,” Beard said to Hebbe.

Hebbe might have figured the same, but not for lack of trying. He attended a reunion of Benham crews a few years ago, hoping to find his rescuer, or at least his name. He asked if anyone had been on the ship in 1960. Several had. Were they involved in the rescue? No. Did they know who was? No, they said. “Those guys are gone,” he was told.

(However, the information he sought was nearer than he imagined. After talking with Beard on the phone, Hebbe said he went digging through his long-forgotten military records and there, buried among the documents, was a small, folded piece of paper: an almost 60-year-old thank-you note from Marshall Beard, expressing gratitude for the ice cream and flight jacket. “I never knew it was there,” Hebbe said. “No one ever told me it was there.”)

Beard, 85, also served in Vietnam, where he became a Navy salvage diver and received a Bronze Star for gallantry.

Lisa Beard recalled her dad saying he thought about Hebbe a lot “because he recovered him alive. Dad’s recovered a lot of pilots that weren’t.”

Once together, Beard and Hebbe recounted their brief encounter almost 60 years earlier. It was so dark, Hebbe said of the destroyer, “I never even knew you guys were there until you put that signal light on. It was incredible.”

Beard said, “All we did was hone in on the fire on the water. That’s how we found him.”

Hebbe acknowledged he wouldn’t have lasted much longer had Beard not jumped in to help. Once Beard brought the rescue line to Hebbe, they said not a word to each other.

“I saw fear in his eyes,” Beard said.

Hebbe replied with a laugh, “Well, we don’t like to call it fear.”

Even then, the episode wasn’t over, as the Benham’s crew apparently forgot in all the excitement of pulling Hebbe aboard that Beard was still in the water. As the ship got underway and built up speed, Beard hung on to the line for dear life as he “surfboarded” in the dark behind the destroyer, bouncing through the cold sea and scraping against the side of the ship, until the crew finally realized its mistake and pulled Beard in, too.

Over lunch, there were 60 years of stories, much laughter and a few tears, and poignant thank-yous.

“You opened the door to the rest of my life,” Hebbe told Beard.

Mac and Bob’s general manager Keith Griswold provided a box of tissues.

Lisa Beard began making more trips to Salem from her home in Mechanicsville after her mother, Nancy, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago. She told me her dad “almost killed himself trying to keep her at home.” He explained his sense of purpose quite simply: “She took good care of me,” he told Lisa. “I’m going to take good care of her.”

Nancy Beard died in March 2016, and Lisa has grown even closer to her dad. She invited him to move to Mechanicsville, which he will do in the coming weeks once the sale of his Roanoke County home is complete. It was that impending move that had them going through boxes and led to the patch, which led to Hebbe and the story that Lisa had no inkling of.

“I knew my dad was a good man,” she said with a smile. “But when you find out your dad’s actually Superman, that’s pretty cool.”