The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk, Virginia in June 1967, with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, Forrestal stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines, before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin, arriving on July 25.
Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1,000lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. These tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures. Like a huge sparkler.
Along with the Mark 83s, the ordnance resupply had included 16 AN-M65A1 “fat boy” bombs, WWII surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th. These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 20+ year-old “Composition B” explosive. Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than newer ordnance, composition B becomes more so as the explosive ages. The stuff becomes more powerful as well, up to 50%, by weight.
These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last 30 years in the heat and humidity of the Philippine jungle. Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys. They were rusting and leaking paraffin, their packaging rotted. Some had production dates as early as 1935.
Handlers were wary of these old weapons, fearing they might go off spontaneously during catapult launch. Someone suggested that they be immediately jettisoned. Captain John Beling was informed of these concerns, and demanded that Diamond Head, their supply ship, take them back and exchange them for newer ordnance. The reply was that there were no more. Combat operations were using Mark 83s up faster than new ones could be procured. Fat boys were all that was available.
At 10:50am local time, July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.
Today, John McCain’s diagnosis of brain cancer has brought the Senator from Arizona to prominence in the evening news. Fifty years ago today, Lieutenant Commander John McCain was in the cockpit of an A-4 Skyhawk. Next to him was Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White in his own A-4.
An electrical malfunction fired a 5″ Zuni rocket across the flight deck and into White’s fuel tank. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented it from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other fuel tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration as McCain scrambled down the nose of the aircraft and across the refueling probe.
Damage Control Team #8 sprang into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boys turning cherry red in the flames. Without benefit of protective clothing, Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1,000lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.
Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared. The bomb went off in just over a minute, killing Farrier instantly and virtually the entire firefighting team, along with Fred White, who was a split second behind McCain.
The Mark 83 bombs performed as designed, but eight of the old thousand-pounders went off in the next few seconds, triggering the sympathetic detonation of at least one 500 pounder. The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist as huge holes were torn in the flight deck, flaming jet fuel draining into the aircraft hangar and the living quarters below.
Gary Childs, my uncle, was in his cabin when the fire broke out, leaving just before his quarters were engulfed in flames. With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, he and hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control. Flare-ups continued inside the ship until 4:00am on the 30th.
Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial contains the names of 134 crewmen who died in the conflagration. Eighteen of those found their final rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Another 161 were seriously wounded. Not including the aircraft, damage to the USS Forrestal exceeded $72 million. Equivalent to over $415 million today.