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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 , after an unusual electrical anomaly discharged a Zuni rocket on the flight deck. Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkinmarker during the Vietnam War at the time, and the damage exceeded $72 million (not including damage to aircraft).


Forrestal had departed Norfolkmarker in early June. 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. For four days in the gulf, aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 flew about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam. Because of a shortage of bombs, old Composition B bombs had been loaded from the ammunition ship , instead of newer Composition H6, capable of withstanding higher temperatures.


About 10:50 (local time) on 29 July, while preparations for the second strike of the day were being made, an unguided 5-inch Mk-32 "Zuni" rocket, one of four contained in a LAU-10 underwing rocket pod mounted on a F-4 Phantom II, was accidentally fired due to an electrical power surge during the switch from external power to internal power.

The rocket flew across the flight deck, striking a wing-mounted external fuel tank on an A-4 Skyhawk awaiting launch, either aircraft No. 405, piloted by LCDR Fred D. White, or No. 416, piloted by LCDR John McCain. The warhead's 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. Other external fuel tanks overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to feed the flames which spread along the flight deck, leaving pilots in their aircraft with the options of being incinerated in their cockpits or running through the flames to escape. LCDR White leaped from his burning aircraft but was killed instantly (along with many firefighters) by the cooking off of the first bomb. LCDR Herbert A. Hope of VA-46 (and operations officer of CVW-17) jumped out of the cockpit of his Skyhawk between explosions, rolled 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." With his aircraft surrounded by flames, McCain escaped by climbing out of the cockpit, walking down the nose and jumping off the refueling probe.

The impact of the Zuni dislodged two of the bombs, which lay in the burning fuel. The fire team's chief, Gerald Farrier (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. According to their training, the fire team normally had almost three minutes to reduce the temperature of the bombs to a safe level, but the chief did not realize the "Comp. B" bombs were already critically close to cooking-off until one split open. The chief, knowing a lethal explosion was imminent, shouted for the fire team to withdraw but the bomb exploded seconds later - only one and a half minutes after the start of the fire.

The detonation destroyed McCain's aircraft (along with its remaining fuel and armament), blew a crater in the armored flight deck, and sprayed the deck and crew with shrapnel and burning jet fuel. It killed the entire on-deck firefighting contingent, with the exception of three men who survived with critical injuries. The two bomb-laden A-4s in line ahead of McCain's were riddled with shrapnel and engulfed in the flaming jet fuel still spreading over the deck, causing more bombs to detonate and more fuel to spill.

Nine bomb explosions occurred on the flight deck, eight caused by the "Comp. B" bombs and the ninth occurred as a sympathetic detonation between an old bomb and a newer H6 bomb. The explosions 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 12:15, and continued to clear smoke and to cool hot steel on the 02 and 03 levels until all fires were under control by 13:42. They finally declared the fire defeated at 04:00 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 Forrestal was escorted by to rendezvous with hospital ship at 20:54, allowing the crew to begin transferring the dead and wounded at 22:53.


Forrestal about one month after the fire.
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-4 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-5 Vigilantes (148932, 149282 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), since the sailors of Forrestal had been forced to manually jettison numerous aircraft through human force, which was both inefficient and dangerous to the exposed crew.

From 31 July to 11 August 1967, Forrestal was moored at Leyte Pier at Naval Air Station Cubi Pointmarker in the Philippines for temporary repairs. On 12-13 September, Forrestal arrived at Mayportmarker 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 , Forrestal s host ship.

From 19 September 1967 to 8 April 1968, Forrestal underwent repairs in Norfolk Naval Shipyardmarker. The carrier occupied drydock number 8 from 21 September 1967 to 10 February 1968. The ship floated from drydock and shifted to Berths 42 and 43 in front of the drydock to complete repairs. During the post-fire refit, the ship's four aft 54_caliber_Mark_42_gun" href="/5"/54_caliber_Mark_42_gun">5"/54 caliber Mark 42 guns were removed. The forward four guns were removed prior to 1962.

From April 8-15 1968, CAPT Robert B. Baldwin sailed the carrier 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 CDR Robert E. Ferguson, Commander, CVW-17, landed on board.

Flags and photos displayed at a 40th anniversary memorial ceremony in Norfolk, VA.

Even today the Navy commonly refers to the fire aboard the 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 Burns", produced from footage of the fire and damage control efforts, both successful and unsuccessful. On the one hand there were damage control teams spraying 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 killing nearly all of the specially trained firefighters on the ship, the remaining crew, who had no formal firefighting training, had to improvise.

Nowadays, it is said that every US Navy sailor is a firefighter first. A large portion of basic training is dedicated to firefighting and prevention tactics. Though there were many firefighting tools available on the Forrestal, including emergency respirators, the general crew were not trained in their use and failed to use them correctly.

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.

Eighteen crew members were buried at Arlington National Cemeterymarker. Names of the dead are also listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorialmarker.


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 pound "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 the 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.


File:CVA-59 fire deck camera.jpg|deck camera viewsFile:USS Forrestal fire 2 1967.jpg|initial explosionsFile:USS Forrestal fire 1 1967.jpg|File:CVA-59 fire1967 burning ac.jpg|Crew removing ammunitionFile:USS Forrestal fire-fighting 1967.jpg|fire-fighting from the islandFile:USS Forrestal fire RA-5Cs burning 1967.jpg|RA-5Cs burningFile:USS Forrestal fire-fighting water 1967.jpg|Image:USS Forrestal explosion 29 July 1967.jpg|Crew members fighting firesImage:USS Forrestal 1967 fire aftermath.jpg|Exhausted crewmembersFile:USS Forrestal fire rescue helicopters 1967.jpg|helicopters evacutating the woundedFile:USS Repose AH-16 27 July 1967.jpg|USS Repose near Forrestal

Further reading

  • 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 0060936908

See also


  1. US Navy. Damage control museum. USS Forrestal (CVA 59).
  2. 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.)
  3. A film of the events
  4. Unofficial Arlington National Cemetery website. USS Forrestal.
  5. Freeman, Gregory A., Sailors to the End, HarperCollins, 2002, ISBN 0060936908

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