1967 USS Forrestal fire
USS Forrestal on fire, the worst US carrier fire since WWII; USS Rupertus (DD-851) maneuvers to within 20 ft (6.1 m) to use fire hoses.
|Date||29 July 1967|
|Time||About 10:50 a.m. local time|
|Location||Gulf of Tonkin, |
|cost to USN US$72 million|
The 1967 USS Forrestal fire was a devastating fire and series of chain-reaction explosions on 29 July 1967 that killed 134 sailors and injured 161 on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59), after an electrical anomaly discharged a Zuni rocket on the flight deck. Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War at the time, and the damage exceeded US$72 million (equivalent to $509 million today) not including damage to aircraft. Future United States Senator John McCain was among the survivors.
Forrestal had departed Norfolk, Virginia in early June 1967. Upon completion of the required inspections for the upcoming WESTPAC Cruise, she then went on to Brazil for a show of force. She then set sail around the horn of Africa, and went on to dock for a short while at Leyte Pier at N.A.S. Cubi Point in the Philippine Islands before sailing to "Yankee Station" in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 25. For four days in the gulf, aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 flew about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam.
By 1967, the ongoing naval bombing campaign from Yankee Station represented by far the most intense and sustained air attack operation in the navy's history, with monthly demand for general purpose bombs ("iron bombs") greatly exceeding new production. The on-hand supply of bombs had dwindled throughout 1966 and become critically low by 1967, particularly the new 1000-lb. Mark 83, which the navy greatly favored for its power-to-size ratio: a carrier-launched A4 Skyhawk, the navy's standard ground attack aircraft of the period, could carry either a single 2000-lb. bomb, or two 1000-lb. bombs, with the ability to strike two separate hardened targets in a single sortie being seen as more desirable in most circumstances. Until 1971, the US Air Force's primary ground attack aircraft in Vietnam was the much heavier land-based F-105 Thunderchief which could carry 2 2,000-lb. M118 bombs and 4 750-lb. M117 bombs (both of which had large stockpiles available) simultaneously on a single sortie, and thus did not need to rely as heavily on the limited supply of 1000-lb. bombs the way the navy did.
In training, the damage control team specializing in on-deck firefighting for Forrestal (Damage Control Team #8, led by Chief Petty Officer Gerald Farrier) had been shown films of navy ordnance tests demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for full 10 minutes and still be extinguished and cooled without an explosive cook off. However, these tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 1000 lb bombs which featured relatively stable Composition H6 explosive filler and thicker, heat-resistant cases compared to their predecessors; H6, which is still used in many types of naval ordnance due to its relative insensitivity to heat, shock and electricity, is also designed to deflagrate instead of detonate when it reaches its ignition point in a fire, either melting the case and producing no explosion at all or at most a subsonic low order detonation at a fraction of its normal power.
The day before the accident (28 July), the Forrestal was resupplied with ordnance from the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head. The load included 16 1000-lb. AN-M65A1 "fat boy" bombs (so nicknamed because of their short, rotund shape), which the Diamond Head had picked up from the Subic Bay Naval Base and were intended for the next day's second bombing sortie. The batch of AN-M65A1 "fat boys" the Forrestal received were surplus from World War II, having spent roughly three decades exposed to the heat and humidity of the Philippine jungles while improperly stored in open-air Quonset huts at a disused ammunition dump on the periphery of Subic Bay Naval Base. Unlike the thick-cased Mark 83 bombs filled with Composition H6, the AN-M65A1 bombs were thin-skinned and filled with Composition B, an older explosive with greater shock and heat sensitivity; Composition B also had the dangerous tendency to become more powerful (up to 50% by weight) and more sensitive if it was old or improperly stored. The Forrestal's ordnance handlers had never even seen an AN-M65A1 before, and to their shock the bombs delivered from the Diamond Head were in terrible condition; coated with "decades of accumulated rust and grime" and still in their original packing crates (now moldy and rotten), some were stamped with production dates as early as 1935. Most worryingly of all, several bombs were seen to be leaking liquid paraffin phlegmatizing agent from their seams, an unmistakably dangerous sign the bomb's explosive filler had degenerated with excessive age and exposure to heat and moisture.
According to A-4 Skyhawk pilot Lieutenant Rocky Pratt, the concern and objection induced in the Forrestal's ordnance handlers was striking, with many afraid to even handle the bombs; one officer wondered out loud if they would even survive the shock of a catapult assisted launch without spontaneously detonating, and others suggested they immediately jettison them into the sea. Since no one wanted to be responsible for scrubbing the next day's missions, the decision was made by the Forrestal's ordnance officers to report the situation up the chain of command to Captain John Beling and inform him the bombs were, in their assessment, an imminent danger to the ship and should not be kept on board.
Faced with this, but still needing 1000-lb. bombs for the next day's missions, Beling demanded the Diamond Head take the AN-M65A1s back in exchange for new Mark 83s, but was told by the Diamond Head that they had none available to give him. The AN-M65A1 bombs had been returned to service specifically because there were not enough Mark 83s to go around. According to one crew-member on the Diamond Head, when they had arrived at Subic Bay to pick up their load of ordnance for the carriers, the base personnel who had prepared the AN-M65A1 bombs for transfer assumed the Diamond Head had been ordered to dump them at sea on the way back to Yankee Station; when notified that the bombs were actually destined for active service in the carrier fleet, the commanding officer of the naval ordnance detachment at Subic Bay was so shocked he initially refused the transfer, believing a paperwork mistake must have been made. At risk of delaying the Diamond Head's departure, he refused to sign the transfer forms until receiving written orders from CINCPAC on the teletype explicitly absolving his detachment of responsibility for their terrible condition.
With orders to conduct strike missions over North Vietnam the next day and no replacement bombs available, Captain Beling reluctantly concluded he had no choice but to accept the AN-M65A1 bombs in their current condition. In one concession to the demands of the ordnance handlers, Beling did agree to store all 16 bombs alone on deck in the "bomb farm" area between the starboard rail and the carrier's island until they were loaded for the next day's missions; standard procedure would have been to store them in the ship's magazine with the other bombs (where an accidental detonation could easily destroy the entire ship).
At about 10:50 (local time) on 29 July, while preparations for the second strike of the day were being made, an unguided 5.0 in (127.0 mm) Mk-32 "Zuni" rocket, one of four contained in a LAU-10 underwing rocket pod mounted on an F-4B Phantom II, accidentally fired due to an electrical power surge during the switch from external power to internal power. The surge originated from the fact that high winds had blown free the safety pin, which would have prevented the fail surge, as well as a decision to plug in the "pigtail" system early to increase the number of takeoffs from the carrier (see below).
The rocket flew across the flight deck, striking a wing-mounted external fuel tank on an A-4E Skyhawk awaiting launch, aircraft No. 405, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White. The Zuni Rocket's warhead safety mechanism prevented it from detonating, but the impact tore the tank off the wing and ignited the resulting spray of escaping JP-5 fuel, causing an instantaneous conflagration. Within seconds, other external fuel tanks on White's aircraft overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to feed the flames, which began spreading along the flight deck.
The impact of the Zuni had also dislodged two of the 1000-lb AN-M65 bombs, which fell to the deck and lay in the pool of burning fuel between White and McCain's aircraft. Damage Control Team #8 swung into action immediately, and Chief Gerald Farrier, recognizing the risk and without benefit of protective clothing, immediately smothered the bombs with a PKP fire extinguisher in an effort to knock down the fuel fire long enough to allow the pilots to escape. The pilots, still strapped into their aircraft, were immediately aware that a disaster was unfolding, but only some were able to escape in time. Lieutenant Commander John McCain, pilot of A-4 Skyhawk side No. 416 next to White's was among the first to notice the flames and escaped by scrambling down the nose of his A-4 and jumping off the refueling probe shortly before the explosions began.
Damage Control Team #8 had been assured of a 10 minute window in which to extinguish the fire and prevent the bombs from detonating, but the Composition B bombs proved to be just as unstable as the ordnance crews had initially feared; after only slightly more than 1 minute, despite Chief Farrier's constant efforts to cool the bombs, the casing of one suddenly split open and began to glow cherry red. The chief, recognizing a lethal cook-off was imminent, shouted for his team to withdraw, but the bomb detonated seconds later – a mere one minute and 36 seconds after the start of the fire.
The detonation destroyed White and McCain's aircraft (along with their remaining fuel and armament), blew a crater in the armored flight deck, and sprayed the deck and crew with bomb fragments and burning fuel. Damage Control Team #8 took the brunt of the initial blast; Chief Farrier and all but three of his men were killed instantly; the survivors were critically injured. Lieutenant Commander White had managed to escape his burning aircraft but was unable to get far enough away in time; White was killed along with the firefighters in the first bomb explosion. In the tightly packed formation on the deck, the two nearest A-4s to White and McCain's (both fully fueled and bomb-laden) were heavily damaged and began to burn, causing the fire to spread and more bombs to quickly cook off.
Lieutenant Commander Herbert A. Hope of VA-46 (and operations officer of CVW-17) was far enough away to survive the first explosion, and managed to escape by jumping out of the cockpit of his Skyhawk and rolling off the flight deck and into the starboard man-overboard net. Making his way down below to the hangar deck, he took command of a firefighting team. "The port quarter of the flight deck where I was", he recalled, "is no longer there." Two other pilots (Lieutenant Dennis M. Barton and Lieutenant Commander Gerry L. Stark) were also killed by explosions during this period, while the rest were able to escape their aircraft and get below.
Nine bomb explosions eventually occurred on the flight deck, eight caused by the AN-M56 Composition B bombs cooking off under the heat of the fuel fires and the ninth occurring as a sympathetic detonation between an AN-M56 and a newer 500 lb M117 H6 bomb that it was lying next to on the deck. The other Composition H6-based bombs performed as designed and either burned on the deck or were jettisoned, but did not detonate under the heat of the fires.
The explosions (several of which were estimated to up to 50% more powerful than a standard 1000 lb bomb due to the unintentionally-enhanced power of the badly degraded Composition B) tore large holes in the armored flight deck, causing flaming jet fuel to drain into the interior of the ship, including the living quarters directly underneath the flight deck, and the below-decks aircraft hangar.
Sailors and marines controlled the flight deck fires by 1215, and continued to clear smoke and to cool hot steel on the 02 and 03 levels until all fires were under control by 1342. The fire was not declared defeated until 0400 the next morning, due to additional flare-ups.
Throughout the day the ship’s medical staff worked in dangerous conditions to assist their comrades. HM2 Paul Streetman, one of 38 corpsmen assigned to the carrier, spent over 11 hours on the mangled flight deck tending to his shipmates. The large number of casualties quickly overwhelmed the ship’s sick bay staff, and the Forrestal was escorted by USS Henry W. Tucker to rendezvous with hospital ship USS Repose at 2054, allowing the crew to begin transferring the dead and wounded at 2253.
The fire left 134 crewmen dead and 161 more injured. Many planes and armament were jettisoned to prevent them from catching fire or exploding. Twenty-one aircraft also sustained enough damage from fire, explosions and salt water to be stricken from naval inventory, including seven F-4B Phantom IIs (BuNos 153046, 153054, 153060, 153061, 153066, 153069 and 153912); eleven A-4E Skyhawks (149996, 150064, 150068, 150084, 150115, 150118, 150129, 152018, 152024, 152036 and 152040); and three RA-5C Vigilantes (148932, 149284 and 149305). The fire also revealed that Forrestal required a heavy duty, armored forklift for use in the emergency jettisoning of aircraft (particularly heavier types such as the RA-5C Vigilante) as well as heavy or damaged ordnance. Sailors had been forced to manually jettison numerous 250 and 500 lb bombs by rolling them along the deck and off the side.
From 31 July – 11 August 1967, Forrestal was moored at Leyte Pier at Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines for temporary repairs. On 12–13 September, Forrestal arrived at Naval Station Mayport and unloaded aircraft and the crews of squadrons based in Florida. On 14 September, the ship returned to Norfolk and was welcomed home by over 3,000 family members and friends gathered on Pier 12 and onboard Randolph, Forrestal's host ship.
From 19 September 1967 – 8 April 1968, Forrestal underwent repairs in Norfolk Naval Shipyard beginning with removal of the starboard deck-edge elevator which was stuck in place. It had to be cut from the ship while being supported by shipyard's hammerhead crane. The carrier occupied drydock number 8 from 21 September 1967 until 10 February 1968, displacing USS John King (DDG-3), an oil tanker, and a mine sweeper that were occupying the drydock. During the post-fire refit, the ship's four aft 5"/54 caliber Mark 42 guns were removed. The forward four guns were removed prior to 1962.
From 8–15 April 1968, Captain Robert B. Baldwin sailed the ship down the Elizabeth River and out into the waters off the Virginia capes for her post-repair trials, the ship's first time at sea in 207 days. While accomplishing trials the ship also recorded her first arrested landing since the fire when Commander Robert E. Ferguson, Commander, CVW-17, landed on board.
Even today the navy commonly refers to the fire aboard Forrestal, and the lessons learned, when teaching damage control and ammunition safety. The navy circulated the lessons which the men of Forrestal re-learned at such cost throughout the fleet, and the flight deck film of the flight operations, subsequently entitled Learn Or Burn, became mandatory viewing for fire fighting trainees for years. All new navy recruits are required to view a training video titled Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life, produced from footage of the fire and damage control efforts, both successful and unsuccessful. On the one hand there were damage control teams spraying fire fighting foam on the deck to contain the flames, which was the correct procedure, while on the other hand crewmen on the other side of the deck sprayed seawater, washing away the foam and worsening the situation by washing burning fuel through the hole in the flight deck into the decks below; burning fuel is not easily extinguished and can in fact be spread by water. Due to the first bomb blast which killed nearly all of the specially trained firefighters on the ship, the remaining crew, who had no formal firefighting training, were forced to improvise.
In response, a "wash down" system was incorporated into all carriers, which floods the flight deck with foam or water. Many other fire safety improvements stemmed from this incident.
The Farrier Fire Fighting School Learning Site in Norfolk is named for Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate Gerald W. Farrier, the sailor who died in the initial explosion in an attempt to extinguish the fire with a single PKP extinguisher.
Although investigators could not identify the exact chain of events behind the carnage, they revealed potential maintenance issues including concerns in circuitry (stray voltage) associated with LAU-10 rocket launchers and Zunis, as well as the age of the 1,000 lb (450 kg) "fat bombs" loaded for the strike, shards from one of which dated it originally to the Korean War in 1953.
Safety regulations should have prevented the Zuni rocket from firing. A triple ejector rack (TER) electrical safety pin prevented any electrical signal from reaching the rockets but it was known that high winds could sometimes catch the attached tags and blow them free. The backup was the “pigtail” connection of the electrical wiring to the rockets pod. Regulations required they be connected only when the aircraft was attached to the catapult ready to launch. The navy investigation found that four weeks before the fire, Forrestal's Weapons Coordination Board had a meeting to discuss the possible problem of a faulty pigtail delaying a mission while the aircraft was removed from the launcher. The board ruled that in the future the crew could ignore protocol and connect the pigtails while the aircraft were still queued. Though never made official, the crew immediately acted on the ruling. The inquiry found that the TER pin was likely blown free while the pigtail was connected and that the missile fired due to a power surge when the pilot transferred his systems from external to internal power. This incident also led the U.S. Navy to implement safety reviews for weapons systems going on board ships (whether for use or for shipping). Today, this evaluation still exists as the Weapon System Explosives Safety Review Board.
- US Navy. DANFS – Forrestal
- Stewart, Henry P. LCDR USN (2004). The Impact of the USS Forrestal's 1967 Fire on United States Navy Shipboard Damage Control (PDF). Master's Thesis, Master of Military Art & Science, Military History. United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. Retrieved 2 September 2008.
- US Navy. Damage control museum. USS Forrestal (CVA 59).[dead link]
- Freeman, 126.
- Freeman, 85.
- Freeman, 87.
- Freeman, 86.
- Freeman, 88.
- Freeman, Gregory A. (2004). Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It. HarperCollins. pp. 273–4. ISBN 978-0-06-093690-7.
- Cherney, Mike (28 July 2007). "Veterans salute sailors killed aboard carrier". Hampton Roads (The Virginian Pilot). pp. 1 and 8. Archived from the original on 26 September 2007. Retrieved 28 July 2007.
- Freeman, Gregory A. (2004). Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It. HarperCollins. pp. 123, 124. ISBN 978-0-06-093690-7.
- South Carolina Military Museum. August 1967 list of casualties. (134 killed, all missing were accounted for. A 135th name, SN Kenneth Dyke, is sometimes included in lists of those killed in the fire. The cited memo notes that he drowned the same day, but prior to the fire.)[dead link]
- "Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life". NTIS. Retrieved 15 September 2011.
- A film of the events
- Unofficial Arlington National Cemetery website. USS Forrestal.
- Freeman, Gregory A., Sailors to the End, HarperCollins, 2002, ISBN 978-0-06-093690-7
- A complete account of the 1967 Forrestal fire can be found in the book Sailors to the End by Gregory A. Freeman. 2002. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-093690-7
- US Navy. Forrestal fire. from Naval Aviation News, October 1967.
- Personal account of the USS Forrestal fire, July 29, 1967 at the Wayback Machine (archived 20 April 2009)
- Virtual Wall – A Memorial to the men who died in the Forrestal fire
- US Navy. Witness to History: USS Forrestal Fire. 1 August 2002.
- Did You Know – The terrible fire aboard the USS Forrestal was the worst single Naval casualty event of the Viet Nam War? at the Wayback Machine (archived 5 November 2004)
- US Navy Damage Control Museum - USS Forrestal at the Wayback Machine (archived 6 October 2009)
- NavSource.org – The Forrestal Fire, 29 July 1967, Ship's Logs