The Day Bombs Went Off on the USS Forrestal
(an excerpt from Sixty-Four Days, A Sea Story by Malcolm Torres)
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.
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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.