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This Day in History: The terrible fire aboard USS Forrestal

On this day in 1967, a rocket accidentally discharges aboard the flight deck of USS Forrestal. It smashes into a fighter jet piloted by then-Lt. Commander John McCain. Within minutes, the aft end of the aircraft carrier is ablaze.

The incident would result in the worst loss of life aboard a U.S. Navy vessel since World War II.

Forrestal was then the premier ship of its kind. She’d been dispatched to Vietnam, arriving off its coast on July 25. Things went awry just a few days later when she received a problematic shipment of ammunition. It was old and had been poorly maintained, but the Navy was short on ordnance. Old, Korean War-era bombs were now back in circulation.

The ordnance crew was upset, but resigned. Attack waves were already planned. The ordnance would be gone soon.

Except then tragedy struck. At 10:51 on July 29, a pilot in an F-4 Phantom jet was preparing for that day’s second attack wave. As he switched from external power to internal power, he felt a jolt. An unexpected electrical surge had fired one of his Zuni rockets. It tore off the Phantom, zipping across the flight deck and tearing into an A-4 Skyhawk. The pilot of that plane was none other than future Senator (then-LCdr.) John McCain.

The rocket ripped open the Skyhawk’s fuel tank.

Spilled fuel, jet exhaust, and burning rocket propellant did their work: Fuel and planes were soon ablaze. Some pilots were trapped. Others were helped out by their crews. A few, including McCain, pushed their way out of cockpits and jumped. Fuel continued to pour out of planes, worsening an already bad situation.

Firefighting efforts began quickly, which turned out to be unfortunate. The old bombs couldn’t take the heat, as newer bombs can. A mere 1 minute, 34 seconds into the fire, one of them exploded. A fireball shot into the sky, rocking the entire carrier. Most of Forrestal’s specially trained flight-deck firefighters were killed instantly.

Fighting the fire was useless. Bomb after bomb kept exploding as the fuel and fire spread. There was nothing to do but to run for cover. Finally, after five minutes, there was a break. By then, the fire was raging out of control. Holes had been blasted into the flight deck. The scene was so bad and so bloody that some sailors thought Forrestal was under attack.

What else could wreak such havoc?

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz once noted that “uncommon valor was a common virtue” during a World War II battle. The same could be said of the sailors aboard Forrestal that day. Deprived of a firefighting team, they rose to the occasion. Their inexperience led to mistakes—and yet they were heroic!

Remember, the flight deck was full of planes, loaded with ammunition that could still blow. Sailors manually pushed aircraft away from the fire. Other planes, past saving, were pushed into the ocean. Ordnance, too, was pushed overboard. At one point, a sailor loaded a forklift with ammunition, rode it to the edge of the deck, then jumped out just as the forklift fell into the sea.

Some sailors learned to use an Oxygen Breathing Apparatus on the fly so they could fight fires. Throughout it all, of course, sailors were helping their comrades, some of whom were burned beyond recognition. They recognized friends by tattoos or by names stitched onto uniforms.

The main fire was extinguished within an hour, but small fires would continue below deck long afterwards. It had been a deadly sequence: 134 men were dead and hundreds more were wounded. Twenty-one planes were demolished. Forrestal itself had been all but destroyed.

And yet, in many ways, the most remarkable thing about the day was Forrestal’s exceptional crew.

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