Remembering Forrestal - Sailors recount fighting for their ship after one of the Navy’s worst disasters

Sent: Saturday, August 10, 2002 1:13 PM
Subject: Remembering Forrestal

The following articled is published from the 12 August issue of Navy Times....

Remembering Forrestal

Sailors recount fighting for their ship after one of the Navy’s worst disasters

By Patricia Kime
Times staff writer

The Navy’s first “supercarrier,” Forrestal, was just four days into its first combat operation when disaster struck, leaving its crew fighting for their lives.

On July 29, 1967, the ship was preparing for the second strike of the day against targets in North Vietnam when an air-to-ground Zuni rocket misfired on deck and struck a parked and armed A-4 Skyhawk, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, now a U.S. senator.

The fire set off a chain reaction of explosions, killing 134 sailors. Thirty-five years later in Washington, D.C., Forrestal sailors, family and friends met to remember what remains as the worst U.S. naval disaster since World War II.At precisely 10:52 a.m. — the moment the rocket misfired — USS Forrestal Association members gathered at Constitution Gardens near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to memorialize those who died.

“They gave their all, and we are present today because of those who made the supreme sacrifice,” retired chaplain Capt. W. David Cooper told fellow shipmates. The ship’s former commander, retired Rear Adm. John K. Beling, 82, prayed alongside sailors on board that day, including seamen, airmen, engineers, chiefs and aviators.

A table held a flag for each of the 134 men killed. A bell tolled for each name, and survivors placed a wreath at the panel on The Wall containing the men’s names. “They were all out there that day, fighting the fire. The yellow shirts, the blue shirts, the green shirts, ” Forrestal Association Historian Ken Killmeyer said. The day, Killmeyer said, started out “normal.”

The Norfolk-based carrier had arrived in country four days before and already had flown 150 sorties. The day was “sunny, with a slight breeze, hot, humid,” he said. As an aviator fired up the engines of the F-4 Phantom, a Zuni on the jet launched accidentally, shooting across the flight deck and hitting the external fuel tank on McCain’s Skyhawk.

McCain escaped by walking out on the plane’s refueling arm and jumping. But the flames spread to nearby planes and, within two minutes, a World War II-era 1,000-pound bomb exploded, killing the first sailors who responded to fight the fire.

More explosions followed and the fire spread. Above and below decks, men died, either instantly or while battling the blaze.“The flight deck was holed, buckled, twisted and bent,” Killmeyer recalled.

The deck crew fought to contain the fire, throwing ordnance and planes overboard so they wouldn’t explode.“Ask any sailor and they’ll tell you what we fear the most at sea is fire,” said Rear Adm. Frederick Lewis, then a pilot with Attack Squadron 74.

The sailors fought the blaze with limited resources. But within an hour, the main fire was contained; 13 hours later, all fires were extinguished. In addition to the dead, 62 were injured. “We had to fight to save our ship and fight we did,”

Lewis remembered.Charlie Rogers was a teen-ager, a yeoman working in a ready room below the hangar bay. Deep amidships, he could only watch the events unfold on closed-circuit television. The frustration and helplessness he felt that day is evident 35 years later as he recalls the memory. “I can’t tell you how I felt,” he said, choking back tears.

Nine years after its decommissioning, the Navy isn’t likely to forget the Forrestal. The service’s firefighting school is named for Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Chief Gerald Farrier, the flight deck chief who raced to battle the blaze before it spread, armed with one fire extinguisher. The lessons taught at the school reflect those learned that day.

“The Forrestal is part of the curriculum taught in Principles of Aircraft Firefighting,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Caron Curry, an instructor at the Farrier School who attended the ceremony with colleague Jason Brown, a damage controlman first class. “Because of it, the Navy installed proper firefighting systems and gave sailors proper training.

Every sailor is allowed to learn damage-control training,” Brown added. The Forrestal Association is a nonprofit veterans organization with more than 2,000 members. Its charter is to “preserve the memory and spirit of the Forrestal.

”The Forrestal is moored in Newport, R.I. Association members would like to see it turned into a museum. But until that day, they meet yearly at venues across the nation to remember. “My brother was 20” when he died, said Elizabeth Zarnitz, sister of Edward LaBarr.  “I heard about the fire on the radio, and I didn’t have a good feeling. This has given me closure,” she said of the ceremony.

 “I’ve met wonderful people who have shared such wonderful memories, and it’s given me peace.”Patricia Kime’s e-mail address is
YNCS Don Harribine, USN(Ret)