On 14 September 1967, USS Forrestal (CV-59) with Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) embarked arrived Norfolk Va., ending her first Vietnam cruise and first deployment operating with the 7th Fleet, returning from the South China Sea, via the straits of Malacca, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea on her second Suez Canal transit steaming through the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, to the Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic. Forrestal arrived Gulf of Tonkin on 24 July 1967.
Cutting a wake through the calm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin on 29 July 1967, operating on Yankee Station off the coast of North Vietnam conducting combat operations, launching aircraft from her flight deck on strikes against an enemy whose coastline was only a few miles over the horizon.
For four days, the planes of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) had been launched on, and recovered from, about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam.
On the ship’s four-acre flight deck, her crewmen went about the business at hand, the business of accomplishing the second launch of the fifth day in combat.
On 29 July 1967, a devastating fire and series of chain-reaction explosions caused great loss of life on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59) after an unusual electrical anomaly discharged a Zuni rocket on the flight deck. One hundred thirty-four sailors were killed, and 161 were injured. Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War at the time, and the damage totaled $72 million (not including damage to aircraft).
On the fifth such day of operations and at 10:52am the crew was starting the second launch cycle of the day made near 19°9?5?N 107°23?5?E / 19.15139, 107.38472, when suddenly an unguided 5-inch Mk-32 “Zuni” rocket, one of four contained in a LAU-10 underwing rocket pod mounted on a F-4 Phantom II, was accidentally fired due to an unusual electrical anomaly causing a power surge during the switch from external power to internal power striking.
The warhead’s safety mechanism prevented it from detonating but the rocket flew across the flight deck, striking a wing-mounted external fuel tank on a A-4 Skyhawk awaiting launch, and ignited the resulting spray of escaping JP-5 fuel from aircraft No. 405, piloted by LCDR Fred D. White, causing an instantaneous conflagration.
Other external fuel tanks overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to feed the flames which spread along the flight deck, leaving pilots in their aircraft with the options of being incinerated in their cockpits or running through the flames to escape. LCDR Fred D. White, waiting to launch in Aircraft No. 405, leaped out of his burning Skyhawk but was killed instantly (along with many firefighters) by the cooking off of the first bomb.
LCDR Herbert A. Hope of VA-46 (and operations officer of CVW-17) jumped out of the cockpit of his Skyhawk between explosions, rolled off the flight deck and into the starboard man-overboard net. Making his way down below to the hangar deck, he took command of a firefighting team. “The port quarter of the flight deck where I was”, he recalled, “is no longer there.”
The launch that was scheduled for a short time later was never made. Lt. Cmdr. John S. John McCain III, piloting a A-4 Skyhawk, No. 416, later a prisoner of war in Vietnam and still later U.S. Senator from Arizona, and Presidential candidate during November 2008 Presidential election said later he heard a “whooshy” sound then a “low-order explosion” in front of him.
Suddenly, two A-4s ahead of his plane were engulfed in flaming jet fuel — JP-5 — spewed from them.
With his aircraft surrounded by flames, McCain escaped by climbing out of the cockpit, walking down the nose and jumping off the refueling probe.
The impact of the Zuni dislodged two of the 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs, dropping to the deck and rolled about six feet and came to rest in a pool of burning fuel.
The fire teams chief, Gerald Farrier (without benefit of protective clothing) immediately smothered the bombs with a PKP fire extinguisher in an effort to knock down the fuel fire long enough to allow the pilots to escape. According to their training, the fire team normally had almost three minutes to reduce the temperature of the bombs to a safe level, but the chief did not realize the “Comp. B” bombs were already critically close to cooking-off until one split open. The chief, knowing a lethal explosion was imminent, shouted for the fire team to withdraw but the bomb exploded seconds later – only one and a half minutes after the start of the fire.
The detonation destroyed McCain’s aircraft (along with its remaining fuel and armament), blew a crater in the armored flight deck, and sprayed the deck and crew with shrapnel and burning jet fuel. It killed the entire on-deck firefighting contingent, with the exception of three men who survived with critical injuries. The two bomb-laden A-4s in line ahead of McCain’s were riddled with shrapnel and engulfed in the flaming jet fuel still spreading over the deck, causing more bombs to detonate and more fuel to spill, resulting in a massive chain reaction of explosions that engulfed half the air wings aircraft leaving huge holes in the steel flight deck. Nine bomb explosions occurred on the flight deck, eight caused by the “Comp. B” bombs and the ninth occurred as a sympathetic detonation between an old bomb and a newer H6 bomb, causing flaming jet fuel to drain into the interior of the ship, including the living quarters directly underneath the flight deck, and the below-decks aircraft hangar.
Fuel and bombs spilled into the holes in the flight deck igniting fires on decks further into the bowels of the ship. Berthing spaces immediately below the flight deck became death traps for fifty men, while other crewmen were blown overboard by the explosion.
Sailors and Marines controlled the flight deck fires by 12:15, and continued to clear smoke and to cool hot steel on the 02 and 03 levels until all fires were under control by 13:42. They finally declared the fire defeated at 04:00 the next morning, due to additional flare-ups.
Throughout the day the ship’s medical staff worked in dangerous conditions to assist their comrades. HM2 Paul Streetman, one of 38 corpsmen assigned to the carrier, spent over 11 hours on the mangled flight deck tending to his shipmates. The large number of casualties quickly overwhelmed the ship’s Sick Bay staff, and Forrestal was escorted by USS Henry W. Tucker (DD-875) to rendezvous with hospital ship USS Repose (AH-16) at 20:54, allowing the crew to begin transferring the dead and wounded at 22:53.
Nearby ships hastened to the Forrestal aid. The USS Oriskany (CV-34), herself a victim of a tragic fire in October 1966, stood by to offer fire-fighting and medical aid to the larger carrier. Nearby escort vessels sprayed water on the burning Forrestal and within an hour the fire on the flight deck was under control. The crew heroically fought the fire and carried armed bombs to the side of the ship to throw them overboard for 13 hours. Secondary fires below deck took another 12 hours to contain. Once the fires were under control, the extent of the awful conflagration or devastation was apparent.
The fire left 134 Forrestal crewmen dead and 161 more injured. Many planes and armament 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-4 Phantom IIs (BuNos 153046, 153054, 153060, 153061, 153066, 153069 and 153912); eleven A-4E Skyhawks (149996, 150064, 150068, 150084, 150115, 150118, 150129, 152018, 152024, 152036 and 152040); and three RA-5 Vigilantes (148932, 149282 and 149305). 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-5B Vigilante), since the sailors of Forrestal had been forced to manually jettison numerous aircraft through human force.
This was and still remains the single worst loss of life on a navy vessel since the USS Fraklin (CV-13) was bombed in WWII. The ship proceeded to Cubi Point in the Philippines for temporary repairs. In only eight days enough repairs were made that she could start the long trip back to her homeport of Norfolk, Virginia for permanent repairs. On her way home she was capable of operating aircraft if needed. With over a dozen major detonations from 1,000 and 500 lb bombs and numerous missile, fuel tank, and aircraft explosions no ship has ever survived the pounding Forrestal underwent that day, before or since. She and her crew proved the toughness and dangers associated with the operation of super-carriers, this is one of her greatest legacies. The entire nation felt the tragedy, and Life magazine reported, “In five minutes, everyone became a man to.” Her 11th deployment (6 June to 14 September 1967) since her commission.
Ref. Http://www.uscarhistory.com ; U. S. Navy Aircraft Carriers and en.wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1967USSForrestal_fire