This is the story of one of the worst accidents in U. S. Navy history took place aboard the carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59). On July 29th, 1967, the ship was in the Gulf of Tonkin preparing a fleet of fighter jets to hit targets in North Vietnam. The deck was full of jets being armed and fueled for the mission.
The tragedy began when a missile was accidentally fired from one of the planes. It flew across the deck and struck an A-4 Skyhawk that was itself fully loaded with ordinance and fully fueled.
That A-4 was immediately engulfed in flames, along with four other fighters nearby.
One of the sailors on deck, Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Gerald Farrier, rushed into action with a fire extinguisher. His only thought was to get the pilots out of the burning planes. In the heavy black smoke that filled the aft deck, no one noticed that two 1,000 pound bombs had dropped from one of the planes into the flames and suddenly exploded, killing all of the sailors in the firefighting teams that were closest to the fire.
This first terrifying explosion would be followed within minutes by nine more.
Great holes were opened on the deck pouring burning fuel into three levels of decks below. The trained firefighting teams in the Forrestal’s crew were utterly decimated in the first minutes of the event.
During the course of the rest of that day, the fires both on the flight deck and those below were fought with incredible courage by crew members who had no training in the skills of firefighting on board ship. The fire on the the flight deck was put out by the end of the day, but fires below deck would burn and have to be fought until the evening of the next day, July 30, 1967.
When the fires were finally out and the smoke had cleared, the toll of that event on the crew became clear. The damage to the ship was monumental, but the real cost was measured in lives lost. When the roll was taken, 134 of the brave men of the USS Forrestal crew had been either killed or were missing.
So many good men. So many brave souls. Lost. But their memory and the lessons of that day would, in the end, honor their memory.
A fire onboard a ship is a frightening thing. You cannot run from it. There is no place to run to in any case. The tragedy that engulfed the entire crew of the Forrestal that day 48 years ago was met with heroic actions almost beyond description. There were many mistakes made that day. The two trained firefighting teams on board the Forrestal were essentially wiped out in the early minutes of the emergency. As a result, other crew members who were not specifically trained as firefighters had to find the courage to take over and to fight on. Since that time the Navy instituted new protocols and has made the firefighting training of all sailors paramount.
A documentary film was made (shown above) from on-board film taken by on board cameras that were regularly used to record takeoffs and landings. Those cameras recorded the events of that day as they unfolded and that film would be studied in the investigations that followed the event. The Navy documentary uses those films as well to emphasize the importance of training.
Though many mistakes were made that day, many more important and valuable lessons have been learned. One thing is certain, the courage of the sailors of the Forrestal crew showed uncommon courage and commitment to one another in all of their efforts on that harrowing day.
They stepped up to the horrifying challenge and were victorious at the end of the day.
Today, U.S. Navy’s firefighting skills and equipment are second to none. When fighting a fire aboard ship out at sea, you are on your own. You must face and fight a fire in close quarters and, if you are aboard a combat ship, you do so knowing that you are also carrying your own potential destruction around you at all times in the form of fuel and ammunitions. There is no place to run to, no place to hide.
There is no room for passive fire fighting efforts; you have to attack the fire aggressively.
The tactics, the protective clothing, the equipment such as nozzles and hoses and foam retardants that the U.S. Navy has developed are specific to the kinds of conditions that must be faced in a fire emergency on board a modern U.S. Navy ship. Sailors now get mandatory training in firefighting techniques, both in boot camp and in regular training exercises while aboard ship.
Since the Forrestal tragedy, new damage control doctrines were developed by the Navy. The investigations done by the Navy after the event resulted in several proposals for improving shipboard damage control. Most of these were implemented successfully and have substantially improved and enhanced damage control operations.
We here at The Veterans Site wish to remember all those who died in the efforts to fight the battle to save the ship that day 48 years ago. We salute also, all those who rose to the challenge that day. Your courage that day says a lot about your common character. You did what you had to do in the face of immense odds. You are the best.
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