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BT1 Andrew Gallagher Risked His Life to Save Others Aboard USS Belknap

An interview with BT1 Andrew Gallagher, USN (Ret.)


Lundquist: Nobody wants to see the chaplain walking up the front walk.

Gallagher: That’s what my wife said. And she said, almost an hour later the chaplain came back and said they were wrong. That my condition was serious but I was alive.


Lundquist: You were dead for an hour!

Gallagher: I do remember that getting cured from burns is a whole lot worse than getting burned. I was in the debridement tank every day.


Lundquist: What’s that?

Gallagher: It’s a kind of therapy. They put you in a tank with chemicals to dry your skin out. There were six of them—four of them were there to hold you and two were there to do the work. They start pulling the dead skin off with tweezers and Popsicle sticks. They do that to get you ready for the skin grafts.

Everybody dreaded it. There was like 10 or 15 people – not just from the Belknap, but there was a bunch of people there.


Lundquist: Was your wife there?

Gallagher: My wife was there the whole time. And my mom and dad were there at the beginning. They had a place where family members could stay.

Nobody wanted to go in the tank. Everybody would think of reasons not to go in. But my wife befriended this corpsman named Sonny, and he told me, “Andy, I’m gonna tell you what we’re gonna do. You volunteer to be the first one in. I’m gonna give three quarters of your shot intravenously, and then I’ll give you the other part of the shot in your arm. When you get in there, you start thinking about the best thing that ever happened to you in the world, and just keep on thinking about that and just try to block everything else out.” So I went in there. And the first time, I didn’t last 15 minutes before I lost it. The next day, it was a half hour. By the time I went in there like the 5th or 6th day, it was like, “Okay, I’m alright.”


Lundquist: Were you were more capable of handling the pain? Or was the pain not quite as bad?

Gallagher: No, the pain was the same, it’s just that you got yourself where the morphine is as strong as its going to be, and you would sit there and use the morphine. They couldn’t understand why I would always volunteer to be first.


Lundquist: Were you aware of everything that had happened?

Gallagher: I guess it was December 22nd, or December 23rd, when the doctor came in to talk to me. and I was in like serious, critical condition, any minute I could go, until December 22nd or 23rd, my wife came in with a doctor and she looks and she says, ”Are you alright?” I said, “Yeah, I’m fine. What’s going on?”

The doctor who had come in with her said to me, “You know what you just went through?” I said, “Yeah, I got hurt on the ship. I got, I think I got burnt.” He says, “You don’t realize what you been going through?”


Lundquist: You had blocked it out?

Gallagher: I guess I blocked it out. And he said, “I’m going to sit down and tell you.” He sat with me for about two or three hours and told me. Finally I said, “Well, I’m okay now. I’m ready to go home.” He said, “No, you’re far from being ready to go home.”

My wife was there, and she was strong for me. She was always positive.

They were supposed to release me from the hospital in the end of February. My son Steven was having his first birthday on January 5th. I really wanted to go home and be there for my son’s birthday, and to be with my other son, James. He made a deal with me. I had to try to do two walks a day, which were about 30 feet down the corridor, turn around and come back. The doctor said, “I’ll tell you what. When you do your walks, if you walk down to the end of the hall and you walk back, I’ll release you to go home for the weekend.” I said, “Okay.” I got up, walked down and walked back.”

Burned Belknap

USS Belknap (CG 26), the day after she collided with carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67) on Nov. 22, 1975. Most of the ship’s superstructure down to the steel deck was consumed by fire. The tragedy claimed the lives of eight sailors, injured another 88. U.S. Navy photo


Lundquist: You were motivated!

Gallagher: It was hard. You had to sit down and take a break. There was always a corpsman there with a wheelchair. But I went down and I turned around, then I started to stumble. The corpsman came up with the wheelchair, I told him, “No.” And I walked back up.

I had these foam slippers and they were full of blood by the time I got back up.


Lundquist: But you got to go home.

Gallagher: They spent three days teaching my wife how to dress my wounds and do everything else. That doctor said, “You’re going home one way or another.” But when we went to the airport in San Antonio, we had missed our flight to Norfolk.


Lundquist: Was it a military flight?

Gallagher: No, it was a commercial flight. So when we found out that we didn’t make the flight we went into the restaurant, I looked kind of down, and we ordered our meal. The next thing you know there were like 4 or 5 people running down the hall, and they said, “Hey! Five people gave their seats up so you guys can go.” And they held the plane up and said, “Let’s go!” We could get to Atlanta, but they couldn’t get us into Norfolk. So they put us on a flight to into Newport News. I didn’t know they had this welcome ceremony going over at Norfolk. So when they found out I wasn’t on the flight, they went back to the building where I was going to be staying at Little Creek, and when I came walking in, it was a very, very emotional scene. After that, it was just a matter of recovering, me with my family. They wanted to discharge me right then. But I was bound and determined I wasn’t going to get out of the Navy. But they wouldn’t let me go back to being a BT.


Lundquist: Did they give you a medical retirement?

Gallagher: Yes. And I was awarded the Legion of Merit.


Lundquist: Throughout the whole thing, you were focused on your guys, taking care of them.

Gallagher: That’s what they told me – that I came out with everybody unscathed. Minkler’s parents actually came to visit me in the hospital while I was there. He was the one I went back for, and he knew what happened. All three of my guys knew exactly what happened. The two guys who got in the escape hatch when the explosion happened, they were inside the escape hatch and nothing happened to them. And I had my chest on Minkler’s back when the flames came behind us. When the explosion picked us up and threw us out of the space, he was under me. So he didn’t get burned.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...