May 12, 1975  The Mayaguez Incident

For a century, French colonial rulers had looted the mineral wealth of Cambodia, leaving a countryside riddled with mines.  After four years of Communist rule, those mines were filled with bones.

Between AD790 and 1431, the Khmere Empire founded by Prince Jayavarman II occupied much of what today includes Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.  Now extinct, this powerful civilization was in its day, home to the largest city in the world.

Until recently overrun by Jungle, the capital city of Angkor, whose original name was Yashodharapura (“Glory-bearing city”), was nearly the size of modern day Los Angeles, and home to a million people.  Even today, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat, built circa 1122, remains the largest religious monument in the world.

Temple complex at Angkor Wat

During the 1950s, a group of some 200 middle-class Cambodian kids were educated at French Universities.  The greater part of them formed a student group of Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, dreaming of an agrarian utopia on the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

Flag of Democratic Kampuchea

What began as a small leftist insurgency in Cambodia, grew in power thanks to support from Communist China and North Vietnam.  From only a few hundred individuals in 1960, these “Red Khmeres” (Khmere Rouge) grew into an effective insurgency against the Khmere Republic government of Norodom Sihanouk and Lon Nol.

By early 1975, the Khmere Rouge had overwhelmed Khmer National Armed Forces.  The Khmere Rouge captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, overthrowing the government and executing its officers.

Pol Pot

Unlike the cult of personality grown up around the Kim family of North Korea or that of the Stalinist USSR or Maoist China, the Communist Party of (the newly re-christened) “Kampuchea” (CPK) was led by a secretive, eight-member group of those same leftist intellectuals from the Paris student days, calling itself the the “Angkar”, (pronounced ahng-kah, translating as ‘The Organization’).

The Khmere Rouge and the Angkar, led by Communist General Secretary Saloth Sar (better known as ‘Pol Pot’), set to work creating an agrarian peasant’s utopia by exterminating political opponents in “Democratic Kampuchea”, including monks, teachers and business owners.  Anyone possessing so much as a whiff of an education, a pair of eyeglasses even, was deemed an “enemy of the people” and clubbed to death on the spot.

For a century, French colonial rulers had looted the mineral wealth of Cambodia, leaving a countryside riddled with mines.  After four years of Communist rule, those mines were filled with bones.

p1140644At the height of its depravity, the Khmere Rouge smashed the heads of infants and children against Chankiri (Killing) Trees so that they “wouldn’t grow up and take revenge for their parents’ deaths”. Soldiers laughed as they carried out these grim executions.  Failure to do so would have shown sympathy, making the killer him/herself, a target.


As the war in neighboring Vietnam drew a close, the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia remained part of an unknown and terrible future.   Representatives of the United States, North & South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed the Paris Peace Treaty in January, 1973. The last Americans airlifted out of Saigon on April 30, 1975 as the capital fell to Communist forces.

9820114_origOn May 12, the American flagged container ship SS Mayaguez passed the coast of Cambodia bound for Sattahip, in southwest Thailand.  At 2:18pm, two fast patrol craft of the Khmere Rouge approached the vessel, firing machine guns and then rocket-propelled grenades across its bows.

Captain Charles Miller ordered Mayaguez to a stop, but not before broadcasting SOS and Mayday messages.   39 Americans were now hostages of the Khmere Rouge.  Some of the most savage killers, of the 20th century.

time - mayaguezThe cargo vessel was being towed to Kompong Som on the Cambodian mainland, as word of the incident reached the White House.  A government made to look weak and indecisive by what President Ford himself called the “humiliating withdrawal” of only days earlier, could ill afford another drawn-out hostage drama, similar to that of the USS Pueblo.  Massive force would be brought to bear against the Khmere Rouge, and time was of the essence.

Two destroyers and an aircraft carrier were ordered to proceed at full speed to the Gulf of Thailand, along with a contingent of Air Force fighters, bombers, and helicopters. A Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft located Mayaguez anchored off Kho-Tang Island, 40 miles from the Cambodian mainland.

At least some of the Mayaguez crew were (mistakenly)  believed to be held on the island. Air force units air lifted a battalion-sized Marine rescue team to rescue the crew.  Meanwhile, the destroyer USS Holt was ordered to seize the Mayaguez, as the aircraft carrier Coral Sea launched bombing strikes against military targets in Cambodia.

usmckohtangExpecting only light resistance, US forces were met with savage force on May 15, from a heavily armed contingent of some 150-200 Khmere Rouge. Three of the nine helicopters participating in the operation were shot down, and another four too heavily heavily damaged to continue

US bombing raids accomplished their purpose on the Cambodian mainland. A fishing boat soon approached the destroyer USS Wilson under flag of truce.  Onboard were the 39 crewmen of the Mayaguez.

The situation was different on Kho-Tang Island. US forces were ordered to withdraw, as Khmere Rouge commanders pressed the attack. Air Force helicopter crews and Marine riflemen moved through heavy fire throughout the 15th, their defensive perimeter becoming smaller with the departure of every over-loaded chopper.

mayagtowThe cost of the Mayaguez Incident, officially the last battle of the Vietnam war, was heavy.  Eighteen Marines, Airmen and Navy corpsmen were killed or missing in the assault and evacuation of Kho-Tang Island.  Another twenty-three were killed in a helicopter crash.  The last of 230 Marines would not get out until well after dark.

No United States Marine would leave one of their own behind, either dead or alive. Not intentionally, but such discipline was impossible in the chaos of that night.  LCpl Joseph Hargrove, Pfc Gary Hall and Pvt Danny Marshall formed a machine gun team, guarding the right flank of the evacuation as darkness fell.

The team was last seen by Sgt. Carl Anderson Jr.. Later reports described the three as being out of ammunition and “scared”.  Anderson ordered the three to evacuate and they were preparing to do so, when last seen. Navy SEALs and Marines asked permission to go back and attempt a rescue, but permission was denied.

The government in Washington, touted the operation as a victory.

image (3)
From left, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall and Pvt. Danny Marshall H/T Stars and Stripes, for this image

Joseph Nelson Hargrove turned twenty-four, the day he was last seen on that beach. In 2012, Khmere Rouge commander Em Son told Stars & Stripes that Hargrove was captured a week later, trying to steal food. He was shot and killed the following day, while attempting to escape. Gary Hall and Danny Marshall were captured a short time later, brought to the mainland and beaten to death by the Khmere Rouge.  Both were 18.

In 2011, Khmer Rouge platoon commander Mao Run claimed to have killed a US service man with a grenade, several days after the battle. Alone and exhausted, this may have been a fourth man left behind alive. The name of this man and the details of his final days, remain uncertain.

The last official battle of the War in Vietnam, etched the last 41 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington.

This is a long clip – about 28 minutes – but well worth watching.

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May 4, 1970 Kent State

For traditionally-oriented Americans, such language was alarming, to say the least.

The Cold War was at its peak in 1950, the war in Korea, just begun.   US policy makers were convinced that the conflict represented a Kremlin-backed expansion of international communism. The US began sending military advisers into French Indochina that year, in support of a colonial war which had been off and on since before the American Civil War.

download (79)France would leave the country following defeat by Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu (May, 1954), while US involvement continued and escalated through the early ’60s.

US Troop levels tripled and then tripled again.  Combat units were deployed, beginning in 1965.

The American war in Vietnam began to lose public support by the late ’60s, ultimately driving an American President out of office.   In a March 31, 1968 address carried on live television,  President Lyndon Johnson stated “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

North Vietnam invaded the South that year on the Lunar New Year “Tet” holiday.  The “Tet Offensive” was a crushing military defeat for communist forces, but a public relations setback for the American side.  TV news and AP crews brought the events into living rooms, across America.

No TV news crews were on-hand in the ancient city of Huế, to record the communist murder of thousands of prisoners and civilians, including women, men, children, and infants.

download (78)Richard M. Nixon won overwhelming victory in the Presidential election of 1968, running on a platform including a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

US combat fatalities exceeded 3,600 in the first two months of the new administration, as Nixon secretly expanded the war effort, bombing neighboring Cambodia and sending US Marines into Laos.

US public opinion went ballistic in May 1969, as the New York Times revealed expanded military operations on the Indochinese peninsula.  The President was furious, and ordered government officials and journalists to be wiretapped, to track down the leak.

Opposition increased later that year, in response to the massacre of civilians at the village of My Lai, and the re-institution of involuntary military conscription by US Selective Service, later that year.  The First Draft Lottery was held on December 1, 1969.

Draft-age Americans didn’t want to be conscripted into a war they strongly opposed, and demonstrations erupted across the American countryside.  In Ohio, full-scale riots broke out at Kent State University, part of what Time Magazine called “a nation-wide student strike”.

Kent State University, a large, multi-campus public research university located in Northeastern Ohio, (the Kent Campus had 28,972 students in 2017), had long been a focal point for antiwar protests.  In the 1966 homecoming parade, protesters marched in military uniforms, wearing gas masks.

Kent_State_mapStudents for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other “New Left” organizations staged sit-ins in the fall of 1968. Demonstrations became violent six months later, resulting in 58 arrests. Four SDS leaders spent six months in prison.

In April 1970, “Youth International” (“Yippie”) Party leader Jerry Rubin spoke on campus, stating that “The first part of the Yippie program is to kill your parents. They are the first oppressors.” Two weeks later, SDS member Bill Anthrell distributed flyers to a campus event, in which the former student announced his intention to “napalm a dog”.

For traditionally-oriented Americans, such language was alarming, to say the least.

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“Yippie” leader, Jerry Rubin

Cambodia’s political neutrality and military weakness had long turned the eastern border regions of that country into “safe zones” for Vietnamese communist forces.

President Nixon announced a US incursion into Cambodia in late April 1970, at a time when the war seemed to be winding down.

Kent State University students held rallies on the following day, at which about 500 burned draft cards.  Some burned a copy of the United States Constitution. Another rally was planned for the fourth, but violence broke out that night. A toxic mix of approximately 120 students, bikers, and out-of-town troublemakers set fires, threw bottles at police, shouted obscenities and smashed Kent store fronts.  Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency and closed the bars, adding to the crowds in the streets.

Mayor Satrom requested that Governor Jim Rhodes call out the National Guard.  Satrom’s request was granted, as a large demonstration formed on the Kent State campus. The campus ROTC building was set on fire late on May 2, as over a thousand demonstrators surrounded the building and cheered as it burned.

Radical revolutionaries, agitators and other non-students had by this time infiltrated the crowd, though their numbers are uncertain.  Several Kent firemen and police officers were hit by rocks and other projectiles while attempting to put out the fire. Several fire engine companies were called in while protesters slashed hoses and hurled projectiles at fire fighters, police officers, National Guard soldiers, and Highway Patrol troopers.  The ROTC building burned to the ground.

An emotional Governor Rhodes pounded the table during a press conference, the following day.  “They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America. This is when we’re going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms“.

University authorities attempted without success to stop the May 4 demonstration, planned three days earlier.  Shortly before noon, campus patrolman Harold Rice approached demonstrators in a National Guard Jeep, and read the order to disperse.  Over 2,000 protesters responded by hurling rocks, injuring one campus police officer and forcing the Jeep into retreat.

kent-state-shooting-10Tear gas failed to break up the crowd and several canisters were thrown back, with near-constant volleys of rocks, bottles and other projectiles.  77 National Guardsmen advanced in line-abreast, as screaming protesters closed behind them.  Guardsmen briefly assumed firing positions when cornered near a chain link fence, though no one fired.

At 12:24, the Guardsmen once again assumed firing position. Witnesses later testified that a sniper opened first, but the story was never proven nor debunked. 67 rounds were fired.  13 seconds later it was over, with four dead and nine wounded. Two of the dead, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, had participated in the protest. The other two, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder, were walking to class at the time they died. Schroeder was a member of the Kent State ROTC battalion.

One National Guardsman was wounded severely enough to require medical treatment.

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Christine Ellen “Chrissie” Hynde, future lead singer of The Pretenders, was a KSU student at that time. She was there.  Let the words she wrote in her 2015 autobiography, finish this story:  “Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man’s voice: “They fucking killed somebody!” Everything slowed down and the silence got heavier… The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam”.

The arsonist(s) were never found.


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November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

ICYMI – Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

If you speak of France, most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass and 95.9% of the population, of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.

That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.

First_Indochina_War_COLLAGEWhat historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

Na SanThe war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.

Dien_Bien_Phu, baseIn June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropping into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as they continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

Vo felt that he had made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien_bien_phu-resupplyThe French staff made their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. The communists didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.

French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, Piroth circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Last moments
Last moments of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954, as depicted by North Vietnamese artist Huy Toan

“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall, it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.

The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in the north and south alike.

US support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem-supported village leaders.  President John F. Kennedy responded in 1961, sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.


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November 13, 1982 The Wall

The names begin at the center and travel outward, the east wing ending on May 25, 1968. The same day continues at the far end of the west wing, moving back toward the center at panel 1W. The last name on the wall, the last casualty of the war, meets the first, and the circle is closed.

A couple of years ago, my brother was working in Washington, DC.  I was passing through, and it was a great chance to spend some time together. There were a few things we needed to see while we were there.  The grave of our grandfather, at Arlington. The Tomb of the Unknown.  The Korean and WW2 memorials.  Before the day was over, we wanted to see the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial.

images (8)“The Wall” was dedicated on this day, November 13, 1982. 31 years later, we had come to pay respects to our Uncle Gary’s shipmates, their names inscribed on panel 24E, the 134 lost in the disaster aboard the Supercarrier USS Forrestal, in 1967.

We were soon absorbed in the majesty, and the solemnity, of the memorial.

It’s a black granite wall, 493’6″ long and 10’3″ high at its peak, laid out in a great wedge of stone which seems to rise from the earth and return to it. The name of every person lost in the war in Vietnam is engraved on that wall, appearing in the order in which they were lost.

Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr
Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr

Go to the highest point of the memorial, panel 1E, the very first name is that of Air Force Tech Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., of Stoneham, Massachusetts, killed on June 8, 1956. Some distance to his right you will find the name of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, killed on Sept. 7, 1965. They are one of three Father/Son pairs who are so remembered.

The names begin at the center and travel outward, the east wing ending on May 25, 1968. The same day continues at the far end of the west wing, moving back toward the center at panel 1W. The last name on the wall, the last casualty of the war, meets the first, and the circle is closed.

There, you will find the name of Kelton Rena Turner of Los Angeles, an 18-year old Marine, killed in action on May 15, 1975, in the “Mayaguez incident”, two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon. Most sources list Gary L. Hall, Joseph N. Hargrove and Danny G. Marshall as the last to die in Vietnam, though their fate is unknown. These three were United States Marines, an M-60 machine gun squad mistakenly left behind while covering the beach evacuation of Koh Tang Island. Their names appear along with Turner’s, on panel 1W, lines 130-131.

PFC Dan Bullock
PFC Dan Bullock

There were 57,939 names when the Memorial opened in 1982. 39,996 died at the age of 22 or younger, 8,283 were 19 years old. The 18-year-olds are the largest age group, with 33,103. Twelve of them were 17 on their last day on earth.  Five were 16. There is one name on panel 23W, line 096.  That of PFC Dan Bullock, United States Marine Corps.  He was 15 years old. Eight names are those of women, killed while nursing the wounded. 997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam.  1,448 died on their last. There are 31 pairs of brothers on the Wall: 62 parents who lost two of their sons.

As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307, as the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall.

I was nine years old in May 1968, the single deadliest month of that war, with 2,415 killed. I remember the rancid political atmosphere of the time, and the national disgrace that was the way these people were treated on returning home.

I once thanked a business associate for his service in Vietnam. It stunned me to learn that in 40 years, no one had ever said that to him.

Today, I can only hope that Vietnam veterans know and understand how many of us appreciate their service.   And I wish to advance the idea that, if anyone has an issue with our country’s war policy, they need to take it up with a politician. Not with the Armed Services member who is doing what his country asked him to do.


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.

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,

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.

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.


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.