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 . . .
Francis Campeau,
a shy young man from Bergenfield
Sunday, July 29, 2007 
By Jay Levine, Staff Writer
©2007 The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) / North Jersey Media Group. www.northjersey.com
Francis Campeau, a shy young man from Bergenfield, was so at home in the water that friends called him Froggy.

The oldest of six children, Francis came of age in the early '60s and embodied that innocent era. He shared an attic with his three brothers and guarded his record albums from their prying hands. When not pulling B's at Bergenfield High -- history was his favorite subject -- the clean-cut kid with sun-lightened hair was swimming or teaching others to swim at the Police Athletic League and the Hackensack Y.

His family couldn't afford college, so two years after his 1963 graduation, Francis joined the Navy. On July 29, 1967 -- exactly 40 years ago -- Aviation Electronics Mate 3rd Class Francis Campeau died in an inferno aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, the Navy's worst accident since World War II. He was 22.
 
In a letter he sent six days before his death, Francis thanked his parents for the gum and told of an Italian restaurant he found at Subic Bay in the Philippines. It was air-conditioned and, best of all, "they served Pepsi."
The Forrestal fire, which occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam, was horrific. A missile accidentally fired from a parked F-4 Phantom streaked across the flight deck into the external fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk waiting to take off on a bombing mission. The ruptured tank ignited a firestorm, killing 134 men.

Much has been written about the disaster's most famous survivor, Lt. Cmdr. John McCain. The future U.S. senator was piloting the Skyhawk. Little was written about his shipmate Francis Campeau, the only victim from North Jersey.

The area was preoccupied that summer. A week before the Forrestal accident, racial strife erupted in Englewood. Two weeks before, Newark was torn by six days of rioting. Francis Campeau's obituary in The Record, headlined "County Sailor Dies on Carrier," listed survivors, and mentioned that Francis was "an avid swimmer and skier" and was on the high school track team. That was about it.

But there was more to know.

For example, "if there was a fight, he'd be the one to stop it," Mary Campeau, 81, said of her level-headed firstborn.

Francis never smoked, drank or found trouble. He was too busy swimming.

"He didn't talk much at home -- he was a quiet guy," said brother Don Campeau of Wyckoff, a history teacher at Garfield High School.

Friends and classmates remember him the same way. Frank, Froggy or Frog -- hardly anyone called him Francis -- hung out with a group that included Chuck Gill. They liked to play pool and watch movies at the theater on Washington Avenue.
 
 

Last letter home

On July 23, 1967, six days before he died in the USS Forrestal blaze, Francis Campeau wrote his mother and father in Bergenfield. His brother Donald saved the letter, which may have been Francis' last.

Excerpts:
"We left Subic Bay yesterday and are heading to Yankee Station. We've started to fly already, and I work the whole 12 hours a night. This doesn't give me much spare time...."

"Olongapo City [Philippines] was a dump town. ... The streets aren't paved, and there is dust everywhere. All the rivers are polluted and stink. But I still enjoyed myself."

"I had shore patrol there [Olongapo City], and I found a place with a good band. I brought some of my friends there the next night, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Right next to it, there was an Italian restaurant, the Roman Room. We ate there twice, and it was just as good as any restaurant at home and in some respects better. ... They had a 4 piece band that played soft music and walked around to each table. It was air-conditioned, and they served Pepsi."

"It is really hot and humid out. We are in the middle of typhone season, and it is always raining out. It can be real nice out and then the next minute it will pour out."

"Does Dad still collect foreign money? If anybody wants some, let me know & I'll mail some home."

"Had Dad found a job yet? I hope so, it's pretty hard to live on $50 dollars a week."

"P.S. How is everyone? Are you doing much swimming?"

"Frank was shy, extremely shy," said Gill, a janitorial company executive who lives in Oakland. "If we were standing around talking, he'd just nod his head. But as a friend, oh boy, he'd do anything for you."

In those days, New York's legal drinking age was 18, and New Jersey teens would cross the state line to drink. Gill said he recalls Francis going with the guys on a drinking trip only once, "and he probably didn't even have a drink."

"He was straitlaced," Gill said. "But he fit in with everybody."

Francis Campeau was born in Manhattan on May 28, 1945, while his father Frank was with the Navy overseas. In 1955, the growing family moved from Hell's Kitchen to a two-bedroom Cape Cod on North Queen Street in Bergenfield. Frank Campeau worked as a service writer for car dealerships, and Mary Campeau worked as an EKG technician at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck.

John A. Hodurski lived a block away and was in Boy Scouts with Francis.

"When we were about 13, the troop had a Halloween costume party," said Hodurski, a church mechanic in South Dennis, Mass. "Frank showed up in a blue Navy uniform, and I was in a white Navy uniform.

"We kind of chuckled about the fact we were the only sailors at the party, and if I recall, he mentioned that, like me, he wanted to go into the Navy."

Francis's Navy aspirations were an open secret. After all, his father and two uncles were sailors in World War II. The lack of money for college sealed the matter.

He enlisted as the United States was escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War, but the family felt reasonably secure with his choice.

"Everyone said the same thing: It's very rare that sailors get killed," said Mary Campeau, who now lives in Dumont.

"But who would dream that the ship would blow up?"

The morning of July 30, 1967, Don Campeau, then 16, was putting together the Sunday papers at a local deli when he saw a headline saying the Forrestal was burning. He went home to tell the family. By then, the radio was blaring reports from the Gulf of Tonkin.

Mary's brother, who served on aircraft carriers in World War II, called to prepare the family for bad news. Later that day, the bad news arrived.

"All I remember were the white sailor suits coming up the block," said Francis's sister, Barbara Redmond.

The Campeaus were told that Francis was missing and probably dead.

"We all were hoping he landed in the water, because we knew he could swim," said Redmond, an X-ray technician who lives in Teaneck.

Onboard the crippled Forrestal, Gunner's Mate Lou Torres -- Bergenfield High School Class of 1964 -- was searching for Francis. Acquaintances back home, they had become friends on the giant carrier.

"The thing happened so fast," said Torres, a communications systems engineer from North Miami Beach, Fla. "I was standing on top of a gun mount, a rocket took off, hit a man named John McCain's plane, which started a chain reaction. I was standing maybe 30, 40 feet from there. And then the world exploded. As to what happened in detail after that, I can't tell you. I have no clue. I know I was on the ship and spent the next three days looking for a few people I knew. Frank was one of them."

Francis' memorial service was at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Bergenfield. "There wasn't one empty seat," his mother said. "That's when we figured out people liked him."

After returning home from the service, the Campeaus were notified that Francis's body had been found. Their son was buried in Long Island National Cemetery. In 1968, Bergenfield honored the sailor by naming a street for him: Campeau Place.

If Francis were alive today, he probably would be a history teacher, his mother said. "Maybe he would've gotten married. He liked a bridesmaid at my brother's wedding, but she was seeing someone else. But he wasn't going to give up. Then they sent him off to the ship."

This weekend, Mary Campeau, her two daughters and a granddaughter are attending ceremonies in Washington commemorating the Forrestal tragedy. Asked what she wanted the world to know about Francis, who died 40 years ago today, Mary Campeau said:

"What I tried to do was teach him to be a good American. To praise your country. And he did."

E-mail: levin@northjersey.com

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