The Tragic Fire, July 29, 1967 10:52am
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Gladiator Helmet
Rumor has it that in the late 1950’s while on a Med Cruise, a group of Gladiators acquired a Greek helmet while on liberty in Greece. The origin of the helmet is not known but it is believed to have been either a Police or Military Helmet and was utilized by the Gladiators to initiate new pilots into the squadron. Pilots had to drink a Helmet full of beer prior to making their first flight with the squadron. The helmet is believed to be buried in a copper box behind the old CPO Club at NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
Squadron Helmet
Lt R.R. "Rocky" Pratt
 wearing the Gladiator Helmet
Lt R.R. "Rocky" Pratt
 welcomes Maj. W.J. Brechner
VA-106 Pilots proudly displaying the "Gladiator" Helmet onboard the USS Forrestal
This story was presented to us at our 18th Gladiator Reunion in Washington D.C. in 2016 by one of our squadron pilots. Until then, the true history of the "Gladiator Helmet" was unknown to all squadron members.  Here is his story:
To the best of my fading memory recollection, this is the true story of what happened to the Gladiator helmet that now resides in the ready room of VFA-106.
I spent the years of 1968 and 1969 as a pilot in VA-106.  In 1968 we went to Vietnam under the leadership of Walt Clarke, a true gentleman and leader, God rest his soul.  In 1969, the XO took over the squadron and we went on a North Atlantic cruise.  I will refer to him as XO for many reasons, one of which is, I do not have his permission to use his name.  Towards the end of our cruise, we were informed by the Navy that our squadron was being decommissioned.  We arrived  in the States and had an all officers meeting.  At the meeting, the XO (now CO) advised us that the helmet was going to be donated to a high school in N.Y. (I think it was named Gladiators).  I stood and voiced my objection and was told to sit down and shut up.  This helmet was acquired by a former CO and a LT of VA-106 several years prior.  They actually got it from Charleston Heston, Ben-Hur was a big movie hit at the time.
Later, as a few of us junior officers were sitting around with our wives and drinking a few beers, we decided it wasn't right.  It's amazing how a few beers got our courage up.  So we devised an elaborate plan to liberate the helmet!  There were four of us involved plus we enlisted another pilot from another squadron.  I will not name any of the  participants since, again, I do not have permission to use their names.  The plan was, we would wait for the Squadron Duty Officer (SDO) to leave for the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ), then the other squadron pilot would barge into the ready room and tell the Assistant Squadron Duty Officer (ASDO) our planes were not secured properly and heads would roll.  Thus he lured the ASDO out of the ready room onto our ramp.  It was our moment of glory, the four of us went into action, we raced into the hangar, up the stairs, down the hall and into the ready room.  One of us grabbed the helmet in it's plexi-glass case (No small feat) and we all raced back out to the car.  We had absolutely no idea what to do with it, our plan did not go that far, so it lived in the trunk for awhile.  The mission was a success!  Or, so we thought.
The next morning at 0700, I arrived in the ready room and was immediately called into the present XO's office.  My thoughts were, how in the world did they catch us so fast!  The XO explained to me that the helmet is missing and the ASDO was a man from my division.  I, of course, was shocked to learn of the helmets disappearance.  I think I was more relieved of not being thrown in the brig.  Anyway, the XO went on to say that the ASDO may be able to identify the officer involved in the theft and he was going to take him around to look at all the squadron photo boards and finger the guilty officer.  He wanted me to talk to the ASDO and emphasize the importance of identifying the officer.  After leaving the XO's office, I immediately went to my division and confronted the ASDO, who was understandably upset.  I explained the importance of the situation and how by mis-identifying someone, he could ruin that persons' career and if he was not MORE than 100% sure, he should not finger anyone.  I assured him, he was in no trouble and would not be in any trouble by not being able to identify anyone.  That was all I could do, the rest of my day went agonizingly slow.  By the way, as part of the original plan, the other squadron officer said, if I am caught, you all are caught.  He was not identified by the ASDO.  We could now say, the mission was a success.
I left the Navy before the following events took pace, so it was relayed to me.  I hope it is accurate.  VA-106 had a big decommissioning party at the Officers-Club.  A sister squadron came out with a box about the size of the helmet box, wrapped in black paper.  One of their officers marched out and into the diving board while the rest hummed taps.  The box was buried at sea in the swimming pool, our CO ordered one of our junior officers to retrieve the helmet which he did.  He dove into the pool in dress whites, recovered the box. It was opened and a note and rocks were found inside.  The note said, we did not take the helmet.  And that is the story of the disappearance of the VA-106 helmet!
The story continues.  The pilots had our first reunion in 1970, hosted by the original CO, Walt Clarke.  We had formal dinners, tux and men only (Old Days) and the helmet was put in the middle of the table.  The XO (CO of the 1969 VA-106) attended, saw the helmet and said not a word.  I think it was then and there that he realized who took the helmet.  We since had reunions about every two years until just recently.  The helmet held its place in the middle of the table at every reunion.  When VFA-106 was established, we decided, after much heated debate and lots of drinks, to donate the helmet to them.  But we had strings!  The present CO of VFA-106 and a junior officer had to attend our reunions at our expense.  They had to bring and protect the helmet and brief us on the current state of the Navy from old mans view and the JO's view.  And that was done until recently.  Our guys are getting old, some are dying off but the history and tradition of the helmet lives on.  How many people see that helmet coming through an active squadron?  How many would see it at our reunions?  How many would see it in a dusty high school case?  It was a risky and yes, maybe a foolish thing we did by stealing the helmet but it does have its own life and history now.
In 1967 our commanding Officer CDR S.R. Foley, Jr. and one of our pilots LT R.R. "Rocky" Pratt, wrote
a letter to Mr. Ben Hur himself, Charlton Heston, requesting his assistance in acquiring an official Gladiator
“Hard Hat” for the Squadron.   Mr. Heston, then working at Paramount Pictures, made a special trip back to
MGM Studios to find the Gladiator helmet he wore in Ben Hur.  After much effort he obtained the original
“Hard Hat” that he wore in Italy where Ben Hur was made, and shipped it to the Gladiators while embarked
onboard the USS Forrestal.  The Gladiator helmet was proudly displayed in our Ready Room onboard the
USS Forrestal on route to Yankee Station on a WestPac mission and survived the tragic fire on July 29, 1967
where 134 sailors lost their lives.  The Squadron was subsequently disestablished on November 07, 1969
and the where a bouts of the Gladiator Helmet is unknown.
Story of the Helmet
The Story of the 1967 Gladiator Helmet