The mother of Robert Dean Stethem, a Navy diver from Southern Maryland who was killed during the 1985 hijacking of a TWA jetliner to Lebanon, christened the country's newest Aegis guided-missile destroyer yesterday in her son's name.
"For our family, this destroyer represents the inner strength and fortitude Robert so silently [displayed] in the final hours of his life," said Patricia L. Stethem, of Port Tobacco, shortly before smashing a magnum of champagne across the bow of the 8,300-ton vessel.
In ceremonies at a Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard, Mrs. Stethem said her son, "our hero, made the ultimate sacrifice. Our family is proud that the Navy selected our son [for] such a lasting memorial."
The sailor's father, Navy veteran Richard Stethem, told the same audience of more than 1,000:
"The strength, courage and perseverance my son exemplified in the final hours of his life are what America is all about. He was representing you and me when he gave his life for his country."
Petty Officer 2nd Class Stethem, an underwater steel worker and 1980 graduate of Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf, was beaten and shot during the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 on June 14, 1985. Shiite terrorists dumped Mr. Stethem's broken body on the tarmac of a runway in Beirut, Lebanon -- a riveting tragedy televised worldwide.
Since the hijacking, the U.S. government has banned direct travel to and from Lebanon. In 1989, Mohammed Ali Hamadei was sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany for the hijacking and murder. Hamadei will have to serve at least 15 years in prison before he becomes eligible for early release, though justice officials have said he is unlikely to receive early release.
The Stethem DDG-63, which can carry a crew of about 340, will undergo sea trials for the next year before joining the Pacific Fleet.
Armed with combinations of surface-to-air, surface-to-surface, surface-to-land and anti-submarine missiles, it is the sixth Aegis combat ship built by Ingalls Shipbuilding Co. and the 13th of 26 the Navy plans.
Once the 504-foot vessel is turned over to the Navy, it will be commissioned the USS Stethem, said James W. McIngvale, an Ingalls spokesman. The ship cost $840 million.
Petty Officer Stethem's story has inspired much interest in the Pascagoula community, prompting yesterday's large turnout, Mr. McIngvale said.
The throng included Ingalls employees, friends of the Stethem family, Pascagoula residents and a contingent of Seabees from a nearby naval base.
"This is the first time, in these parts anyway, that a ship has been named for a recent hero," Mr. McIngvale said. "This was an American hero more people can identify with."
Petty Officer Stethem's brothers, Kenneth and Patrick, have followed in his footsteps as Navy divers. They are stationed in Little Creek, Va. Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Stethem is assigned to the same Navy construction unit as his late brother.
"At a time when some may think that patriotism, honor, dedication and the willingness to sacrifice is fading away . . . they should look no farther than this great ship and the Stethem family to know they are wrong," said Ambassador Robert B. Oakley, who was involved in negotiations with the hijackers.
Robert Stethem "placed himself in harm's way and, as a hero, took the brunt of the terrorists' attacks on behalf of the other passengers," said Rear Adm. Jack E. Buffington, chief of civil engineers for the Navy.
"This ship honors not only Robert for his heroism, but honors the entire Stethem family."