This post is written by First Officer Douglas Carroll, a former Navy Diver, advocate for the Navy Diver Foundation and Southwest Pilot. He attended a POW Medal ceremony in Washington, D.C., where Southwest Airlines played a significant role.
After 30 years, six heroes were awarded the Navy Prisoner of War Medal by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at a private ceremony in Washington, DC this past Friday. The story of how these men earned this recognition is a somber one.
On June 14th, 1985, six members of the US NAVY's SEABEE's Underwater Construction Team 1 (UCT-1) had been scheduled to head home on Trans World Airlines flight 847 after several weeks abroad building and repairing a pipeline project in Greece. The 6 Divers boarded in Athens and shortly after takeoff, the flight was hijacked by 2 members of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. As the world watched holding their breath at the events unfolding, the plane bounced between Beirut and Algiers multiple times and at each destination passengers were exchanged for fuel or political prisoner demands. The TWA Crew was famously forced at gunpoint - live on the national news to continue on.
On June 15th, Steelworker Second Class (DV) Robert D. Stethem (of UCT-1) was killed and his body was thrown out of the plane onto the tarmac. The hijackers continued to systematically and regularly beat all the military passengers throughout the 17 days. The next day more men joined the two original hijackers for the next leg to Algiers. In Algiers, 65 passengers were released. The hijackers returned to Beirut for a third time on June 16th and due to the TWA crew’s actions, the jet remained there. On June 17th the remaining 40 hostages were taken from the plane and held captive until June 30th when they were rescued.
For his actions and ultimate sacrifice, Robert Stethem was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and an Arleigh Burke-class Navy Destroyer was named for him. The five remaining members of his UCT-1 Teammates quietly returned home and went back to work. I had the pleasure of serving with one of them, Kenneth Bowen. We were in the Navy Reserve at Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 - Detachment 608 (MDSU2-608) out of Mayport, Florida. I had known and worked with him for years before I ever heard about what he had been through back in 1985.
I currently support the Navy Diver Foundation, the organization which initially researched the story on these brave men and forwarded the information to the Navy. When I found out the medals had been approved by the Secretary of the Navy and that the 5 surviving divers would be attending the ceremony in Washington, DC, I approached Southwest Capt. Mike Penn to ask if there was anything Southwest could do to help. And help - well Southwest certainly did! I am proud to say that Southwest Airlines donated travel for these men and their families to go to Washington, DC to receive their Medals.
This was the first time all five men have been together since returning home in 1985. They agreed to have the medal presented to them in person only if they could do it as a team. They also took the opportunity to come together and honor Robert Stethem. Southwest recognizes Stuart Dahl, Tony Watson, Jeffrey Ingalls, Clinton Suggs, Kenneth Bowen and Robert Stethem for their service and sacrifice to our country.