July 29, 1967 Inferno at Sea

Damage Control Chief Gerald Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 was wiped out.

The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk in June 1967, with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, she stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines, before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the South China Sea, arriving on July 25.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures, like an enormous sparkler.

Along with Mark 83s, ordnance resupply had included sixteen AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, Korean war era surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, as much as 50%, by weight.

250px-Yankee_Station_Location_1These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last ten years in the heat and humidity of Subic Bay depots.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys, with their rusting shells leaking paraffin, and rotted packaging.  Some had production date stamps as early as 1953.

Handlers feared the old bombs might spontaneously detonate from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign was the longest and most intense such effort in US Naval history.   Over the preceding four days, Forrestal had already launched 150 sorties against targets in North Vietnam.  Combat operations were outpacing production, using Mark 35s faster than they could be replaced.

When Forrestal met the ammunition ship Diamond Head on the 28th, the choice was to take on the Fat Boys, or cancel the second wave of attacks scheduled for the following day.

220px-CVA-59_fire_aft_deck_planIn addition to the bombs, ground attack aircraft were armed with 5″ “Zuni” unguided rockets, carried four at a time in under-wing rocket packs.   Known for electrical malfunctions and accidental firing, standard Naval procedure required electrical pigtails to be connected, at the catapult.

Ordnance officers found this slowed the launch rate and deviated from standard procedure, connecting pigtails while aircraft were still, “in the pack”. The table was set, for disaster.

At 10:50-am local time, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and rockets.  An electrical malfunction fired a Zuni rocket 100′ across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crewmember and into the 400-gallon external fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk, awaiting launch.

The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

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In WW2, virtually all American carrier crew were trained firefighters.  This changed over time and, by 1967, the United States Navy had adopted the Japanese method at Midway, relying instead on specialized and highly trained damage control and fire fighting teams.

Damage Control Team #8 came into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boy bombs turning cherry red in the flames.  Farrier  was working without benefit of protective clothing, there had been no time.  Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1000-lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

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Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but the composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 was wiped out.

Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Lieutenant Commander Fred White made it out of his own aircraft a split-second later, but he was killed in that first explosion.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the explosions, office furniture thrown to the floor as much as five decks below.  Huge holes were torn into the flight deck while a cataract of flaming jet fuel, some 40,000 US gallons of the stuff, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

Ninety-one crew members were killed below decks, by explosion or fire.

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With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, sailors and marines fought heroically to bring the fire under control, though they sometimes made matters worse.  Without training or knowledge of fire fighting, hose teams sprayed seawater, some washing away retardant foam being used to smother the flames.

With the life of the carrier itself at stake, tales of incredible courage, were commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “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.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The destroyer USS George K. MacKenzie plucked men out of the water as the destroyer USS Rupertus maneuvered alongside for 90 minutes, directing on-board fire hoses at the burning flight and hangar decks.

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Throughout the afternoon, crew members rolled 250-pound and 500-pound bombs across the decks, and over the side.  The major fire on the flight deck was brought under control within four hours, but fires burning below decks would not be declared out until 4:00am the following day.

Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial records the names of 134 crewmen who died in the conflagration. Another 161 were seriously injured.  26 aircraft were destroyed and another 40, damaged.  Damage to the Forrestal itself exceeded $72 million, equivalent to over $415 million today.

Gary Childs of Paxton Massachusetts, my uncle,  was among the hundreds of sailors and marines who fought to bring the fire under control.  Gary was below decks when the fire broke out, leaving moments before his quarters were engulfed in flames. Only by that slimmest of margins did Uncle Gary and an untold number of others escape being #135.

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July 29, 1967 USS Forrestal

With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control.   Flare-ups would continue inside the ship until 4:00 the next morning.

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.

A-7E_VA-25_dropping_bombs_over_Vietnam_c1970
US Navy A-7 Corsair drops a load of Mark 83 bombs; Photograph by USN – Official U.S. Navy photograph from the USS Ranger (CVA-61) 1970-71 Cruise Book., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18491727

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.

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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.

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By Official U.S. Navy Photograph – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID USN 1124794

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.

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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.