Johnson City pastor was on the ship featured in ‘Summer of 67’ film
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
JOHNSON CITY — When Pastor Garry Edwards of Pinecrest Baptist Church, Johnson City, read a story in the June 13 issue of the Baptist and Reflector about a faith-related movie (Summer of ’67) based on the true story of the USS Forrestal, a Navy ship that caught fire in 1967, he knew he needed to see the movie.
Edwards was on the ship the day it was struck by a surface to surface missile, causing a series of bombs on the ship to detonate which resulted in the fires that ultimately killed 134 sailors, including several of his friends.
The incident has even more significance for Edwards because that was the day he stopped running from the Lord and accepted Christ as his Savior.
Though he was reared in a Baptist pastor’s home, Edwards was rebellious and swore at the age of 15 that he would never go back to church again. “I didn’t for a while,” he admitted.
He married his high school sweetheart who was a Christian, but she had little influence on him in those early years of marriage. They separated three times because of his wild lifestyle. In fact, Edwards who was based in Pensacola, Fla., at the time, asked specifically to be sent to Vietnam. His hope was that his wife Sarah would divorce him and forget about him because he had treated her so badly. He thought she deserved someone better than him. “I was the scourge of the earth,” he admitted.
As he drove her home to Johnson City after getting papers that he was being sent to Vietnam, she begged him to attend church with her on that Sunday. He finally agreed to go with her on Sunday night at Sinking Creek Baptist Church. He still remembers the sermon that Reece Harris preached about God’s grace.
Noting he came under conviction that night, he was sent to the USS Forrestal in late 1966. One of the first sailors he met was J.R. Adkins, a Christian who kept witnessing to him constantly even though Edwards told him no countless times and would even hide from him.
They were together on the day the ship caught fire and were trying to get off the bottom deck where the heat was unbearable. As they were trying to escape, Adkins was killed and fell on Edwards. “I knew I was not going to get out of that situation alive,” Edwards recalled. He remembers praying to God, “If your grace is great enough to cleanse me as deeply as I’m stained, I’m ready for it. I want you to forgive me and save me.”
“I haven’t been the same since,” he said.
Immediately after his prayer, Edwards’ first thought was not about escaping. It was about finding his two closest friends on the ship and telling them what had just happened to him. “I became a missionary Baptist right after I was saved.”
The ship finally made it to the Philippines where the fires were finally put out completely. Edwards remembers standing in line for eight hours to call his wife. News about the fire had reached the United States, but not many people knew who survived or who had not. When he finally got her on the phone, Edwards asked if she had filed divorce papers yet and she replied that she had not. “I asked her if she would let me come back home and try again as a Christian. We cried for about eight minutes,” he remembered.
The first two years of their marriage were “torment,” he said. “But the last 51 have been heaven on earth,” he says of his marriage with Sarah.
After returning home to Johnson City, God continued working on Edwards and he was feeling that God was calling him to be a preacher. He remembered that he used to “run preachers off from my house” and felt that was not for him. He tried to convince the Lord to let him “sing or teach Sunday School,” but to no avail.
Edwards even changed churches to “run from God,” but the call to preach intensified even more at his new church. Finally, at 1 a.m. in the living room of his then pastor (Earl Campbell), Edwards surrendered to God and has been preaching ever since. “I have never doubted my call,” he said with conviction.
He has served eight churches including Pinecrest in Johnson City. He had retired in 2014 from First Baptist Church, Roan Mountain, and later had heart surgery. He served as interim pastor of two churches following his surgery before members of Pinecrest (and God) convinced him to return to the pulpit full time once again last October.
At the age of 71, Edwards still loves to preach and to share the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone he comes in contact with. “It’s been an awesome journey,” he affirmed.
As to the movie, Edwards contacted Sharon Wilharm who wrote and produced and directed the movie, along with her husband Fred. Her father was also on the USS Forrestal when it caught fire. After hearing Edwards’ story, she arranged for him to view the movie online and then scheduled a screening at his church on Aug. 26.
The movie brought about mixed emotions for Edwards. He noted it was an accurate portrayal from the family’s perspective. The scenes about family members being informed of a loved one’s death “brought tears flowing to my eyes,” he said unashamedly. His wife Sarah agreed, but noted the film could not truly capture the anguish families experienced as they saw news clips of the ship on fire, but had no word about their loved ones. “It was the hardest three days for me,” she recalled.
Edwards remembers his friends who did not make it off the ship and he still carries scars (both mentally and physically) of that tragedy. He is considered 30 percent disabled because of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and 70 percent disabled because of injuries and hearing loss sustained during explosions on the ship.
“No matter how big and tough you are, the experience was traumatic,” he said. “it will leave emotional scars that you will be lucky to ever outlive.”
But in a positive light, Edwards said his experiences in Vietnam brought him to the Lord and they have since opened doors for him to minister to other veterans, particularly those who served in Vietnam.
Vietnam also taught him the importance of prayer in a special way. He recalled that his mother (now deceased) always prayed for him and enlisted everyone she knew to pray as well during his rebellious years and while he was in the Navy.
He remembered that his mother prayed specifically that he would become a Christian and that God would keep him from going to Vietnam. Looking back, Edwards sees how God denied one of her prayers so he could answer the other one.In addition, Sarah Edwards “did a lot of praying” while her husband was in Vietnam.
“I’m living proof that prayer works,” he affirmed. “My life has been so rewarding.”