U.S. Navy - A Brief History of Aircraft Carriers - USS Forrestal (CVA 59)

From: Naval Aviation News, October 1967
compiled and edited by Senior Chief Journalist John D. Burlage

Full-screen images are linked from the images in the text below.

USS Rupertus gets close to USS Forrestal during blaze

The day was a typical one for the 5,000 officers and enlisted men of the attack aircraft carrier USS Forrestal as the huge, 80,000-ton ship cut a wake through the calm waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. It was as typical as it could be, that is, for men at war. And the men of Forrestal were definitely in combat. For the first time since their ship was commissioned in October 1955, they had been launching aircraft from her flight deck on strikes against an enemy whose coastline was only a few miles over the horizon.

The ship in which these men served was the first U.S. carrier built from the keel up with the angled deck that enables aircraft to be launched and recovered simultaneously. For four days, the planes of Attack Carrier Air Wing 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.

Overhead, the hot, tropical sun beat down from a clear sky.

It was just about 10:50 a.m. (local time), July 29, 1967.

The launch that was scheduled for a short time later was never made.

This is the story of the brave men of USS Forrestal.

Aircraft burn on USS Forrestal

It is not a story about just a few individuals. Or ten. Or twenty. Or fifty. It is the story of hundreds of officers and enlisted men who were molded by disaster into a single cohesive force determined to accomplish one mission: Save their ship and their shipmates.

It is the story of the acts of heroism they performed-acts so commonplace, accomplished with such startling regularity, that it will be impossible to chronicle all of them. It will be impossible for a very simple reason:All of them will never be known.

Lt. Cmdr. Robert "Bo" Browning one of the pilots due for launch with many others, he was seated in the cockpit of his fueled and armed Skyhawk; the plane was spotted way aft, to port. Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III 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. A bomb dropped to the deck and rolled about six feet and came to rest in a pool of burning fuel.

The awful conflagration, which was to leave 132 Forrestal crewmen dead, 62 more injured and two missing and presumed dead, had begun.

As the searing flames, fed by the spreading JP-5, spread aft and began to eat at the aircraft spotted around the deck, Lt. Cmdr. Browning escaped from his plane. He ducked under the tails of two Skyhawks spotted alongside his and ran up the flight deck toward the island area. Twice, explosions knocked him off balance. But he made it.

The fire soon enveloped all the aircraft in its wake. It spread to the fantail, to decks below. Bombs and ammunition were touched off in the midst of early fire-fighting efforts. Black, acrid smoke boiled into the sky. Other ships on Yankee Station sped to the aid of the stricken carrier.

Firefighters check a burned out A-4E

As the fuel-fed fire licked at planes, ammunition and bombs, the heroes of Forrestal rushed to avert a total disaster; some died in the process. A chief petty officer, armed only with a small fire extinguisher, ran toward the bomb that had dropped to the flight deck. He was killed when it exploded as were members of fire-fighting teams trying to wrestle fire hoses into position. Shrapnel from the explosion was thrown a reported 400 feet.

"I saw a dozen people running . . into the fire, just before the bomb cooked off," Lt. Cmdr. Browning was quoted as saying later. He called very one of them "a hero of the first magnitude."

That was only the beginning.

"There was a horrendous explosion that shook 'Angel Two Zero.' It seemed as if the whole stern of the Forrestal had erupted. Suddenly there were rafts, fuel tanks, oxygen tanks, trop tanks and debris of every description floating in the water below."

The description is from Lt. David Clement, pilot of a rescue helicopter from the carrier USS Oriskany (CV 34), who had been asked to fly plane guard for Forrestal after completing a flight to that carrier. Soon, he and his crew Ens. Leonard M. Eiland, Jr., Aviation Machinist's Mate (Jets) 3rd Class James D. James, Jr., and Airman Albert E. Barrows would be on a far different mission. They would be rescuing Forrestal crewmen who jumped, fell or were knocked from the carrier no less than five times within an hour. Later, they would be shuttling medical supplies to the stricken ship. The continuing explosions on Forrestal's flight deck would rock their helo, leaving the ship's aft end, in Lt. Clement's words, "a mass of twisted steel, with holes in the flight deck, a vacant space where there had been many aircraft and a towering column of black and gray smoke and flames."

At 11:47 A.M., Forrestal reported the flight deck fire was under control.

At 12:15, the ship sent word that the flight deck fire was out.

At 12:45, stubborn fires remained on the 01 and 02 levels and in hangar bay three. All available COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) aircraft were being sent to the carriers Oriskany and USS Bon Homme Richard (CV 31) to be swiftly rigged with litters medical evacuation.

There will be stories told of the brave men of Forrestal for years to come. These are only a few examples:

Exhausted crew contiue firefighting duties

Ltjg. Robert Cates, the carrier's explosive ordnance demolition officer, calmly recounted later how he had "noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck . . . that were still smoking. They hadn't detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned."

Ltjg. Cates also told how one of his men, whom he named only as Black, volunteered to be lowered by line through a hole in the flight deck to defuse a live bomb that had dropped to the 03 level even though the compartment was still on fire and full of smoke. Black did the job; later, Ltjg. Cates had himself lowered into the compartment to attach a line to the bomb so it could be jettisoned.

This too from Cates: "We [Black and himself] started picking up everything we could find that had explosives in it and started throwing them over the side. Some squadron pilots came up to me as we went aft I don't know who they were [and] helped me take a Sidewinder missile off a burning F-4. We just continued working our way aft and taking what ordnance we found off aircraft and throwing it over the side."

Two Forrestal flight deck crewmen, reports said, were knocked overboard by one of the explosions, fell 70 feet into the water, were picked up by a rescue helicopter and deposited back on the flight deck and resumed fire fighting at once.

One man in a crash crew forklift vehicle, with only one hose playing water on him, tried to get rid of a burning plane by ramming it repeatedly. The plane was jettisoned.

Lt. Cmdr. Larry Forderhase, ship's catapult officer, was preparing to launch aircraft when the fire broke out. He immediately started clearing the deck of bombs and rockets before helping to move planes forward.

Aviation Electrician's Mate 3rd Class Bruce Mulligan, a 22-year-old VA-106 crewman, was all the way aft on the flight deck when he heard explosions. He turned, saw a "fireball" coming at him and hit the deck. Somehow, he managed to get forward and was headed for a fire hose when he was hit by shrapnel. He helped a friend with a broken leg get to sick bay, then returned to the flight deck.

"Back aft of the island, we started throwing missiles and rockets over the side," he recounted later. "After that was done, I looked around for some of my buddies on the line crew and I could find only one. So we decided to help them fight the fire and got the fire hoses back aft and went to fight the plane fires. My buddy and I stayed back aft for I don't know how long. We got separated and some officer said later to leave.

"I went back to the island and got my hands taken care of and stayed back there [to rest for a while]. I was kind of groggy. I found another of my buddies and we went back aft again to help with the fire. By this time, they were working on the holes in the flight deck.

"Once again, one of our officers in the squadron found me and took me down to the forecastle to rest. I stayed down there for about ten minutes, then went back aft again. ... I stayed back there until I just about passed out and my buddy dragged me out of there. . ."

Seaman Milton Parker was just watching flight operations from the 09 level when the fire struck. Unable to get to his General Quarters station because it was cut off, he manned a hose on the flight deck for almost nine hours. He told how the heat of the deck burned both soles off his shoes, but "my feet are okay because I put on some flight deck shoes and went back in" to continue fire fighting.

The CVW-17 operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Herb Hope, was to fly a VA-46 A-4 with a launch time of 11a.m. 'When the flight deck erupted in flames, he managed to escape from his plane and, between explosions, literally rolled off the flight deck into a safety net. He made his way down to the hangar deck to coordinate the actions of a damage control party in one of the hangar bays. "The port quarter of the flight deck, where I was," he said, "is no longer there."

Fed by clothing, bedding and other flammables, the fires in the levels between the flight and hangar decks burned with an awesome fury. Men trying to locate shipmates trapped in compartments were driven out by flames and smoke. The after section of the hangar deck was so thick with smoke that it was impossible to see.

These are excerpts from an account given by Ens. Robert R. Schmidt, a 24-year-old engineering officer:

"... My work really wasn't the exciting kind of thing; just keeping the fire from spreading into any other areas. My people were doing all kinds of dirty work, moving into areas where the water was so hot it was almost boiling. OBA (Oxygen Breathing Apparatus) windows started fogging up and the people could hardly see anything. Yet, these kids went into the deeper areas of the ship, endangering their own lives. . . ."

At 1:48 p.m., Forrestal reported that the fires in the 01, 02 and 03 levels still burned, but that all the ship's machinery and steering equipment were operational.

At 2:12 p.m., the after radio compartment was evacuated because of dense smoke and water. "All fires out on 01 level, port side," the ship reported.

At 2:47 p.m. the compartment fires continued but progress was being made. Forrestal was steaming toward a rendezvous with the hospital ship USS Repose (AH 16).

At 3 p.m., the commander of Task Force 77 announced he was sending Forrestal to Subic Bay, Philippines, after the carrier rendezvoused with Repose.

At 5:05, a muster of Forrestal crewmen both in the carrier and aboard other ships was begun. Fires were still burning in the ship's carpenter shop and on the main deck.

At 6:44 p.m., the fires were still burning.

At 8:30 p.m., the fires in the 02 and 03 levels were contained, but the area was still too hot to enter. Holes were cut in the flight deck to provide access to compartments below.

Ens. Schmidt and his damage control team continued to fight their way into burning compartments; his work later that afternoon was as an investigator for the damage control assistant. There were times he had to enter spaces that were virtually inaccessible. "I asked for volunteers," he recalled, "and I immediately had two or three who followed me back into the guts of the fire. Several times, people would come up to me and say, 'What can I do? How can I help?' ... At first, I couldn't find work for all the people who wanted to help. I can't give enough praise to the sailors I supervised. They fought the fire and did all the dirty jobs ... These kids worked all night, 24-28 hours, containing the fire. . . . I've nothing but praise for the American sailor."

On the hangar deck, a chief petty officer his soaked clothing plastered to his body ran from burning hangar bay three and called for five volunteers. He got 30.

At the height of the fire, Capt. John K. Beling, Forrestal's commanding officer, went to hangar bay two. He watched quietly for a while, told his men they were doing well. He returned to the bridge; there was nothing more he could do.

Filipino stewards, some who appeared to weigh no more than 100 pounds, rolled 250-pound bombs to the edges and pushed them overboard.

With strength born of adversity, 130-pound Lt. Otis Kight single-handedly carried a 250-pound bomb to the edge of the hangar deck and threw it over the side. His shipmates are certain he will never be able to repeat that feat.

Chief Aviation Ornanceman Thomas Lawler escaped from his shop on the 03 level when the first explosion occurred and the overhead "began to glow like it was on fire." For hours afterwards, he disarmed aircraft in the after hangar bays, groping his way through smoke so thick that he could see no more than a foot ahead. "I don't believe we were in very great danger in hangar bay three," he said later. "All the fires were contained in the very aft end of the hangar bay. The only thing that worried me slightly at all was on the first trip in the hangar bay when you could see practically nothing at all [but] we kept hearing a gushing, a loud, gurgling sound and we couldn't quite determine what that was and the unknown always worries you a little bit. . ."

At 8:33 p.m., Forrestal reported that fires on the 02 level were under control but that fire fighting was greatly hampered because of smoke and heat.

At 8: 54, only the 02 level on the port side was still burning. Medical evacuation to Repose was in progress.

At 12:20 a.m., July 30, all the fires were out. Forrestal crewmembers continued to clear smoke and cool hot steel on the 02 and 03 levels.

The tragedy of the hours that had passed since the fire started began to penetrate into the minds and bodies of the men aboard the carrier. The adrenalin that had pumped through them began to seep away. They were tired but they could not sleep; they walked restlessly about the ship, lending a hand wherever they could.

As time passed, volunteers were still requested and swarms of men men who had fought the fire since 11 a.m. and who were dead tired and sick from smoke and the sights they'd seen forgot their fatigue and their sickness and raced through passageways to man the hoses again.

Lt. j.g. Frank Guinan sat on the deck next to his room, too tired to get up and go inside. "It seems so unreal," he said, and he added: "Nobody had better say to me that American youth [is] lazy. I saw men working today who were not only injured but thoroughly exhausted and they had to be carried away. They were trying so hard to help but they were actually becoming a burden."

It was time, now, to begin to assess the damage. There were four gaping holes in the flight deck where bombs exploded, pushing armored steel down and under much like an old-fashioned hole in a beer can.

Stock was taken of the aircraft. It leveled off to a report of 26 either destroyed or jettisoned and 31 more damaged to some extent.

And it was time to arrive at a final toll of dead and injured. For hours, the muster of Forrestal men continued; it was made terrifically difficult because so many of the crew were scattered in other ships.

And it was time to recall how those ships had come to the aid of the stricken Forrestal. From Oriskany and Bon Homme Richard had come medical teams and fire-fighting equipment. The skippers of the destroyers USS Rupertus (DD 851) and USS George K. MacKenzie (DD 836) , in what Rear Adm. Harvey P. Lanham, ComCarDiv Two, called an act of "magnificent seamanship," had maneuvered their ships to within 20 feet of the carrier so fire hoses could be effectively used.

But mostly it was a time to think of shipmates, those who had fought the flames and died because of their heroism. They were men like Data Systems Technician 2nd Class Stephen L. Hock, who was one of the first to reach the 03 level and who fought the fire and aided survivors until he was driven back by fire and smoke, then donned an OBA and returned again to the blazing area to fight the flames and help the injured. He kept up the pace for hours, then was overcome in a flooded and gas-filled compartment. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

They were men like Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Joseph C. Shartzer who returned to the inferno on the 03 level from which he had narrowly escaped and sacrificed his life as he aided in rescuing trapped men and fighting the fire.

They were men like Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Hydaulics) 3rd Class Robert A. Rhuda, who could have escaped from the smoke-filled compartments where he was on duty as a police petty officer, but who remained behind to awaken and direct or physically assist shipmates out of the area returning time and time again until the explosion of a bomb destroyed the compartment in which he was last seen.

They were men like that.

As Forrestal steamed for Subic Bay, a memorial service was held in Hangar Bay One for the crewmen who had given their lives for their ship and their country. More than 2,000 Forrestal men listened to and prayed with Chaplains Geoffrey Gaughan and David Cooper as they paid tribute to their lost shipmates. The three volleys fired by 13 U.S. Marines were followed by the benediction, which closed the service after 15 minutes of prayer and hymns.

The heroes and the brave men aboard Forrestal were uniformly praised by those under whom they served. Vice Adm. C. T. Booth, ComNavAirLant, paid tribute to their courage, as did Adm. Roy L. Johnson, CinCPacFlt, Adm. E. P. Holmes, CinCLantFlt, and Paul Nitze, Deputy Secretary of Defense, who also spoke for Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

And there was this personal message to Capt. Beling: "I want you and the men of your command to know that the thoughts of the American people are with you at this tragic time. We all feel a great sense of personal loss. The devotion to duty and courage of your men have not gone unnoticed. The sacrifices they have made shall not be in vain." It was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson.

Capt. Beling also commented on his crew: "I am most proud of the way the crew reacted. The thing that is foremost in my mind is the concrete demonstration that I have seen of the worth of American youth. I saw many examples of heroism. I saw, and subsequently heard of, not one single example of cowardice."

Forrestal men were men like that.