“I looked out at a rolling fireball as the burning fuel spread cross the deck. I opened my canopy, raced onto the nose, crawled out onto the refueling probe, and jumped ten feet into the fire. I rolled through a wall of flames as my flight suit caught fire. I put the flames out and ran as fast as I could to the starboard side of the deck.” – Senator John McCain
This was how Senator John McCain recalled the start of the blaze. On today’s date, July 29 in 1967, a fire broke out aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal, an aircraft carrier as she steamed off the coast of North Vietnam. The fire started as the result of the accidental launch of a missile which then set off fires on several planes nearby. The plane piloted by then Lt. Commander John McCain was one of the jets which was destroyed and his account of the fire provides a unique inside view of this disaster which ultimately killed 131 U.S. Navy seamen.
The Old Bombs and the Zuni
The conflagration aboard the Forrestal was caused by an electrical malfunction, and the presence on the deck of some very old bombs. The day before the accident the Forrestal took on a shipment of bombs for her planes to drop during sorties (flights) over North Vietnam with whom the U.S. was then fighting during the Vietnam War (with which the U.S. was involved primarily between 1964 – 1974). The ordinance (explosives) were included some 16 1,000 pound AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs (a nickname referring to the short, fat shape of the bomb), which had come from the Subic Bay Naval Base and were meant for the second bombing sortie the following day. These bombs were very old – of World War II vintage, and were highly unstable. The ordinance handlers and the commanding officer of the Forrestal, Captain John Beling decided to have them placed apart from the other bombs at a spot between the starboard (right hand) rail and the carrier’s island (the main structure on the flat- topped carrier) until they were ready for use. The fire began when at @ 10:50 a.m. in the Gulf of Tonkin a missile, a Mk-32 “Zuni”
rocket on an F-4B Phantom II Jet (No. 410 in the diagram, above) accidentally fired as a result of an electronic malfunction.
The missile from the F-4 shot across the deck and underneath a pair of A-4E Skyhawk jets piloted by Lt. Comm. Fred D. White (No. 405) and Lt. Comm. John McCain (No. 416). The Zuni itself was kept from detonating by it’s safety mechanisms, and went on and off the ship. Unfortunately, it also ruptured the fuel tank on both jets, causing the jet fuel to spill all over the deck and ignite. The impact of the Zuni hitting the fuel tanks on the Skyhawks caused the “Fat Boy” bombs to be dislodged from the Skyhawks with which they had been armed and fall to the deck. And there they lay, in the pool of burning jet fuel between the jets piloted by White and McCain. This was the factor that turned the situation from a fire which was dangerous, but manageable into a conflagration which put the entire ship in danger, as it was only a matter of seconds before these old and highly unstable 1,000 pound bombs would ignite.
The Explosions and the Fire
Damage Control Team 8 lead by Chief Gerald Farrier immediately recognized this mortal threat to the safety of the ship and sprung automatically into action.
Chief Farrier rushed forward with a PKP Fire Extinguisher and without any protective gear on attempted to smother the flames around the bomb, at least long enough for the pilots, strapped into their jets to escape. But the old “Fat Boys” exploded before he could do very much; about 1 minute and 23 seconds after the fire started. McCain describes:
“Shocked and shaking from adrenaline I saw the pilot from the A-4 next to mine jump from his plane into the fire. His flight suit burst into flames. As I went to help him, a few crewmen dragged a hose toward the conflagration. Chief Petty Officer Gerald Farrier ran ahead off me with a portable fire extinguisher. He stood in front of the fire and
aimed the extinguisher at one of the thousand pound bombs that had been knocked loose from my plane and now were sitting in flames on the burning deck. His heroism cost him his life. A few seconds later the bomb exploded, blowing me back at least ten feet and killing a great many men, including the burning pilot, the men with the hose, and Chief Farrier.”
This explosion in turn caused a chain reaction of explosions which tore holes in the flight deck and killed and injured many of the men below in addition to those pilots who had been strapped in their planes when the original explosion occurred. McCain (below) saw carnage all around:
“Sharp pieces of shrapnel from the exploded bomb tore into my legs and chest. All around me was mayhem. Planes were burning. More bombs cooked off. Body parts, pieces of the ship, and scraps of planes were dropping on the deck. Pilots in their seats eject into the firestorm. Men trapped by flames jumped overboard. More Zuni missiles streaked across the deck. Explosions tore craters in the flight deck and burning fuel fell through the openings into the hangar bay, spreading the fire below.”
The Fire is Put Out, But the Price is High
Fire control teams, Marines, and other sailors had the fires on the flight deck under control by 12:15, and kept on clearing the super-heated steel, and the smoke on the lower decks until the situation was finally brought completely under control by 1:42 p.m. But due to smaller fires, and added flare-ups, the fire was not officially declared out once and for all until 4:00 a.m. the next morning. The crew of the Forrestal had literally saved their ship. As McCain concluded:
“The fires were consuming the Forrestal. I thought she might sink. But the crew’s heroics kept her afloat. Men sacrificed their lives for one another and for their ship. Many of them were only eighteen or nineteen years old. They fought the inferno with a tenacity usually
reserved for hand-to-hand combat. They fought it all day and well into the next, and they saved the Forrestal.”
The U.S.S. Forrestal (Pictured above one month after the fire) had lost 134 men killed and 161 men injured. Plus an enormous amount of equipment, jet planes, and ordinance had either been destroyed, or pushed overboard to prevent further explosions. From September 1967 to April of 1968, she underwent extensive repairs, and by April 15, 1968, she sailed out off the coast of Virginia, to begin her first post-repair trials.
“The Faith of My Fathers” by Sen. John McCain with Mark Salter, Harper Collins Publiishers, New York, 1999.