Westwood pays homage to a sailor

This photo of Navy SEAL Ernest H. Greppin III was taken before he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. On Memorial Day at 8 a.m., Westwood will honor Greppin, who died in 1991 as a result of a parachuting accident, with a plaque at the corner of Gay and High streets.

By Rob Borkowski/Daily News staff
Daily News Transcript
Posted May 22, 2009 @ 02:15 AM
Last update May 22, 2009 @ 10:36 AM
Navy SEAL Ernest H. Greppin III didn't start as a scholar or athlete, but a love of rowing and an interest in serving led to success at the U.S. Naval Academy, special forces training, and a dangerous life.

Greppin was leading that life when he died during a High-Altitude, Low Open (HALO) training jump in 1991. Memorial Day ceremonies will begin Monday at 8:30 a.m. with the dedication of a plaque at the corner of Gay and High streets in his honor. The date is also his birthday. He would have turned 44.

"The guy who would be most surprised is Ernie," said his father, Ernest Greppin Jr. Even after he found his place in life, Ernie was a quiet person who didn't have much use for ceremony. There were stories in the Boston Globe and Daily Transcript, now the Daily News Transcript, when he died, Greppin said, but this will be his hometown's first recognition of his service.

"When Ernie died, the military wasn't very popular," his father said.

When Westwood Postmaster Harry Aaron informed Greppin Jr. and his wife, Barbara, about the effort to honor their son and asked if it would be OK with them, they were thrilled.

"It was something we never expected," Greppin Jr. said, "Within a second, I said 'yes"'

Aaron said Town Clerk Dottie Powers brought up the idea of a memorial plague for Ernie three months ago. Powers said Ernie's dad had asked her about the process for having a plaque dedicated a few years ago. She made some inquiries at the time, she said, but nothing came of the idea until she mentioned it to Aaron.

The Westwood postmaster said he was impressed to learn that Ernie was a Navy SEAL at 24.

The Navy Sea, Air and Land Forces, the SEALs, are the special operations forces.

Aaron himself was a member of the Navy's Underwater Demolition Team, a precursor to the Navy SEALs, in 1959. "I picked it up and kind of ran with it," he said.

Aaron approached selectmen, who approved the idea. He also started making calls to people asking for donations to pay for the $1,400 plaque. "That ended up being the easiest part of the project," Aaron said. He raised the money within days, just by word of mouth.

Powers said the state Veterans Affairs department approved the honor, and Paula Scoble in the Westwood Veteran's Services office made the order for the plaque, which will read: Lt. (JG) Ernest H. Greppin III, US Navy SEAL, Born May 25, 1967. Died July 15, 1991.

"I think it's wonderful. It's long overdue," said Powers.

Chris McKeown, the town's newly appointed veterans service agent, started the job while efforts were already under way for the dedication, but he shares the conviction that Greppin III deserves the plaque. "This was guy who was apparently quite a remarkable kid," said McKeown.

"Ernie had a slow start in this world," his father said. He wasn't a great student or stunning athlete. "He didn't have a whole lot of friends."

Ernie grew up in Westwood, but he attended private schools. He went to high school at St. Andrews School in Middletown, Del., and joined the school's rowing crew/team, at which he excelled. His team competed against the Navy, and the Navy coach asked if he wanted to row for them. "Lo and behold, he got into the Naval Academy," his father said.

Ernie graduated in the middle of his class and told his father he intended to join the Navy SEALs.

"I was flabbergasted," Greppin said, "I said, 'There's a lot of danger in that.' He said that's what he wanted to do."

Ernie started SEAL training, where the attrition rate is 30 percent, and he made it. He was 24 years old.

The jump Ernie Greppin III was doing when died is the kind a Navy SEAL does when it is important he not be detected. The SEAL opens the parachute at the last possible moment.

All his mother and father know, said Greppin Jr., is their son's chute did not function properly, and he became the first in his class to die on active duty.

He said he and his wife accept what happened as a consequence of the life their son chose. "Ernie told me, 'When a SEAL dies, you never know,"' Greppin said. "Sometimes, you don't know for a reason."

Greppin said he and his wife are humbled by the dedication for their son, and don't feel it's something that is owed to their family.

"We don't take it for granted in any way. We are incredibly delighted and appreciative of what they've done," he said.