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.
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.
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.
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.
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