Sunday, March 30, 2014

Two Heroes

Mark Mayo

XXX Former-Senator-Jeremiah-Denton

Master-at-Arms Second Class Mark Mayo (above) and Admiral Jeremiah Denton   

The Navy lost two heroes this past week.  The two men died just a few miles and generations apart, but through their deeds and actions, they represented the finest traditions of the naval service.

Outside of the Norfolk area (where he was stationed) and Baltimore (where he was born and raised), few people knew Master-at-Arms Second Class Mark Mayo.  He came from a humble background, but friends and family described him as a good kid, always trying to please his teachers and coaches.  Mayo was an average student who aspired towards a career law enforcement.  After high school, he took the first steps in achieving that goal, enlisting in the Navy and becoming a military policeman--referred to in the Navy as a master-at-arms.

After assignments in Bahrain and Spain, he wound up a Naval Station Norfolk, the largest navy base in the world and home to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.  Mayo was on patrol Monday night near the pier where the guided missile destroyer USS Mahan was berthed.  It was routine stuff for a mid-level security specialist on shore duty, perhaps even a little dull in comparison to his postings overseas.

The Mahan, like all Navy vessels in port, had members of its crew standing watch; at least one of them, a female petty officer, was armed.  No one was expecting any sort of breach or incident; there were multiple layers of security between the destroyer and whatever was beyond the gates of Naval Station Norfolk. Mark Mayo was literally the last line of defense, since most of the watch-standers on the Mahan (and other vessels nearby) are not trained security specialists.

But Monday night the unthinkable happened.  A civilian truck driver with a previous manslaughter conviction named Jeffrey Savage showed up at the gate, driving a tractor-trailer cab.  He flashed a TWIC card, given to drivers and other maritime workers who make deliveries and perform other contract work, mostly at port facilities.  His TWIC credential--approved by the TSA--wasn't supposed to get him onto the naval station, but a gate guard let him through.

Once inside the base, Savage headed for the pier where the Mahan was tied up.  So far, investigators don't know why he went in that direction, or what drove his actions.  They only know that Savage stopped his truck and walked toward the destroyer.  He passed through another checkpoint and made his way up the gangway onto the ship, where he was confronted by the female petty officer who was standing watch.

A struggle ensued.  Savage had wrestled the gun away from the petty officer by the time Mark Mayo arrived seconds later.  Instinctively, Mayo pushed the petty officer to the deck and out of the line of fire, positioning himself between the her and the gunman.  Shots erupted and ended in a matter of seconds; Mark Mayo was hit and dying.  Savage was also seriously wounded and would die as well.  The Petty Officer who was pushed to the deck survived, as did other sailors standing watch on the Mahan.

The commander of Naval Station Norfolk, Captain Robert Clark, described Mayo as a hero:

"Petty Officer Mayo's actions were nothing less than heroic," Clark said. "He selflessly gave his own life to ensure the safety of the sailors on board."

Speaking to the Herald-Mail newspaper in Maryland, Mayo's mother, Sharon Blair, said her son was born in Washington, D.C., and moved with his family to Hagerstown in 1998.
She said he always wanted to work in law enforcement.
Randy Longnecker, Mayo's former guidance counselor at Williamsport High School, recalled Mayo as a kind, easygoing student who rarely missed class and earned good grades.
Eric Michael, a former Williamsport assistant principal, said coaches and teachers appreciated Mayo's good attitude and liked to call him by the nickname "Marky Mark."
"He always wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing," Michael remembered. "He liked athletics and being part of a team."
Retired Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who passed away Friday at the age of 89, entered the pantheon of Navy heroes decades ago.  In 1965, he was the skipper of a squadron of A-6 Intruder attack jets on the USS Independence, bombing targets in North Vietnam.  Roughly one month into his combat tour, Denton's Intruder was hit by anti-aircraft fire and went into a spin.  Denton (then a Commander) ejected, along with his bombardier-navigator.  

Moments after reaching the ground, Denton was captured by North Vietnamese troops.  Thus began 7 1/2 years of captivity that can only be described as hell.  As one of the senior American officers captured by Hanoi, Denton was among those targeted for "special" treatment.  Torture was an almost daily occurrence, but Jeremiah Denton remained defiant.  

In 1966, about 10 months into his captivity, the North Vietnamese directed him to sit for an interview with a Japanese journalist, hoping to use the event for propaganda purposes.  Denton agreed, and turned the tables on his captors.  While the camera rolled, Denton not only reaffirmed his support for the U.S. government, he sent a message about the treatment he and other POWs were receiving, blinking the word "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" in Morse Code.  It was the first confirmation that American prisoners of war were being brutalized in Hanoi.  

For his actions, Denton was beaten again, and spent more time in solitary confinement.  All told, Admiral Denton was in solitary for almost four years during his captivity in North Vietnam.  He was later transferred to a prison known as "Alcatraz," reserved for 11 POWs who offered the most resistance to the enemy, a group that included James Stockdale, Sam Johnson, George Thomas Coker, Howard Rutledge, and George McKnight, among others.

Upon his release in 1973, Denton (as the senior-ranking officer in his group) was the first POW to exit the first "freedom bird" from Hanoi.  Standing before TV cameras at Clark AB in the Philippines, Denton  said "We are profoundly grateful to our commander-in-chief and our nation for this day.  God bless America.

Promoted to Rear Admiral, Denton served as Commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk before retiring from active duty in 1977.  Three years later, he was recruited as a GOP candidate for the Senate in his native Alabama, and pulled a major political upset, defeating Democratic nominee Jim Folsom, Jr.  During six years in the Senate, Denton compiled a solidly conservative voting record, warning against growing Marxist influence in places like Nicaragua, and the decline of American social values.  

Denton lost his re-election bid in 1986, to Democratic Representative Richard Shelby who became a Republican eight years later and remains in the Senate to this day.  Upon Denton's passing, Shelby described his former opponent as a "war hero, and honorable Senator and a family man who cared deeply about his country."  

It may be difficult to compare the split-second actions of a Mark Mayo--confronting a gunman on the deck of a destroyer-- with the grit and determination of Jeremiah Denton, who endured unspeakable deprivations at the hands of his enemy for more than seven years.  But there are common threads in their stories as well; unflinching courage in the face of long odds and unswerving loyalty to their comrades-in-arms.  

Both will be remembered as naval heroes. And rightfully so.        





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