2016/2017
Vol. 12

 

The USS Forrestal Fire

July 29, 1967; the Gulf of Tonkin, east of Vietnam

The day was July 29, 1967. Twenty-one aircraft were lined up on the deck of the USS Forrestal and were ready for a launch to attack targets in North Vietnam. The strike aircraft were loaded with more than a dozen 1,000-pound and 500-pound bombs, and all the safety pins were pulled. Full of fuel and ready to go, the first aircraft, an A-4 light-attack plane piloted by then Lieutenant Commander John McCain,1 was suddenly hit by a rocket that accidentally came from an F-4 fighter that was parked across the deck from it. The fuel tank was hit and the fire began. The fire spread fast and caused bombs to explode.

All twenty-one strike aircraft were destroyed by the fire or pushed overboard into the water. The explosions blew holes through the three-inch steel decking of the carrier, allowing the burning fuel to run down inside the ship. The fire burned four levels below the flight deck. The catastrophe took the life of 134 sailors and marines.

Just before the explosion, four non-strike aircraft had been launched. My grandpa was on the last plane launched — one minute and twenty seconds before the accident. When my grandpa looked back, he saw a massive fireball in the air and realized it was from the ship.

Soldiers immediately grabbed hoses and began to fight the flames and water the bombs. With each exploding bomb, more lives were lost. Eventually, untrained firefighters jumped in and grabbed hoses to help. After thirteen hours of fighting the fire, it was finally contained.

Thankfully the engines were not damaged, and the ship was able to move under its own power to Subic Bay for initial repairs. The USS Forrestal finally reached Norfolk, Virginia, on September 15, 1967. The carrier was out of service for a year. It rejoined the fleet; however, it never returned to Vietnam.

My grandpa’s plane couldn’t land back on the USS Forrestal, so it was sent to Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam for the night. When my grandpa reached Da Nang, he was able to call home to let his family know he was safe. The next day his plane was sent back out to land on the USS Intrepid. The USS Intrepid is now a museum in New York City. My grandpa eventually found out that none of his squadron mates were lost in the fire.

July 29, 1967, was an awful day in U.S. history. Although the fire was an accident, it shows how important attention to detail is in aviation. The smallest mistake can cause the biggest disaster.2 This was a day my grandpa will never forget.

Kaitlyn Sweetman; New Jersey, USA

Illustrator: Aidan Baker; Missouri, USA

 

1. John McCain has served in the U.S. Senate for more than thirty years and was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.

2. The fire on the USS Forrestal caused more loss of life aboard a naval ship than any other single incident since World War II, and damage to the ship alone was more than 72 million U.S. dollars.

 

 

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