USS Forrestal: The Day the Bombs Went Off

 The Day Bombs Went Off on the USS Forrestal

(an excerpt from Sixty-Four Days, A Sea Story by Malcolm Torres)

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Aboard the USS Enterprise in the 1980s, our old Senior Chief told stories about when he was young.  One of the stories he told took place aboard the USS Forrestal off the coast of Vietnam in 1967.  I was a young sailor, only 19 when I heard this story and it burned into my memory.  Years later I took a creative writing class in college and I wrote about my old Senior Chief.  Here’s an excerpt from Sixty-Four Days, A Sea Story.   By the way, this story has over 200 great reviews and it’s free on eBook sites all over the internet.

*     *     *

Nineteen-year-old Brendan O’Reilly walked across the carrier’s flight deck, clutching the handle of a toolbox.

Jet aircraft were lined up along the perimeter of the deck, their engines screaming loud.  Pilots were in the cockpits going through last minute checks before being launched into the sky.  All the jets were loaded with bombs and missiles.  All the jets were topped up with gas, ready to fly over Vietnam on bombing runs.

Suddenly a thread of blue smoke shot across the deck, marking a missile’s trajectory.

Brendan knew it was a terrible mistake.  In shock he dropped his toolbox and put his hands over his face, and before the toolbox hit the deck, a tremendous explosion and orange flames lifted a cloud of black smoke into the sky.  The alarm, “Fire on the flight deck!” spread quickly through the maze of steel passages below.  That missile had scored a direct hit on an aircraft that was fully loaded with weapons and fuel.  The explosion killed several men sleeping in their bunks in the compartment under the flight deck and it knocked over file cabinets five decks below.

An investigation later found that stray voltage in an F-4 Phantom’s armament system had found its way to the jet’s trigger and launched a Zuni rocket, but right then there was a hellish fire to fight.

Brendan jumped on a hose team and ran straight at the inferno.  Instantly, a second explosion knocked the hose team to the deck and showered them with flaming jet fuel.  The nozzle man looked like a scarecrow soaked in gas and set ablaze.  The high-pressure hose slithered like a snake as salt water gushed from the ripped end where the brass nozzle had been.  A splash of flaming jet fuel soaked the right leg of Brendan’s pants.  Brendan rolled on the deck in a panic, slapping the burning fabric with both hands until a mechanic pulled off his turtleneck jersey and smothered the fire on Brendan’s leg.  Brendan’s pants fused to the skin on his right thigh.  Blisters rose on the palms and fingers of both hands.

The bombs on a third jet erupted, consuming the aircraft in a spectacular blast.  The jet’s flaming tail section collapsed into a catwalk fueling station, melting the black rubber fuel hoses.  Torrents of flaming aviation gasoline flowed through a ventilation duct and poured fire into compartments below.

Brendan stood paralyzed, unable to run away and unable to fight the fire.  Although his hands stung with a cruel pain, somehow he’d grabbed a fire extinguisher but found himself helpless to use it.  He watched a flight deck chief run in to rescue a pilot burning in a locked cockpit.  Without warning a Cluster bomb detonated, disintegrating the chief as ten-thousand burning sulfur bits surrounded him.  Black soot burned in Brendan’s eyes and mouth, making it impossible to see or breathe.  Deafened by the explosions, Brendan could not hear the men shouting orders frantically around him.

Flame-engulfed jets collapsed into holes torn in the deck by their own exploding bombs.

When the fire spread to a flare locker in the catwalk, hundreds of flares whistled in white arcs across the blue sky.

It took fifteen hours to get the blaze under control.  Without the aid of a destroyer that pulled alongside and doused the fire from outboard, the carrier might have sunk.

In the aftermath, they counted over 130 dead sailors, including six pilots incinerated in their cockpits.  The bodies of thirteen sailors, asleep in their bunks in compartments below, were later excavated from the wreckage.

Rumors about a guy who was blown up while taking a crap in a head right under the flight deck went around after a crash and salvage crew used a welder’s torch to dislodge a pair of blackened hipbones from a stainless steel toilet bowl.

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Malcolm Torres is the author of original sea stories and nautical novels available online at all major book and eBook retailers.  Read Malcolm Torres’s blog, which is full of free sea stories, nautical fiction, US Navy adventures and Coast Guard Thrillers.

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49 Responses to USS Forrestal: The Day the Bombs Went Off

  1. Bob Maloney says:

    I was there about a hundred feet from the A-4. We were trying to get the fog foam going when the first 1000 pounder exploded. I’ll never forget it or what I saw lying around me after. Then the 2nd one exploded.

  2. Jack says:

    These memories burn into the brain, it’s a relief that we share them as brothers.

  3. Randy Pagan says:

    We in the CPO community should campaign to have the MOB awarded to SCPO Ferrier..

  4. BarryS says:

    I will never forget the training film we watched in boot camp and at fire fighting school. That chief who ran in with the fire bottle, that was the most corageous act I’ve ever seen.

  5. CPO Ret. says:

    I retired after 22 years in the Navy. During that time I worked aboard several carriers on the west coast. This little story by Mr. Torres rings true in every detail. He plays a bit loose with the technical details, but that’s ok. This story is not ment to be a Navy technical manual. Very well written. Thanks, it brough back many great memories and tough lessons learned.

  6. Barry Smith says:

    I read this story and it brought a tear to my eye. That chief, think his name was Farrian, who ran right into the fire on the Forestall with the extinguisher, should have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

    • WALT STINNER says:

      CHIEF GERALD FARRIER,WHO RAN DIRECTLY INTO THE FACE OF THE FIRE WITH FIRE BOTTLE,ONLY TO BE KILLED MOMENTS LATER FROM BOMB DETONATION.NAVY FIREFIGHTING SCHOOL AT NORFOLK NAVY BASE DEDICATED AND NAMED IN HIS HONOR.
      NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN.

  7. Walt Sinese says:

    Lost a friend there that day William Sheids from Philadelphia .

    • That’s tough, Walt. I know how you feel. I had a good friend killed in an accident on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise. I remember him almost every day. He was a great guy, a true shipmate.

  8. GFLE says:

    This story was well written. I could feel it, see it, smell it and taste it. Thanks.

  9. Joseph Bray says:

    I served in the Navy from 88 to 80 on the USS Nimitz, they show this at boot camp to teach us about shipboard firefighting. My dad actually served on the Forrestal during this fire, he was an HT and what you wrote is how my dad told me. He still has the cruise book with all the photos in there before, during and after. I am going to get this book so I can read more. Thank you.

  10. Jeff Toner says:

    My brother-in-law, LCDR Max Snock, was on deck that day as a young AO2. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his actions. I was in grade school at the time; but I vividly remember my sister, Max’s wife, living next to the phone for days, waiting for news about him. We didn’t know if he was alive or dead, wounded or whole. She was so happy and relieved when Max was able to call her from port in Subic Bay, days after the incident. He was safe; however the Forrestal fires shaped him as a sailor and as a man. His sea stories inspired me to serve in the Navy too.

  11. This is very amazing post i will link this information to my blog, keep posting!

  12. Brian Banos says:

    The chief that charged toward the burning plane with the fire bottle should have received a posthumous medal of honor.

  13. Snipe says:

    I just read the free short story on iBooks and it was well written. Thank you for sharing.

  14. WALT SPINNER says:

    JULY 29,1967 USS FORRESTAL CVA59,WHILE OPERATING YANKEE STATION,TONKIN GULF,NORTH VIETNAM 10:52 A.M.
    ACCIDENTAL LAUNCH – ZUNI ROCKET FROM F-4 AIRCRAFT,STARBOARD SIDE,ACROSS FLIGHT DECK,STRIKING A-4 AIRCRAFT MANNED BY LT.JOHN MCCAIN.RESULTING MAJOR DETONATIONS 1,OOO LB BOMBS(9) FIRES 1/3 OF FLIGHT DECK AND BELOW DECKS. SIXTH DAY OF COMBAT OPERATIONS.LAST DAY OF COMBAT OPERATIONS.SHIPMATES LIVES TAKEN – 134 INJURED 161.
    NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN

    • Walt Spinner that says it all.

      • WALT STINNER says:

        REGRETTABLY,EVEN THOUGH USS FORRESTAL WAS SERVING IN THE TONKIN GULF,YANKEE STATION ON JULY 29,1967,COMBAT ZONE,GETTING COMBAT PAY,NONE OF OUR SHIPMATES THAT DIED(134)OR INJURED(161)FROM FIRES AND BOMB DETONATIONS,1,000 LB BOMBS(9) NEVER RECEIVED THE PURPLE HEART FOR THEIR HEROIC EFFORTS SAVING THE SHIP AND SHIPMATES.THEIR TIME IS LONG OVERDUE.

    • Barry Smith says:

      That Chief should have been awarded the Medal of Honor. I wonder if there was ever a serious effort made to give him that award or any other.

      • Barry, I totally agree! If I didn’t work 50 hours a week and have three kids, I’d personally start a campaign to get that Chief awarded the Medal of Honor. I don’t understand why that never happened.

  15. Kirk Lymburner says:

    I served aboard the Forrestal CVA-59 June 66-July 67. I was the DCPO in V-1 and a director on the bow. While the Ship was in refit in Portsmouth ship yard, V-1 Rep. 8 would spend days at the fire fighting school in Norfolk . Day after day we came back to the ship covered with oil and stunk real bad. Never got the black crap off your skin. In total, about 60 men were trained in aircraft, deck fires and inside spaces. I was transferred prior to deployment . I will always remember the friends and shipmates I knew personally and knew I should have been there with them I lost my chief and I know I would have been with him with a fire bottle. Rest in peace my friends. Miss you all. McCain was aboard and was a pilot flying an A-4.

  16. John Baltzley says:

    Lt. McCain was in an A-4 directly across from the F-4 that fired the missle. Stray voltage caused the release. He climbed out on the refueling probe and got out. There was fire under and around his bird. His dad was Pac Fleet.

  17. Jon M. Lodi MSCM USN, Ret. says:

    I was aboard the USS Intrepid (CVS-11). We arrived nearby them in the Tonkin Gulf, sending our corpsmen aboard the Forrestal, to assist their medical department. The ship was still smouldering and planes were hanging off the sides of the flight deck after exploding. They, like many other ships before them, fought the fires, explosions, and destruction and saved their ship. We all know that at sea, we have nowhere to escape, and must stop the conflagration and destruction of our vessel home. A carrier with its mission and configuration, is one of the most dangerous of our navy’s ships. Yes, all of our ships were using up old WWII bombs, 5″ Shells, and other ammo during the Vietnam War. Many other stories have not been yet told of what happened on board the Forrestal, during and after, that sad day in Us Navy history.

    • I was aboard the USS Enterprise in the 1980s as an Airman working on the flight deck. My old senior chief was on the Forrestal and told us a few stories about fighting the fire. I’ll never forget it.

  18. Rich Simpson says:

    If I am not mistaken, John McCain (Fighter Pilot) was on this ship at the time of the fire). Rich Simpson • rwsimpson4@gmail.com

    • Mike says:

      John McCain was the pilot on the aircraft that launched the first missle

      • CWO R. B. White, USN (Ret.) CATCC-59, FID says:

        Lt. McCain was on the Flight Deck but in a A-4 Skyhawk, not in the F-4. I knew the CO of one of the Phantom squadrons and they lost all their aircraft in the fire. Not all the pilots and there are many stories and anecdotes from this terrible accident. The Navy benefited from the tragedy and made all aircraft operations safer and better prepared in firefighting. Some lessons are learned even from tragic loss. 🙁

      • Mike, Your assertion continues to pop up over and over again. All the ‘official’ accounts say that McCain was there but it was not his aircraft that fired the initial rocket. I’ve also heard that McCain’s dad was an Admiral and was involved in the ‘official’ report – so maybe he gave his son a pass. Who knows? There are many other problems and issues connected to this tragedy, for example the fact that some of the bombs were very old, left over from WWII. Also, the procedures for arming and testing the aircraft electrical systems were not safe, is well documented. Either way, it was a terrible tragedy from which the Navy learned many valuable lessons about fire fighting at sea.

      • Jeff Toner says:

        My brother-in-law was an AO2 on the flight deck that day. He was not assigned to McCain’s aircraft; but at his prior duty station in Paxtuxent, Maryland, my bro-in-law had been McCain’s plane captain. He knew McCain well and his eyewitness accounts put McCain in the A4 that was hit with the first missile, not the F4 that fired it. Official Navy accounts put McCain in the A4 as well.

    • McCain was a light attack bomber pilot on A4 Skyhawk
      He was manning an A4 configured for tanker duty that day.
      Glenn Fuselier, VA195 LEMOORE, CA, TICONDEROGA CRUISE 68′ ORISKANY CRUISE 69′

  19. When I was in the US Navy boot camp they showed us the video of this tragic accident …I remember seeing that Chief running to the plane to try and save the pilot…

    • Mark, It was many years ago but I clearly remember that video, esp seeing that chief running right at the fire with the fire extinguisher in his hand. To this day it makes me have a lot of respect for Navy chiefs. I was in during the early 80s, what about you?

  20. Shelly says:

    This story was pretty intense and thanks for the link to the free ebook.

  21. Sidney says:

    I’m not sure where you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for wonderful info I was looking for this information for my mission.

  22. Buddy says:

    Another good sea story by M. Torres.

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