Anchored in History: USS Forrestal Fire

USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74)
Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant Grady

Date: 08.12.2018
Posted: 12.30.2018 08:47
News ID: 305767

The Vietnam War is in full swing. As American forces battle the North Vietnamese and Vietcong on land, they rely heavily on air support from the seas. Yankee Point, commonly known as Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, is the operating area for Task Force 77’s aircraft carriers.

Sunshine permeates the cloud layer as the Forrestal-class aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CV 59) steams “on the line.” It’s July 29, 1967, and this day is not much different from any other while conducting combat efforts from the sea. The flight deck is a flurry of activity, and over 5,000 Sailors onboard prepare for the busy day ahead: launching high-performance jet aircraft to rain down destruction on the enemy.

According to the after action report (AAR), twelve A-4 Skyhawk’s, Twelve F-4 Phantoms and three A-6 Intruder aircraft are on the flight deck preparing for launch, each airplane at a full combat load of missiles, bombs, rockets and 20 millimeter ammunition – but the tight tempo of flight deck activity is interrupted with the sound of something not quite right. While conducting pre-flight checks on an F-4’s electrical system, a malfunction occurs, sending a Zuni rocket streaking across the flight deck, striking another Skyhawk brimming with 400-gallons of fuel some 100 feet away. The rocket explodes as designed, tearing open the aircraft and spewing burning jet fuel across the deck.

“The USS Forrestal fire did not happen because of one bad thing,” said Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuel) Leo Meister. “The fire happened due to a list of items including bad ordnance and knowingly violating safety precautions on the flight deck to increase daily sorties.”

As the fire spread across the flight deck, so did the chaos. The burning fuel surged aft, fanned by 32 knots of wind and jet exhaust from up forward. Despite Forrestal’s bravest efforts, the situation deteriorated further, causing AN-M65 1,000-pound bombs from an A-4 to drop and plunge into the pool of burning jet fuel.

“Instructions are written in blood,” said Meister. “Nothing says that more than USS Forrestal.”

The crew immediately launched damage control efforts. Only 54-seconds after the ordnance fell, Chief Petty Officer Gerald W. Farrier, head of the fire-fighting team, stormed the inferno with just a hand-held fire bottle. A hose team followed 20 seconds later, and then a rigorous explosion violently shook the Forrestal bow to stern, instantly killing Farrier and the hose team members.

Forrestal had lost a significant amount of their trained fire fighters on the flight deck. The crew had to rely on inexperienced Sailors to fill positions and attack the fire with all their might.

Nine-seconds after the explosion that ravaged Farrier and his hose teams, another bomb exploded even more violently on the aft-end of the flight deck resulting in catastrophic damage, sending bodies and debris as far as the bow. The blast exploded through the aft-end, along the starboard-side of the flight deck consuming seven more Skyhawks and pouring flames, fuel and salt water into a large berthing filled with crew members before cascading to the decks below into hangar bay three.

Astonishingly, the crew managed to control the fire fueled by roughly 40,000-gallons of jet fuel within an hour, but the flames scorched the decks below and hangar bay until 0400.

“We lost a lot of good shipmates during that fire,” said Meister. “We make mistakes, and we have to learn from them.”

In the end, 132 Sailors died with 62 injured and two more missing and presumed dead. Today’s Sailors can learn from the past by remembering the valiant efforts of that day and training to continue the high readiness standards to help prevent further casualties in the future.

“I always say ‘fight as we train, train as we fight’,” said Meister. “The best thing we can do to avoid situations like the Forrestal is to properly train. Now, everyone that works on the flight deck is a part of the flight deck firefighting team. Everyone learns more than just one position. So, if we lose a Sailor, we have someone that can continue the job.”

A short-notice evaluation by the Atlantic Fleet Inspector General deemed Forrestal unsatisfactory on damage control readiness on May 10, 1967, over a month before the fire. Investigators later determined Forrestal’s material readiness for firefighting and damage control was at acceptable standards at the time of the fire. Furthermore, the AAR stated that a substantial number of airwing personnel were inadequately trained in shipboard damage control. Repair parties above the second deck were led by aviation ratings who displayed a lack of damage control organization and knowledge.

Numerous recommendations in the AAR have taken shape and can be seen today onboard John C. Stennis through the training Sailors receive, the design of the flight deck, and the P-25 fire trucks aboard.

Tragic events like the Forrestal serve as a tough lesson for the Navy and its Sailors. They teach the fleet that disaster can strike at a moment’s notice, even without the enemy attacking. The only way to respond is to remember the brave Sailors who gave the ultimate sacrifice, grow to avoid events like this and deal with them properly when they happen.

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This story was originally published Aug. 12, 2018 in the Statesman Magazine on page 4 of volume 5, issue 17.