WASHINGTON (AP) — The Navy says it is forging ahead with its decision to name a warship for the late Rep. John Murtha, despite protests the decorated Vietnam War veteran was disloyal in his 2006 accusation that Marines had murdered Iraqi civilians.
Three Facebook sites opposing the Navy's April 2010 decision bristle with thousands of angry postings. The Navy website with the announcement drew critical comments. The Washington Times voiced its outrage in an editorial entitled "Sink the Murtha."
But the Navy says it is standing firm.
A spokeswoman for Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said he is sticking with his decision to name a warship for the Pennsylvania Democrat. Murtha, a retired Marine Reserves colonel and powerful former chairman of a House defense appropriations panel, died in February 2010 at age 77.
"The Secretary believes that the naming ... honors Congressman Murtha's lifetime of service to the Marine Corps, in Congress and to our nation," Capt. Beci Brenton said in an e-mail. "That the Congressman's unwavering support of our Sailors and Marines, and in particular our wounded warriors, was well known and deeply appreciated. That he was a champion of the men and women of the naval services. The Secretary does not intend to change the name."
A Murtha family spokesman, Matt Mazonkey, said the "family is humbled by the Navy's decision to recognize and honor Chairman Murtha's tireless work on behalf of our nation's servicemembers and their families."
The USS John P. Murtha will be an amphibious transport vessel able to carry 700 Marines, their equipment and supplies. Construction on the ship has not yet begun, said Brenton.
Murtha was a strong advocate on Capitol Hill for military personnel and a powerful inside player on congressional appropriations. He was accused of trading government funding promises for campaign donations, but the ethics probe was dropped in December 2009.
Murtha was an officer in the Marine Reserves in 1974 when he became the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress.
But despite his deep military ties, Murtha infuriated conservatives as an outspoken and influential opponent of the Iraq war. That anger was further stoked in 2006 when he accused a squad of Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians "in cold blood" at Haditha.
Critics viewed Murtha's comments as disloyal because he denounced the Marines before any investigation was concluded and the facts were known.
"Name a ship after a congressman who disgraced himself by rushing to judge that fellow Marines had committed murder in Iraq?" said Thomas Wilkerson, a retired Marine major general. "Can you be serious?"
Wilkerson is chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute, a private, non-profit professional association
Robert Spring, who served in the Coast Guard for 20 years, is behind the "People Against Naming a Navy Ship USS Murtha" Facebook page that boasts more than 9,700 members and angry comments from people denouncing Murtha.
"He blew his honor and integrity out of the water on that one," Spring, of Westminster, Md., said of Murtha's remarks about Hidatha. "It is just to me unfathomable."
At a Capitol Hill news conference in May 2006, Murtha predicted that a Pentagon war crimes investigation would show the Marines killed dozens of innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha.
Eight Marines were initially charged with murder or failing to investigate the killings of 24 Iraqis by a Marine squad in Haditha. Only one still faces charges.
Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich of Meriden, Conn. was accused of leading his men on a rampage in November 2005 that killed two dozen civilians after a roadside bomb killed a Marine. He was initially charged with unpremeditated murder in 18 deaths, but the charges were later reduced to voluntary manslaughter in nine of the 24 deaths, dereliction of duty and other crimes.
Six others had charges dismissed or withdrawn, and one was acquitted.
Wuterich has pleaded not guilty to all the charges and has said he regretted the loss of civilian lives but believed he was operating within military combat rules when he ordered his men to attack.