50 years ago this week…

The USS Forrestal almost became the biggest single loss of life in the Vietnam conflict…

I still remember seeing a longer version of this in boot camp, and wondering what they hell I’d gotten myself into…

A rocket fired across the deck, impacting an A-4 loaded with fuel and bombs, getting ready to launch. And things went south from there.

The fire left 134 men dead and 161 more injured. Many aircraft and a large amount of ordnance were jettisoned to prevent them from catching fire or exploding. Twenty-one aircraft also sustained enough damage from fire, explosions and salt water, to be stricken from naval inventory, including seven F-4B Phantom IIs and three RA-5C Vigilantes. The fire also revealed that Forrestal required a heavy duty, armored forklift for use in the emergency jettisoning of aircraft (particularly heavier types such as the RA-5C Vigilante) as well as heavy or damaged ordnance. Sailors had been forced to manually jettison numerous 250 and 500 lb bombs by rolling them along the deck and off the side.

But the upshot of the incident was major changes to policy and procedures that saved untold lives in other incidents. One of the biggest was requiring ALL sailors to go through shipboard firefighting training before ever setting foot on a ship.

Still raises the hair on the back of my neck watching it these many years later…


50 years ago this week… — 22 Comments

  1. My lead man when I was an electrician was on USS Blue Ridge. He was a Bosun’s Mate. His firefighting stories raised my hair a couple times.

    They threw them in a fire on the first day of school. Total chaos. After school was complete, they went back and did that test again, and the fire was out in seconds. He said everyman is a fireman on a ship.

    That gave me incentive to keep my mind open to learning as much as I could. Not just what interested me, but things I knew would come in handy at some point.

  2. I reported aboard Forrestal when she was in Athens during her ’74 Med Cruise.
    USS Zippo, and USS Forrest Fire were just two of her nicknames in the fleet.
    I found that Forrestal took firefighting very, very, seriously and if anybody wanted to ask why they had only to go to Hangar Bay One and look at the plaque with the names of the dead.
    She did use an odd system for announcing suspected fires or reports of smoke, the 1MC would announce “Operation Ranch Hand Compartment …..”
    I recall eating chow on the after mess decks and heard “Operation Ranch Hand Hangar Bay Two,” and then a few seconds later, “General Quarters, This is not a drill.”
    Some spilled JP-5 had lit off and it got exciting. The fire was out in seconds and we secured from GQ.
    During the time I was “going forward on the starboard side” and “on the double” towards the Ellison Door of One Auxiliary Machinery Room I ran into a Senior Chief Electrician’s Mate who was moving against the flow. I was a much larger individual then and by ran into I mean knocked down and ran over.
    I apologized to him later and he said he had been in the wrong and it was not an issue. (I also bought my first pickup truck from him, a ’73 Datsun 620 that I owned until it was 13 years old)
    Thank you for your post as it woke up some great memories.

  3. Hey Old NFO;

    I have a book called “Sailers to the end” , and it talked about the Forrestal fire, and what happened. Gave me goosebumps.

  4. The 3rd class I worked with, on arrival at my first command, had been on the Forrest Fire, had some stories to tell. He also complained about how many sailors got seasick when they took a 15 degree roll in the Gulf. He laughed about it while we worked in 25 and 30 degree rolls on that tin can.

  5. If you recall, the rocket that shot across the deck and exploded under the plane across from it almost did the country a favor. That plane was piloted by John McCain, who climbed out of the cockpit and jumped off the nose, barley missing the fire. I do remember them, and will toss one back for the lost today.

  6. I was about to mention Bob’s book, too. The deck footage of the guy running torwards the initial fire with just an exstinguisher is chilling.

  7. Thanks for remembering this. It was our 4th or 5th day on YS on our first week there; we had our first Alpha strike scheduled and the launch was going to be big with a lot of ordnance loaded. I was in the Intel Center, 03 level, amidships. It was our GQ station so we stayed there and listened to the ordnance go off; explosions moved down the port side, across the fantail and up the stbd; the ship would shack and shudder each time. The biggest loss of life was aft in an F-4 berthing area fwd of the fantail; the men who rolled out of the rack at GQ and ran lived; those who stopped to grab pants or shoes died. The explosions stopped but the conflagration continued for a long time. The response of other ships on Yankee Station may have been the saving factor; helo lifts of OBA canisters and AFFF (we ran out quickly); a DE that came alongside almost under the flight deck overhang to use it’s hoses where it could; the Oriskany closed to use its helps for medieval to the Sanctuary which had come to us at it’s best speed. And then, lessons learned: McNamara had pulled old MK-60 series bombs out of desert storage….those went off at high order; the newer Mk-80 series just split apart; we could have beards in those days, the OBA’s couldn’t get a tight seal and men died; the root cause wasn’t definitely identified until the Enterprise repeated the problem a year or two later (suffer exhaust blowing on a Zuni pod ignited the rockets). It was not a good day; thank you for remembering.

  8. STx- Yep! Even all these years later, when I went aboard a Navy ship, I always looked at where the firefighting equipment and OBAs were.

    John- Yep, forward and up starboard, aft and down port!

    Bob- As it should!

    Rev- Carriers don’t ‘roll’… 🙂

    CP/WSF- As will I.

    PE- I remember that one, my cousin was on a sister rig. But I’ve never seen that video

    SPE- The Chief died in the first explosion. God rest his soul.

  9. Haze Gray- Thank you for the comment. It is ALWAYS the little things that bite one in the butt, as you’ve indicated.

  10. I remember reading about the Forrestal fire, and all I could think of was “Oh, crap! That’s the one the Hercs flew off of!”

  11. I remember when that happened. I was only 16 at the time, and my Dad was almost crying at the thought of so many of his fellow Navy guys dying.

  12. The FID was my second ship. I was SeaOpDet out of Cecil Field, & made her last operational cruise in ’91.
    Anytime there’s a safety standdown, that film is one of the main ones shown. I must have seen it a thousand times when I was JFK ship’s company, & on CV-59 I may have doubled or tripled that. Lot of lessons learned, but at what a horrible cost!
    I was in “A” school (AV) with a guy whose father had died in the fire. I hate that I can’t remember his name.
    I just looked it up. I’m pretty sure he was the son of Marvin Adkins.
    Haze Gray, my cover’s off to you. Glad you made it through.

  13. RS- Yes sir, it was.

    drjim- Yep, and it could have been a LOT worse.

    Ed- You’re welcome.

    TB- Thanks for sharing that. And agree with all.

  14. Wikipedia says John McCain shot the rocket that caused the fire. Is this true? What was his punishment?

    • Saw this claim elsewhere recently.

      Someone responded pretty quickly to scuttle the claim – McCain was the pilot who ran from the ‘plane on fire after the missile (from a second ‘plane) exploded under it.

  15. It seems that the human race’s collective memory needs to be refreshed periodically.

    If I recall correctly, the loss of the “Lexington” and the damage to the “Yorktown” at Coral Sea was partly blamed on the fact that most of the damage control specialists were killed or injured in the initial firefighting effort allowing the fires to get out of control. New safety protocols and recognition that everyone needed to be trained in damage control helped save the “Yorktown” and many lives from the first Japanese attack during Midway.

  16. I’ve seen the Navy training video probably in Boot in 84 and in DC trainer in 85. On the Subs, Damage Control is everyone’s job. Literally. The off-going watch section musters at the scene (well, right outside the scene if we’re being precise)

    Get wet trainer was the ‘big’ one for us. Flooding is nothing to laugh about

    • He didn’t come back to help fight the fire. Almost EVERYONE fought…but not him.