Pilot finally gets to thank the Navy diver who saved his life…59 years later

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Shawn Nowlin shawn.nowlin@ourvalley.org

Photo by Shawn Nowlin
Neither John Hebbe (left) or Marshall Beard (right) were elated to meet at Mac & Bob’s 59 years after their initial encounter.

To say that Marshall Beard and John Hebbe share a unique story would be an understatement.

Imagine being a Naval Aviator flying the last operation plane in the Mediterranean during the winter. Now imagine operating said plane in the pitch-black dark and the left-wing snags on other planes. That is precisely what happened to Hebbe, today a decorated veteran of the Army, Air Force and the Navy, on February 10, 1960.

“I remember when my plane began to shudder and whip towards the left.  Next, I was over the side, almost uncontrollable since half of my left-wing was still on the flight deck,” Hebbe recalls. “It impacted the water and did not flip over which was important.  I made it out, however, the life vest and raft did not meet government standards as far as inflation. It did provide enough to barely keep me afloat though.”

Beard, a Navy rescue diver at the time, watched what transpired onboard the USS Benham. When someone alerted him up at 3 a.m. that “a pilot was in the water,” he jumped in to help in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts.

Photo by Shawn Nowlin
John’s wife, Carol, thanking Marshall for saving her husband’s life in 1960.

“When I arrived, the gasoline on the water was burning. We were able to hone in on that area right away. When he went into the water, he was in an aircraft that burned aviation fuel which was 135 octane,” he said. “The plane was sinking, but he was able to free himself. Because of the cold temperatures, he was required to wear an exposure suit. When he pulled his life vest, it only partially inflated.”

Beard added, “He then reached for his flare which burned his raft from out under him. We got to him in a hurry. When I saw that he was going under, I went overboard with a line and pulled him aboard.”

Hebbe was picked up on a helicopter and sent back to the Saratoga the next morning. He never got the name of the gentleman who saved his life but often thought of him and told friends and family on numerous occasions what happened on that night.

Beard was the exact opposite. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that anyone in his family had ever heard of the story.

In mid-September, Hebbe received a phone call. Because he didn’t recognize the number, he let it go to voicemail. When he played it back, he heard the following: “Is this Lieutenant John R. Hebbe? This is Marshall Beard.  I jumped into the water 59 years ago to save you.”

Within seconds, Hebbe returned the call and the two spoke on the phone for 90 minutes. Among the many things they discussed was getting together in the foreseeable future. With Beard living in Roanoke and Hebbe currently residing in Fairfax, they realized that they are only three hours apart. It was Marshall’s daughter, Lisa, who was instrumental in helping the two reconnect.

On November 7, the former diver and pilot met at Mac & Bob’s. They embraced with a hug. Moments later, tears came down their faces. Said Beard, “I love you man.” Said Hebbe, “I love you, too.”

A plaque that featured Hebbe’s attack squadron symbol on the front was given to Beard. It read, “To Marshall Beard, USS Benham DD 796, Saved my life. When? February 10th, 1960. Shipmates forever. LT, JG J. R. Hebbe.”

“When Marshall and I got together, there was no pre-planned dialogue.  Whatever happened, happened. My wife Carol bet me I would get tears when we met.  I laughed, but of course I lost the bet,” Hebbe said. “When Marshall saved me 59 years ago, he opened the door to the rest of my life.”