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Freeman, Gregory A.

FREEMAN, Gregory A.

PERSONAL:

Born in Newnan, GA; married; wife's name, Caroline. Education: University of Georgia, Athens, B.A.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Atlanta, GA. Office—4880 Lower Roswell Rd., Suite 165, No. 210, Marietta, GA 30068-4385. Agent—Mel Berger, William Morris Agency, 1325 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.

CAREER:

Journalist and freelance writer. Worked for the Associated Press in Atlanta, GA, and as an editor with a publishing company.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Sigma Delta Chi Award for Excellence, Society of Professional Journalists, 2001.

WRITINGS:

Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves, Lawrence Hill Books (Chicago, IL), 1999.

Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS:

Gregory A. Freeman's first book, Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves, is a study of the killing of poor black men who were caught up in a form of modern enslavement half a century after the U.S. Civil War. Library Journal's Robert C. Jones wrote that "this moving narrative account is arguably the most complete history of this event available."

John Williams was a Georgia plantation owner who found his help in local jails where they were held for minor crimes like vagrancy, paid their fines, forced them into peonage (a form of illegal bondage), and treated them like slaves. When federal authorities began an investigation of his practices, Williams had eleven of his peons killed in order to prevent them from testifying. He ordered his black overseer, Clyde Manning, whom he had raised and exploited since childhood, to execute them. Booklist reviewer Vanessa Bush commented that Freeman "explores, to chilling effect, the personalities of Williams and Manning."

Some of the victims were chained together, weighted down with rocks, and thrown from bridges. Others were bludgeoned to death with an axe or shot. Many were forced to dig their own graves. The murders came to light when three corpses surfaced in a nearby river.

The murders were committed in a rural, and for the most part, bigoted community, but even in this environment, the enormity of the crimes could not be ignored. Williams was convicted of first-degree murder and received a life sentence, primarily on Manning's testimony. He was the first Southern white man to be so convicted of killing a black person since 1877. It didn't happen again for another half century. The two trials that resulted gained national attention, and it is the details of these trials that make up the study, including testimonies and FBI evidence.

A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that the book "is scrupulously researched, with an eye for the telling detail. A good true-crime story, with far-reaching implications."

Freeman drew on official U.S. Navy Files and the eyewitness accounts of twelve survivors in telling the story of the tragic events that occurred on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967. In reviewing Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It, a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that Freeman "easily outclasses many military re-creations in grasping the men's varying experiences."

The disaster occurred as the ship, sailing in the Gulf of Tonkin, prepared for an air strike on North Vietnam and was driven by a series of incidents. First, an F-4 Phantom aircraft's Zuni rocket misfired, striking the fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk waiting on the flight deck, a craft whose pilot was John McCain, later Senator John McCain. The thousands of gallons of jet fuel that spilled onto the deck caught fire, setting off other explosions, including those of thousand-pound World War II bombs that had been loaded on aircraft. The deck was riddled with holes, through which the fuel poured below decks into crew quarters, ammunition storage areas, and plane hangars. The carrier did not go down, but before the fireballs of jet fuel were spent, and the shrapnel found its mark, 134 men lay dead and more than 150 were seriously injured. Twenty-one planes were lost, most pushed into the ocean before they could explode, and forty more were damaged, resulting in a material loss of more than $72 million.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first six chapters, Freeman describes Navy life, particularly as it is lived on a carrier, where thousands of men form the ship's crew. The second part consists of eight chapters that document the events.

James E. Hickey, who reviewed Sailors to the End in the Naval War College Review, noted that "these 150 pages are exceptionally engaging and so successful in capturing the stress and emotion of the crisis that they grab readers and leave them emotionally exhausted. In particular, the description of the death of sailor James Blaskis in a remote and inaccessible part of the ship cannot leave a reader unmoved."

The final three chapters address the investigation of the tragedy, the fates of the survivors, and the burials of the dead. Freeman notes that two groups on board the carrier had each bypassed some safety measures, and that the leaky and dangerous obsolete bombs had been transferred to the Forrestal and loaded on the aircraft immediately before the incident.

Captain John Beling was officially reprimanded, but the reprimand was later rescinded and he ended his career at a remote outpost in Iceland. Robert Finn pointed out in a review for Bookreporter.com that the U.S. Navy has also tended to blame the crew for the Forrestal disaster and created their 1973 training film, Trial by Fire based on lessons learned from that tragedy. Finn wrote that Freeman "seems to want to do two things: Praise the crew as the true heroes of the event and lay the blame on old, defective ammunition.…The ship's ordnance experts were enraged when they were supplied with these ancient, defective, and dangerous bombs the day before the accident—but they were told nothing else was available." Freeman writes that an escalation of the bombing campaign had been ordered by President Lyndon Johnson, even though there was not enough modern ammunition to accomplish the strikes. Finn said that "Freeman claims this factor has been swept under the rug in official assessments of what went wrong that July morning."

A Kirkus Reviews writer called Sailors to the End "a compassionate account of a dramatic incident in modern naval history, told with cinematic immediacy and narrative skill."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 15, 1999, Vanessa Bush, review of Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves, p. 201.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1999, review of Lay This Body Down, p. 1465; May 15, 2002, review of Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It, p. 716.

Library Journal, October 1, 1999, Robert C. Jones, review of Lay This Body Down, p. 108; October 1, 2002, Gerald Costa, review of Sailors to the End, p. 113.

Naval War College Review, autumn, 2002, James E. Hickey, review of Sailors to the End, p. 123.

Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, review of Sailors to the End, p. 50.

ONLINE

Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (April 29, 2003), Robert Finn, review of Sailors to the End.

Lay This Body Down Web site,http://www.laythisbodydown.com (April 29, 2003).

NonfictionReviews.com,http://www.nonfictionreviews.com/ (July 10, 2002), David Bloomberg, review of Lay This Body Down.

Sailors to the End,http://www.sailorstotheend.com (April 29, 2003).*

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