John Kingsman Beling

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John K. Beling
RADM John Beling.jpg
Rear Admiral John K. Beling, USN (ret.)
(as commanding officer of USS Forrestal)
Born (1919-10-29)October 29, 1919
New York City, New York
Died November 5, 2010(2010-11-05) (aged 91)
Reston, Virginia
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1942–1973
Rank US-O8 insignia.svg Rear Admiral
Commands held USS Forrestal
USS Alstede
Iceland Defense Force
Battles/wars World War II
*Marianas campaign
Vietnam War
Awards Legion of Merit
Distinguished Flying Cross
Purple Heart Medal
Air Medal with two gold stars
Presidential Unit Citation

John Kingsman Beling (October 29, 1919 – November 5, 2010) was a retired Rear Admiral of the United States Navy whose final assignment was as Commander, Iceland Defense Force in the early 1970s. Commissioned in 1942, he served as a Naval Aviator in the Pacific Theater in World War 2, and was seriously burned when his aircraft was shot down during the Marianas Campaign. He made a full recovery from his injuries, and went on to serve in a variety of staff positions, attended the Naval War College, and commanded three attack squadrons and two ships.

Beling was commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59) at the time of the July 29, 1967 fire that killed 134 Sailors, injured 161, and caused $72 million (1967 dollars) in damage to the ship. The Navy investigation into the fire cleared Beling of wrongdoing. After retiring from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1973, Beling worked as a Department of Defense civilian, as well as for a defense contractor, before retiring for good in 1985. He died November 5, 2010 in Reston, Virginia.

Early life and career[edit]

John Kingsman Beling was born in New York City on October 29, 1919, and was raised in Harrington Park, New Jersey. He was the son of Aelian Arnold Beling, born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on 31 December 1879 and Mable Ashe Jackson (b.1886). Aelian Arnold Beling is a Ceylonese Burgher or Dutch Burgher, the son of William Wright Beling I (Proctor) and Maria Elizabeth Prins, who were married in the Dutch Reformed Church, Wolvendahl, Ceylon on 1 February 1864. Aelian is also the younger brother of the Ceylonese artist William Wright Beling II (1867 - 1928).[1]

John Kingsman Beling graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology in 1941.[2] After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Beling joined the Naval Reserve as an aviation specialist, and was commissioned an Ensign upon completion of flight training in 1943, after which he headed to the Pacific theater as a dive bomber pilot with Bombing Squadron ONE (VB-1). Beling was shot down over the island of Yap during the Marianas Campaign in 1944.[3] Although badly burned, Beling was able to make his way out to open sea, where a seaplane from the cruiser USS Biloxi spotted him. After being hospitalized for his burns, he rejoined the fleet as a fighter pilot.

Beling received a Ph.D in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951, and afterwards served in a variety of operational, research & development, testing, and evaluation assignments, including a tour at the Office of Naval Research in London and at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He also served in Air Test and Development Squadron FIVE (VX-5), and twice served in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, in roles pertaining to weapons development. He also served as Assistant Chief of Staff and Force Training Officer at the headquarters of Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic (COMNAVAIRLANT) at NAS Norfolk, Virginia.[3] Aside from his command of Forrestal, from May 1966 to September 1967, Beling commander two attack squadrons and the stores ship USS Alstede (AF-48). Beling was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1968.[4][5]

Forrestal fire[edit]

Then-Captain Beling was commanding officer of USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967, when a Zuni rocket accidentally fired while on deck, striking another aircraft. In the initial moments of the disaster, which killed 134 sailors and injured 167 more, including then-Lieutenant Commander and future U.S. Senator John McCain, Beling—who had been in his cabin at the time and was clad only in a t-shirt and uniform pants—ordered the ship slowed, to reduce the force of wind gusts blowing across the flight deck, and gave directions for incoming helicopters, sent to transport wounded Sailors off Forrestal, to land at the front of the deck to keep rotor wash from fanning the flames. Beling would personally direct damage control efforts from the bridge throughout the ten-hour ordeal. As night fell, Beling recited a prayer to the surviving crew:

"Our heavenly Father, we see this day as one minute and yet a lifetime for all of us. We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. We humbly ask You to grant them peace and to their loved ones the consolation and strength to bear their loss. Help us to renew the faith we have in You. We thank You for our own lives. May we remember You as You have remembered us today. From our hearts we turn to You now, knowing that You have been at our side in every minute of this day. Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and reman our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice."

The subsequent Navy investigation absolved Beling of responsibility for the fire. While Forrestal was in the shipyard for repairs, Beling was temporarily assigned to work in the office of Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, then the Chief of Naval Operations. While there, he was sent for further temporary duty on the staff of Admiral Ephraim P. Holmes, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet; Holmes disagreed with many portions of the Navy's report into the Forrestal disaster, including the section clearing Beling, and had him assigned to his staff so he could issue a letter of reprimand, in essence both holding Beling responsible and ending his career. The reprimand was attached to the final report, and was subsequently rescinded by Admiral Holmes on direct orders from Admiral Moorer after the latter endorsed the report.[5]

Later career and death[edit]

Beling was promoted to rear admiral in 1968, and was given orders to command a carrier battle group out of San Diego. However, his orders were cancelled by Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Moorer's successor as Chief of Naval Operations, who, in a move perceived as a way of holding him responsible for the Forrestal fire, instead sent him to Iceland, where he would retire as Commander, Iceland Defense Force, based at Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland. He retired from active duty in 1973, at which time he went to work as director of the Net Technical Assessment Office, responsible for comparing and contrasting U.S. and Soviet weapons systems for the Secretary of Defense. In 1977, Beling joined the McLean, Virginia-based TRW, working as a strategic analyst directing studies until retiring again in 1985. After his final retirement, Beling took up farming, and served as director of the USS Forrestal Museum, a group dedicated to preserving the carrier, which was decommissioned in 1993, as a museum ship.[3] Beling died of complications from pneumonia at Reston Hospital Center in Reston, Virginia on November 5, 2010. He was 91 years old. He was survived by his wife of sixty years, Evelyn Beling, who died in 2011; three children; and seven grandchildren. He and his wife are buried in Section 46 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Awards and decorations[edit]

Rear Admiral Beling received campaign medals from World War 2 to Vietnam. His personal awards include:

Legion of Merit
Distinguished Flying Cross
Purple Heart Medal
Air Medal with two gold stars
Presidential Unit Citation
Commanders Cross with Star of the Order of the Falcon (Iceland)


  1. ^ De Vos, F.H (1949). "Genealogy of the Family of Beling of Ceylon" (PDF). Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon. 39 (01): 11–18. Retrieved 2014-10-15. 
  2. ^ Smith, Timothy (November 18, 2010). "John K. Beling, commander of aircraft carrier during 1967 fire at sea, dies at 91". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 14, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c "In Memory of RADM John K Beling, October 29, 1919-November 5, 2010". Retrieved April 14, 2013. 
  4. ^ "US Navy--Senior Leaders December 31, 1970". Retrieved April 14, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Freeman, Gregory (2004). Sailors To The End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It. William Morrow Publishers.