The year 1967 took a heavy toll on the sons of Shelby County, Texas. Ray Augustine Chatelain, Jr. was the fourth loss that year and the seventh to die in the Vietnam War just 18 days after Jerry Hughes. He joined the US Navy in October 1965 at the age of 19 and took his basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, Illinois.
After completing his Naval training Seaman Chatelain was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt which was a Midway class aircraft carrier nicknamed “Rosie”. From August 1966 to January 1967 the Roosevelt with Ray aboard served a deployment of 95 days “on the line” to Southeast Asia in support of the Vietnam War. The carrier Air Wing One which consisted of F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks flew air strikes into North Vietnam.
In March, 1967 Seaman Chatelain volunteered for return duty in Vietnam and was transferred to the U.S.S. Forrestal. The Forrestal, the first Navy supercarrier and lead ship of her class headed to Vietnam in May, 1967. What happened next is best described by the Naval Aviation News, October 1967, compiled and edited by Senior Chief Journalist John D. Burlage. “The day was a typical one for the 5,000 officers and enlisted men of the attack aircraft carrier USS Forrestal as the huge, 80,000-ton ship cut a wake through the calm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. It was as typical as it could be, that is, for men at war. And the men of Forrestal were definitely in combat. For the first time since their ship was commissioned in October 1955, they had been launching aircraft from her flight deck on strikes against an enemy whose coastline was only a few miles over the horizon.
The ship in which these men served was the first U.S. carrier built from the keel up with the angled deck that enables aircraft to be launched and recovered simultaneously. For four days, the planes of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 had been launched on, and recovered from, about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam. On the ship's four-acre flight deck, her crewmen went about the business at hand, the business of accomplishing the second launch of the fifth day in combat.
Overhead, the hot, tropical sun beat down from a clear sky. It was just about 10:50 a.m. (local time), July 29, 1967. The launch that was scheduled for a short time later was never made. This is the story of the brave men of USS Forrestal. It is not a story about just a few individuals. Or ten. Or twenty. Or fifty. It is the story of hundreds of officers and enlisted men who were molded by disaster into a single cohesive force determined to accomplish one mission: Save their ship and their shipmates. It is the story of the acts of heroism they performed-acts so commonplace, accomplished with such startling regularity, that it will be impossible to chronicle all of them. It will be impossible for a very simple reason: All of them will never be known.
Lt. Cmdr. Robert "Bo" Browning one of the pilots due for launch with many others, was seated in the cockpit of his fueled and armed Skyhawk; the plane was spotted way aft, to port. Lt. Commander John S. McCain III said later he heard a "whooshy" sound then a "low-order explosion" in front of him. Suddenly, two A-4s ahead of his plane were engulfed in flaming jet fuel JP-5. A bomb dropped to the deck and rolled about six feet and came to rest in a pool of burning fuel. The awful inferno, which was to leave 132 Forrestal crewmen dead, 62 more injured and two missing and presumed dead had begun.” The complete story can be found at http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=73.
On July 30th, 1967 Ray Augustine Chatelain would lose his life in the service of his country aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal in a heroic effort to help rescue fellow shipmates. Death was caused by smoke inhalation as he tried to fight the fire to help release trapped men in the lower compartments of the ship. Ray had just turned 21 years old a couple of months previously.
Ray Chatelain was born on May 6th, 1946 in Arnaudville, Louisiana to Dr. Ray Augustine, Sr. (1915 – 1964) and Wilma Louise Matthews Chatelain (1921 – 2000). He lived in Tenaha for about 15 years where he attended Elementary School and one year of high school. After two years of high school in Center he completed his senior year at Port Neches-Graves High School in Port Neches, Texas. Ray’s father was killed on December 29th, 1964 after being hit by a panel truck on Highway 96 North about 2 miles from Center.
The Thursday edition of the Champion Newspaper, August 3rd, 1967 reported that his mother, Mrs. Wilma Chatelain had been notified twice by representatives of the Navy of her sons fatal death. “Early Monday morning a naval officer from Tyler arrived at the Chatelain home to notify the family and about four o’clock the same day a telegram was received by Mrs. Chatelain that her son had lost his life Saturday aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal.” The newspaper article went on to say “survivors include his mother; two sisters, Mrs. Jimmy Lane of Gary and Miss Kay Frances Chatelain of Dallas; his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. F. G. Chatelain of Lafayette, Louisiana. Mangum Funeral Home to be in charge of arrangements.”
Ray’s high school friend John Latham sent me the following: “I did know Ray and considered him a good friend during high school. Also, Steve Tinkle, who I assume still lives in Center was very close to Ray. As I recall, they joined the Navy together on some type of buddy-system and apparently trained together early on. I never saw Ray after high school so I just didn’t have any sense of what he was doing. Ray was a very interesting person. I believe Ray was smart but a bit lost. He loved stock car racing and had a very nice Pontiac that had been equipped to race. I think he probably did some drag racing as well. I went to the stock car races in Shreveport with him one time and he was excited to be there. We had some good times together as teens. Ray perished in the fire on the Forrestal. I heard stories of how he actually rescued one or two other sailors and returned to help others but didn’t survive. I don’t know those to be facts but I would guess military records could shed some light on that. Bottom line, Ray was a good guy and an example of how a young man’s life was taken from us probably before a lot of people could better appreciate what a good person he could be.”
Steve Tinkle added that “he and Ray did join the Navy together. They took the oath of enlistment in September 1965 and reported to boot camp in October but were separated afterward. Ray told Steve at the time he transferred to the USS Forrestal that there were openings aboard the carrier and Steve made inquiries about transferring but did not have enough time left on his enlistment.” The last time Steve and Ray saw each other was in Norfolk, Virginia just prior to the deployment of the USS Forrestal.
Fair winds and following seas Ray - “Welcome Home Brother”.
References: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Wall of Faces; The Virtual wall, profile: Champion Newspaper, August 3rd, 1967; Naval Aviation News, October, 1967