On 29 July 1967, USS Forrestal (CVA/CV-59) suffered a catastrophic fire during flight operations while on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam. Wracked by eight high-order explosions of thin-shelled Korean War–vintage bombs and a number of smaller weapons explosions, the world’s first super carrier was mere minutes away from the bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin. In its wake, the fire claimed 134 Sailors and Airmen, and seriously injured or burned another 161. Of those who died, 50 died where they slept. Many more were wounded but did not report their injuries because of the severity of those of their shipmates.
On 28 July, the day before the accident, Forrestal was resupplied with ordnance by the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head. The load included sixteen 1,000 lb AN/M65A1 “fat boy” bombs (so nicknamed because of their short, rotund shape), which Diamond Head had picked up from Subic Bay Naval Base and were intended for the next day’s second bombing sortie. Some of the batch of AN-M65A1s Forrestal received were more than a decade old, having spent a portion of that exposed to the heat and humidity of Okinawa or Guam, eventually being improperly stored in open-air Quonset huts at a disused ammunition dump on the periphery of Subic Bay Naval Base. Unlike the thick-cased Mark 83 bombs filled with Composition H6, the AN/M65A1 bombs were thin-skinned and filled with Composition B, an older explosive with greater shock and heat sensitivity.
Composition B also had the dangerous tendency to become more powerful (up to 50% by weight) and more sensitive if it was old or improperly stored. Forrestal‘s ordnance handlers had never even seen an AN/M65A1 before, and to their shock, the bombs delivered from Diamond Head were in terrible condition; coated with “decades of accumulated rust and grime” and still in their original packing crates (now moldy and rotten); some were stamped with production dates as early as 1953. Most dangerous of all, several bombs were seen to be leaking liquid paraffin phlegmatizing agent from their seams, an unmistakable sign that the bomb’s explosive filler had degenerated with excessive age, and exposure to heat and moisture.
According to Lieutenant R. R. “Rocky” Pratt, a naval aviator attached to VA-106 the concern felt by Forrestal‘s ordnance handlers was striking, with many afraid to even handle the bombs; one officer wondered out loud if they would survive the shock of a catapult-assisted launch without spontaneously detonating, and others suggested they immediately jettison them. Forrestal‘s ordnance officers reported the situation up the chain of command to the ship’s commanding officer, Captain John Beling, and informed him the bombs were, in their assessment, an imminent danger to the ship and should be immediately jettisoned overboard.
Faced with this, but still needing 1,000 lb bombs for the next day’s missions, Beling demanded Diamond Head take the AN-M65A1s back in exchange for new Mark 83s, but was told by Diamond Head that they had none to give him. The AN-M65A1 bombs had been returned to service specifically because there were not enough Mark 83s to go around. According to one crew member on Diamond Head, when they had arrived at Subic Bay to pick up their load of ordnance for the carriers, the base personnel who had prepared the AN-M65A1 bombs for transfer assumed Diamond Head had been ordered to dump them at sea on the way back to Yankee Station. When notified that the bombs were actually destined for active service in the carrier fleet, the commanding officer of the naval ordnance detachment at Subic Bay was so shocked that he initially refused the transfer, believing a paperwork mistake had been made. At the risk of delaying Diamond Head‘s departure, he refused to sign the transfer forms until receiving written orders from CINCPAC on the teleprinter, explicitly absolving his detachment of responsibility for the bombs’ terrible condition.
With orders to conduct strike missions over North Vietnam the next day, and with no replacement bombs available, Captain Beling reluctantly concluded that he had no choice but to accept the AN-M65A1 bombs in their current condition. In one concession to the demands of the ordnance handlers, Beling agreed to store all 16 bombs alone on deck in the “bomb farm” area between the starboard rail and the carrier’s island until they were loaded for the next day’s missions. Standard procedure was to store them in the ship’s magazine with the rest of the air wing’s ordnance; had they been stored as standard, an accidental detonation could easily have destroyed the ship.
While preparing for the second sortie of the day, the aft portion of the flight deck was packed wing-to-wing with twelve A-4E Skyhawk, seven F-4B Phantom II, and two Vigilante aircraft. A total of 27 aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with bombs, rockets, ammunition, and fuel. Several tons of bombs were stored on wooden pallets on deck in the bomb farm. An F-4B Phantom II, flown by Lieutenant Commander James E. Bangert and Lieutenant (JG) Lawrence E. McKay from VF-11, was positioned on the aft starboard corner of the deck, pointing about 45 degrees across the ship. It was armed with LAU-10 underwing rocket pods, each containing four unguided 5 in (127.0 mm) Mk-32 “Zuni” rockets. The Zuni was protected from launching by a safety pin that was only to be removed prior to launch from the catapult.
At about 10:51 (local time) on 29 July, an electrical power surge in Phantom No. 110 occurred during the switch from external to internal power. The electrical surge caused one of the four 5-inch Mk-32 Zuni unguided rockets in a pod on external stores station 2 (port inboard station) to fire. The rocket was later determined to be missing the rocket safety pin, allowing the rocket to launch. The rocket flew about 100 feet (30 m) across the flight deck, likely severing the arm of a crewman, and ruptured a 400-US-gallon wing-mounted external fuel tank on a Skyhawk from Attack Squadron 46 (VA-46) awaiting launch. At least one of the Skyhawk’s M-65 1,000-lb. bombs fell to the deck, cracked open, and was burning with a white-hot ferocity.
The official Navy investigation identified the Skyhawk struck by the Zuni as aircraft No. 405, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White. Lieutenant Commander John McCain stated in his 1999 book Faith of My Fathers that the missile struck his aircraft, alongside White’s A-4 Skyhawk. “On that Saturday morning in July, as I sat in the cockpit of my A-4 preparing to take off, a rocket hit the fuel tank under my airplane.” Later accounts relying on his book also state that the rocket struck his A-4 Skyhawk.
The rocket broke apart on impact with the external fuel tank. The highly flammable JP-5 fuel spread on the deck under White’s and McCain’s A-4s, ignited by numerous fragments of burning rocket propellant, and causing an instantaneous conflagration. A sailor standing about 100 feet forward was struck by a fragment of the Zuni or the exploding fuel tank. A fragment also punctured the centerline external fuel tank of A-4 #310, positioned just aft of the jet blast deflector of catapult number 3. The resulting fire was fanned by 32-knot (59 km/h; 37 mph) winds and the exhaust of at least three jets. Fire quarters and then general quarters were sounded at 10:52 and 10:53. Condition ZEBRA was declared at 10:59, requiring all hands to secure the ship for maximum survivability, including closing the fire-proof steel doors that separate the ship’s compartments.
The official report states that one Korean War-era 1,000 lb AN-M65 bomb fell from an A-4 Skyhawk to the deck; other reports say two. The bomb fell in a pool of burning fuel between White’s and McCain’s aircraft.
Damage Control Team No. 8, led by Chief Farrier, were the first responders to any incident on the flight deck. They immediately took action. Farrier, without taking the time to locate and put on protective clothing, immediately attempted to smother the bomb with a PKP fire extinguisher, attempting to delay the fuel fire from spreading and give the pilots time to escape their aircraft. Twenty seconds later the hose crew arrived and fought the periphery of the fire. Despite Chief Farrier’s constant effort to cool the bomb that had fallen to the deck, the casing suddenly split open and the explosive began to burn brightly. The Chief, recognizing that a lethal cook-off was imminent, shouted for his firefighters to withdraw, but the bomb detonated—one minute and 36 seconds after the start of the fire. The unstable Composition B in the old bombs enhanced the power of the explosions. Thirty-five personnel were in close proximity to the blast. Two fire control teams were virtually destroyed; Farrier and all but three of his men were killed instantly. Twenty-seven men were injured.
The pilots, preparing to launch, were strapped into their aircraft. When the fire started and quickly spread, they immediately attempted to escape their aircraft. McCain, pilot of A-4 Skyhawk side No. 416, next to White’s, was among the first to notice the flames, and escaped by scrambling down the nose of his A-4 and jumping off the refueling probe. Lt. Cmdr. Robert “Bo” Browning, in an A-4E Skyhawk on the port side, escaped by crossing the flight deck and ducking under the tails of F-4B Phantoms spotted along the starboard side. CVW-17 operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Herbert A. Hope of VA-46, escaped by jumping out of the Skyhawk cockpit and rolling off the flight deck and into the starboard man-overboard net. He went to the hangar deck and took command of a firefighting team.
“I saw a dozen people running… into the fire, just before the bomb cooked off,” Lt. Cmdr. Browning later said. McCain saw another pilot on fire, and turned to help him, when the first bomb detonated. McCain was knocked backwards 10 feet, struck by shrapnel and wounded. White managed to get out of his burning aircraft but was killed by the detonation of the first bomb. Not all of the pilots were able to get out of their aircraft in time. Lt Ken McMillen escaped. LT (JG) Don Dameworth and LT (JG) David Dollarhide were injured escaping their aircraft. Lt. Cmdrs Gerry Stark and Dennis Barton were missing.
The first bomb detonation destroyed White’s and McCain’s aircraft, blew a crater in the armored flight deck, and sprayed the deck and crew with bomb fragments and shrapnel from the destroyed aircraft. Burning fuel poured through the hole in the deck into occupied berthing compartments below. In the tightly packed formation on the aft deck, every aircraft, all fully fueled and bomb-laden, was damaged. All seven F-4s caught fire.
Lieutenant James J. Campbell recoiled for a few moments in stunned dismay as burning torches tumbled toward him, until their screams stirred him to action. Several men jumped or were blown into the ocean. Neighboring ships came alongside and pulled the men from the water. When Browning got back on deck, he recalled, “The port quarter of the flight deck where I was is no longer there.”
Two more of the unstable 1,000 lb bombs exploded 10 seconds after the first, and a fourth blew up 44 seconds after that. A total of ten bombs exploded during the fire. Bodies and debris were hurled as far as the bow of the ship.
The explosions tore seven holes in the flight deck. About 40,000 US gallons of burning jet fuel from ruptured aircraft tanks poured across the deck and through the holes in the deck into the aft hangar bay and berthing compartments. The explosions and fire killed fifty night crew personnel who were sleeping in berthing compartments below the aft portion of the flight deck. Forty-one additional crew members were killed in internal compartments in the aft portion of Forrestal.
The explosions of the large, old weapons blew holes in the armored flight deck above spaces primarily set aside for crew berthing. Flaming and unburned fuel, water, and foam cascaded down into the compartments. Battling the fires below deck was more difficult than that topside with the confined spaces, little light, thick black smoke, and toxic fumes. Although the fire on the flight deck was controlled within an hour, fires below deck raged until 0400 the next morning.
Personnel from all over the ship rallied to fight the fires and control further damage. They pushed aircraft, missiles, rockets, bombs, and burning fragments over the side. Sailors manually jettisoned numerous 250 and 500 lb bombs by rolling them along the deck and off the side. Sailors without training in firefighting and damage control took over for the depleted damage control teams. Unknowingly, inexperienced hose teams using seawater washed away the efforts of others attempting to smother the fire with foam.
The destroyer USS George K. MacKenzie pulled men from the water and directed its fire hoses on the burning ship. Destroyer USS Rupertus maneuvered as close as 20 feet (6.1 m) to Forrestal for 90 minutes, directing her own on-board fire hoses at the burning flight and hangar deck on the starboard side, and at the port-side aft 5-inch gun mount.Rear Admiral and Task Group commander Harvey P. Lanham, aboard Forrestal, called the actions of Rupertus commanding officer Commander Edwin Burke an “act of magnificent seamanship”. At 11:47 am, Forrestal reported the flight deck fire was under control. About 30 minutes later, they had put out the flight deck fires. Fire fighting crews continued to fight fires below deck for many more hours.
Undetonated bombs were continually found during the afternoon. LT (JG) Robert Cates, the carrier’s explosive ordnance demolition officer, recounted later how he had “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Another sailor volunteered to be lowered by line through a hole in the flight deck to defuse a live bomb that had dropped to the 03 level—even though the compartment was still on fire and full of smoke. Later on, LT (JG) Cates had himself lowered into the compartment to attach a line to the bomb so it could be hauled up to the deck and jettisoned.
Twenty-one aircraft were destroyed and another 40 damaged of the 73 on board at the start of the fire.
Throughout the day, the ship’s medical staff worked in dangerous conditions to assist their comrades. The number of casualties quickly overwhelmed the ship’s medical teams, and Forrestal was escorted by USS Henry W. Tucker to rendezvous with hospital ship USS Repose at 20:54, allowing the crew to begin transferring the dead and wounded at 22:53. Firefighter Milt Crutchley said, “The worst was going back into the burned-out areas later and finding your dead and wounded shipmates.” He said it was extremely difficult to remove charred, blackened bodies locked in rigor mortis “while maintaining some sort of dignity for your fallen comrades.”
At 5:05, a muster of Forrestal crewmen—both in the carrier and aboard other ships—was begun. It took many hours to account for the ship’s crew. Wounded and dead had been transferred to other ships, and some men were missing, either burned beyond recognition or blown overboard. At 6:44 pm, fires were still burning in the ship’s carpenter shop and in the aft compartments. At 8:33 pm, the fires in the 02 and 03 levels were contained, but the areas were still too hot to enter. Fire fighting was greatly hampered because of smoke and heat. Crew members cut additional holes in the flight deck to help fight fires in the compartments below. At 12:20 am, July 30, 14 hours after the fires had begun, all the fires were controlled. Forrestal crew members continued to put out hot spots, clear smoke, and cool hot steel on the 02 and 03 levels. The fires were declared out at 4:00 am.
Although the investigation report cited errors of safety checks on the Zuni rocket, it concluded that no one on board was directly responsible for the fire and subsequent explosions, and recommended that no disciplinary or administrative action be taken against any persons attached to the ship or its air wing.
Forrestal received emergency repairs over eight days at Subic Bay, The Philippines, before sailing for complete repair at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. She went on to serve until 11 September 1993 when she was decommissioned after 21 deployments. She never made another Vietnam cruise.
The fire revealed that Forrestal lacked a heavy-duty, armored forklift needed to jettison aircraft, particularly heavier planes like the RA-5C Vigilante, as well as heavy or damaged ordnance.
The United States Navy uses the Forrestal fire and the lessons learned from it when teaching damage control and ammunition safety. The flight-deck film of the flight operations, titled “Learn or Burn“, became mandatory viewing for firefighting trainees. All new Navy recruits are required to view a training video titled Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life, which was produced with footage of the fire and damage control efforts, both successful and unsuccessful.
Footage revealed that damage-control teams spraying firefighting foam on the deck to smother the burning fuel, which was the correct procedure, had their efforts negated by crewmen on the other side of the deck spraying seawater, which washed the foam away. The sea water worsened the situation by washing burning fuel through the holes in the flight deck and into the decks below. In response, a “wash down” system, which floods the flight deck with foam or water, was incorporated into all carriers, with the first being installed aboard Franklin D. Roosevelt during her 1968–1969 refit. Many other fire-safety improvements also stemmed from this incident.
Due to the first bomb blast, which killed nearly all of the trained firefighters on the ship, the remaining crew, who had no formal firefighting training, were forced to improvise. All current Navy recruits receive a week-long training course in compartment identification, fixed and portable extinguishers, battle dress, self-contained breathing apparatus and emergency escape breathing devices. Recruits are tested on their knowledge and skills by having to use portable extinguishers and charged hoses to fight fires, as well as demonstrating the ability to egress from compartments that are heated and filled with smoke.
This information was extracted from the Manual of the Judge Advocate General Basic Final Investigative Report Concerning the Fire on Board the USS FORRESTAL (CVA-59), portions of which are available from both the U.S. Navy JAG online library and other articles on Wikipedia.
The following link for the training video was provided by Jack Sturdivant on Facebook: You can see. Most of us in the Navy were required to watch this at one time: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=trial+by+fire+-+uss+forestol&&view=detail&mid=2A81AF931A316D1DD7632A81AF931A316D1DD763&&FORM=VRDGAR
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