In the waters off the coast of Japan at 0130hrs on June 17th (local time) the Guided Missile Destroyer USS Fitzgerald DDG-62 was struck with a glancing blow on her starboard side by a cargo container ship heavily laden. The Fitzgerald was badly damaged and compromised below the water line. The extensive damage to the vessel included three compartments, a machinery space and two of her berthing compartments for her crew of 116. Seven Sailors, mostly NCOs perished in the aftermath. One of those lost, Fire Controlman 1st Class Leo Gary Rehm Jr. is said to have served with great distinction in saving the lives of his shipmates.
According to initial reports, the Navy told Petty Officer Rehm Jr.’s family that he entered a flooding berthing compartment several times to free and evacuate sailors trapped in the wreckage until the flooding reached a stage so dangerous to the ship’s own survival that the order was given to close a water tight door, trapping Rehm in the flooding where he drowned.
I think the remarkable thing about all this was Rhem’s rating. A Fire Controlman is not a rating that calls for valor at the risk of one’s life typically. This rating is responsible for operation and maintenance of the ship’s weapons fire control systems, Sailors we affectionately call in the Navy “Twidgets.” Yet, in the dead of night and unsuspecting of any of the events that were about to occur, PO1 Rehm distinguished himself in the very best tradition of the Naval Service. For you see, such actions are not isolated and rare as any student of our Navy’s history can relate to you. Men have been lost trying to save their shipmates, ships have been lost trying to save a fleet as at the Battle of Samar Island, fleets have been lost trying save entire Marine Divisions as the Navy did when it lost two aircraft carriers, five heavy cruisers, 14 destroyers, a similar number of submarines, about 150 aircrews and some 3000 men protecting the Marines on Guadalcanal.
As a former Search and Rescue Helicopter Aircrewman being willing to save others at the risk of your own life was what I volunteered for. PO1 Rehm signed up to work on electronics, but the greatest achievement of his career without question occurred in the last few minutes of his life, doing something he was not trained to do. And doing it most ably by the accounts I have read. It is very likely that Rehm will be awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his actions which is the highest award given for heroism in a non-combat action to a Sailor or Marine.
I don’t know if the Navy makes men like Leo Rehm or if the US Navy is made by such men, it is probably some of both. America may thank God for that. Perhaps Rehm took some inspiration from his ship’s namesake; Lt William John Fitzgerald USN, who gave up his life alone in a bunker giving covering fire to the withdrawal of the South Vietnamese Naval personnel he was assigned as an advisor to, when their compound was attacked by two battalions of Viet Cong. Someday there may be a Destroyer named the Leo Gary Rehm Jr. in honor of his service and sacrifice. And his memory will live on in the hearts of the men and woman who go to sea in her, call her home and if need be, give their lives in defense of that ship and their shipmates.
In the best tradition of the Naval Service
I know I’d be proud to sail on that ship.