Robert Dean Stethem, while flying home aboard TWA Flight 847 from Athens, Greece, was murdered by terrorists solely because he was an American sailor who refused their demands.  Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, and raised in Waldorf, Maryland, he was one of three sons.  Shortly after graduating from Thomas Stone High School in 1980 he joined the U.S. Navy where he was trained as a diver and as a steelworker.  He was assigned to the Navy Underwater Construction Team One in Norfolk, Virginia, and in 1985 the team was sent to Nea Makri, Greece, to repair a Navy Communications facility. 

On the return flight, TWA-847 with 153 passengers was hijacked by Hezbollah terrorists and forced to fly to Algiers where they demanded the release of 435 Arab prisoners held by Israel.  When the terrorists’ demands were not met they forced the airplane to fly to Beirut, Lebanon.  Here their demands for fuel were also refused.  The passengers’ passports were collected and when Steel Worker Second Class Stethem was identified as a U.S. sailor he was bound with rope and beaten in an attempt to force him to scream into a transmitter so that the tower would send fuel.  However, Stethem steadfastly refused to cry out as he was beaten and tortured for several hours.  Not a cry was heard to come from him as he endured the beating.  Instead he chose to remain silent and endure the beatings because he knew that the only way a rescue attempt could be conducted was if the aircraft remained on the ground.  Ultimately, because of his silence, he was shot in the head by an enraged terrorist who dumped Stethem’s body out a door onto the tarmac.  His face and body was so badly mangled that he could only be identified by his fingerprints.  The pilot was later asked about his impression of Stethem and he replied simply, “He was the bravest man I've ever seen in my life.”  For 17-days the hijackers kept the passengers hostage before giving in and releasing them. 

Stethem was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for heroism.  In 1995 the destroyer USS STETHEM (DDG-63) was commissioned in his honor.  On August 24, 2010, onboard USS STETHEM in Yokosuka, Japan, Stethem was made an honorary Constructionman Master Chief Petty Officer by the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy.  Stethem has been buried at Arlington National Cemetery where his headstone carries the inscription: SW2-DV  –  US NAVY  –  PURPLE HEART  -  BRONZE STAR.


The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Bronze Star posthumously to Steelworker Second Class Robert D. Stethem, United States Navy, for heroic achievement on 14 June 1985 while assigned to Detachment November Mike '85 of Underwater Construction Team One deployed to the Naval Communication Station, Nea Makri, Greece.  Petty Officer Stethem displayed exceptional valor and professional integrity while a hostage of militant Shi'ite hijackers of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 at Athens International Airport, Algiers, Algeria and at Beirut, Lebanon.  Exhibiting physical, moral, and emotional courage beyond extraordinary limits, Petty Officer Stethem endured a senseless and brutal beating at the hands of his fanatical captors.  He drew upon an unwavering inner strength and absorbed the punishment.  The hijackers were infuriated by his refusal to succumb, a symbol to them of the strength of the United States of America; and in their cowardly desperation, shot him to death.  Petty Officer Stethem's courage, steadfast determination, and loyal devotion to duty reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Stethem’s brother has eloquently said, “Every time I look at the flag now and for the rest of my life, the red will represent the blood he spilled, the blue the beating and bruises he endured, and the white the purity and integrity he demonstrated in sacrificing his life.”

Submitted by CDR Roy A. Mosteller, USNR (Ret)