Flightdeck on Fire
Disaster aboard the U.S.S. Forrestall CVA-59

In War, we all expect some people to not come back. We don't want that to happen, but it does. It's a fact of War. But when an act of God occurs, we are humbled; we are saddened and we wonder…why? Why did this happen? We may never know the answer to that, but these events are significant and they are learning experiences intended to remind us of how short and precious life is, most especially in War. You never know when "your ticket is up".

This was one of the lessons learned on July 29, 1967, when the USS Forrestall CVA-59 suffered what is considered to be the worst naval disaster in the US Navy's history. Built by the Norfolk, Virginia shipyards, she was commissioned on October 1, 1955. She was the first "Super Carrier", and is of comparable size to today's carriers with a length of 1076', width of 252', maximum height to top of mast equal to a 25-story building (131 feet), and a gross tonnage of 79, 300 tons fully loaded. Her flight deck is nearly four acres (250, 000 sq. feet). She has impressive stats for her size. With a speed over 30 knots, she can run with the best of battle craft. She has four props (each 5 bladed) of 45 tons each. 260, 000 horsepower turns those props. She has eight 600psi boilers and four geared steam turbines. Her crew compliment is 3019 with the air wing compliment of 2480 for a combined compliment of 5499 people serving aboard her. Named after James Vincent Forrestall, she has an impressive history as that of her namesake.


James Forrestall was from Beacon, New York. He enrolled in Dartmouth College and then Princeton University. In 1915, he worked as a financial reporter and tobacco salesman, when in 1916 he went into banking.
In the days of World War I, he enlisted in the US Navy and was later commissioned as a pilot, (Naval Aviator). By 1919, he was discharged and returned to banking. By 1940, he was assigned the post of Administrative Assistant to President Roosevelt, as Presidential Liaison for the overseeing of the National Defense program. A diligent and results-oriented man, he was appointed to the position of Under-Secretary of the Navy within two months. Come 1944, he was appointed to Secretary of the Navy and helped build the largest Navy in the world. By 1947, he was the first Secretary of Defense and was in that role until 1949 when poor health forced him to retire. He died on May 22, 1949.

As well as having a bronze bust of Mr. Forrestall in the Pentagon, there is a life-size statue of him on the quarterdeck of the USS Forrestall. The USS Forrestall CVA-59, served with as much distinction as her namesake, earning much recognition and many commendations:

Joint Meritorious Unit Commendation:April 30 1991 - July 16 199, Meritorious Unit Commendation:January 1 1973 - December 31 1973, May 1 1987 - October 8 1988, June 1 1991 - December 12 1991, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal: January 19 1962 - March 7 1962, October 13 1982 - November 5 1982, September 5 1982 - September 10 1982, Navy "E" Ribbon: January 1 1988 - December 31 1988, July 1 1974 - June 30 197, Vietnam Service Medal: August 12 1967, July 23 1967 - July 30 1967

In 1967, the USS Forrestall was serving in the Vietnam conflict. While on Yankee Station on July 29, she had been preparing for a strike, (after having conducted one earlier in the morning), when at 10:52 AM, as the crew were preparing the aircraft, a Zuni rocket from an F-4 Phantom launched and shot across the deck hitting an armed A-4 Skyhawk, spilling highly flammable JP-5 fuel on the deck. The A-4 Skyhawk was piloted by now-US Senator John McCain. The resulting explosion caused the fuel from the external belly tank of the A-4 to spill fuel across the deck, which in turn started a massive chain reaction of further explosions. An entire air wing was fuelled and armed for a strike. These A-4s and F-4s were lined up one beside the other. Most of the A-4 that was hit initially, survived at first, as did its pilot, who ejected from his craft amid the fires, just as a 1, 000lb bomb, fell off the wing and into the flames. Within 60 seconds, it "cooked off", killing the first fire crew. This was followed by a second and more powerful explosion, which destroyed half the aircraft in the air wing. This explosion led to a dozen or so more as aircraft fuel tanks and ordinance exploded because of shrapnel and the heat from the flames.
The second explosion was the most powerful of all and it blew a hole through the flight deck, five decks through. The first victims below never knew what hit them. 50 men were killed instantly in their berths when the second explosion occurred. The blast was so powerful; it blew many men off deck not to be seen again.

After the secondary explosion, many escort craft came immediately to the Forrestall's aid, spraying water aboard her decks. Massive confusion ensued after the second explosion as most of the deck crew knew the surviving aircraft were still fuelled and loaded with ordinance. Many ran for cover expecting further explosions of equal magnitude. Many were unaware of the fires below deck. Although the jet fuel was highly explosive, it didn't burn fast enough before it could run across the deck, so as it would pour into the holes created by the second explosion, only fuelling the fires below, making the battle for control even harder, as 250lb and 500lb bombs fell into the many craters, sometimes detonating inside the steel halls inside the ship, only compounding further the horror. Although the initial fire was brought under control within an hour, with the aid of the escort craft and the USS Oriskany, who herself suffered a major fire in October 1966. Because of the confined spaces and materials kept below decks, the fires inside kept burning for another 12 hours. In the desperate moment of the first hour, on the flight deck, men were throwing armed bombs and missiles over board in fear that they too, may cook-off. One 130lb lieutenant threw over a 250lb bomb by himself. Many died; many were injured. It was a dark day for the US Navy but the men of the USS Forrestall came together as a team and fought bravely to save their ship and crew mates. There were no acts of cowardice. The fire crews raced into the blazes to fight them off. The first fire crew was killed in the second explosion. 134 men were killed, 64 were injured. Most of the ship's compliment of aircraft was destroyed. Once the damage had been assessed and the bodies recovered, (those found), the ship set sail for Cubi Point, in the Philippines, for temporary repairs. She then went back to Norfolk, Virginia for full repair. Within eight days, enough repairs had been made to the ship that she could have operated aircraft for other strikes if she needed to.

The USS Forrestall only served 4-and-a-half days in the Vietnam War. It would take over 7 months to rebuild her, at an approximate cost of $72 million. The reconstruction was done from the Hangar-deck forward to the aircraft elevator number four. By April of 1968, she was ready to return to sea, although she never returned to Vietnam. She went on to serve for another 26 years until her decommissioning in September of 1993. She now resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where there is an active effort being made to have her made into a museum.

This tragedy had such an immense impact on the ways of the US Navy, that after the inquiry whose findings were released on October 18, 1967, the recommendations were as follows: the development of a remote-controlled fire-fighting system for the flight deck; the development of more stable weaponry; and the improvements of safety equipment. There is a grave in Arlington cemetery dedicated to eighteen of the victims of the USS Forrestall disaster. And the other victims of the fire have their names etched on the Vietnams Veterans War Memorial. At the end of the day of July 29, 1967, the Captain and surviving crew of the USS Forrestall held a memorial service for those lost. Here is the prayer Captain John Beling offered:

          "Our heavenly Father, we see this day as one minute and yet a lifetime for all of us. We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. We humbly ask you to grant them peace and to their loved ones the consolation and strength to bear their loss. Help us to renew the faith we have in you. We want to thank you for our own lives. May we remember you as you have remembered us today. From our hearts we turn to you now, knowing that you have been at our side in every minute of this day. Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and to reman our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice."

These pages are dedicated to the victims of the USS Forrestall's fire of July 29, 1967. 130 men died not by an act of War, but by the hand of God. And it is dedicated to all the men and women serving in all the world's fleets. No matter what your country of origin, or your country's standing with other, you all share one thing: The Sea and her deadly attraction.

Semper Fi

Images


USS Forrestall


Admiral James Forrestall


A-4 Skyhawk


Zuni Rocket


The first explosions


Deck camera view of the first explosions


Forrestall on fire


Forrestall on fire


Forrestall on fire


Damage to the rear deck


Monument in Arlington

Various views of the damage to the Forrestall's flight deck

For Those in Peril on the Sea

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