A Nurse with a Gun

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The USS Forrestal Fire

At 10:52 on July 29, 1967, on Yankee Station aboard the USS Forrestal (CV-59), a defining moment in US Naval history occurred. My wife asked me about John McCain's role in the Forrestal fire last night. It was McCain's A-4 Skyhawk that was struck by the zuni rocket launched on deck from an F-4 Phantom. His being there has been politicized by some misinformed individuals, but John McCain only had one role in this tragic incident. That of an aviator........ And perhaps that of a hero.

John McCain's role really doesn't matter to those who have sailed in the US Navy since that time. They know what took place on the USS Forrestal. It was ingrained in each and every one of them as surely as the ice cold wind at Great Lakes RTC in January. All sailors since that time have been trained as firefighters. When there is a fire at sea, the choice is clear. Fight the fire, or die. There is no place to run, no place to swim to.

The lessons of the USS Forrestal were preserved on a training film called "Trial By Fire." Regrettably, I was unable to find a copy, but I was able to find a more modern dramatization of the events. Shellbacks will note several discrepancies, such as modern aircraft and equipment appearing in some of the film. The black and white plat lens footage though is real. The story is factual. The men who died were real.

134 sailors perished. 161 were injured. 21 aircraft were destroyed. Thousands survived, and a ship was saved. For those who want to know true heroism at sea, here is the story of what US sailors commonly know as "The Forrestal Fire."

A complete account of the Forrestal fire can be found in the book Sailors to the End by Gregory A. Freeman.

Update: Trial by Fire thanks Mopar!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the day, when I was a member of Uncle Sam's Canoe Club, we referred to the USS Forrestal as the USS Forest Fire.

Humans have a tendency to minimize major negative events through humor. I think this proves the point. Contrarily, I don't recall any sort of humor applied to 9/11. Maybe if the event is too horrible, no humor applies.


6:47 PM  
Blogger nature223 said...

freaking horrific to be ON a ship ON fire and SURROUNDED by water.
sailors are NOT wimps,and that's grudging respect from a MARINE..sad fact is those men died so we could IMPROVE our fire fighting ability,and their experiances helped us immeasurably save other ships..God Bless them who we lost to that effort

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

"Trial by Fire" was required viewing at OCS a few years ago, although as I remember it didn't mention the umbilical being plugged in contrary to regulations. Mostly focuses on the botched firefighting effort. Great video to watch before going to sea for the first time.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous Billy Budd said...

My son is a fireman on the USS Enterprise, they still use that fire in training. He has been on the big "E" for two years and they never stop training for such emergencies. When fires happen, heads roll.

like on the Washington recently.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

Great video to watch before going to sea for the first time.

Yeah. Kind of like "Mechanized Death" in Driver's Education.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Keith Walker said...

This year my brother retired from the navy after 20 years. Last week he graduated and is now a firefighter. I never really thought about that connection until reading this post.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

I well remember seeing the original footage when we did our fire training at USN boot camp in Orlando, FL (now closed). The Forrestal footage was followed by a film on the dangers of Liquid Oxygen, and included footage of a sailor horribly burned by a LOX fire.

Hands-on fire training included fighting an actual fire in a mock-up of a ship passageway and compartment, with each sailor fighting abour four fires, starting at the back of the hose team and working forward until he actually had control of the nozzle and directed the water, all the time with a training CPO grasping your collar firmly so he could jerk you backwards if you lost your balance.

1:28 AM  
Anonymous Mopar said...

Here ya go Xavier! http://www.archive.org/details/gov.ntis.ava19833vnb1

4:40 AM  
Anonymous mike said...

This it? Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life (1973)

1:37 PM  
Blogger Doc said...

Oh yeah, boot camp memories. The only thing scarier than the forrest fire video was the one on lines snapping and severing everyone's legs. Our CO in Orlando told us before the line video that everyone who wasn't going to 'A' school afterward better watch carefully. We had a guy who was big and dumb and it truly scared the crap outta him. Watching that Forrestal video makes you cringe knowing what we know today about shipboard firefighting. I especially love the shirtless guys fighting the fires. BTW, my uncle was on there and has never really shaken it to this day.

1:39 PM  
Anonymous buzz_knox said...

I only recently learned that some ambulatory fungi are actually blaming McCain for this. It's unbelievalble the depths that some will sink to in the cause of their "religion." Then again, after the attacks against Palin, this doesn't seem as bad.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seeing what these armed forces people did on a regular basis makes me even more proud of them. How can anyone question what John McCain went through, especially when such questioning is strictly political in nature?

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Had a buddy stationed on the Forrestal when I was across the way on the Yosemite. He claimed that she was haunted, I figured if anything was she was. Mayport Naval Station in the early 80s. Rey B

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The uss forest fire was a huge training film while I was in.
It can't be beat for what can go wrong on an at sea vessle.

6:48 PM  
Blogger be603 said...

I still get cold sweats watching that film. Saw it many times in the Nav'.

Flightdeck firefighting school and pre-cruise refreshers were about as much adrenaline rush fun as I've ever had.

That said, being out front of the Connie sixpack during a real F-18 belly landing and the accompanying flight deck fuel spill was (briefly) about as much real pucker factor as I've experienced. Then the 4" line I was manning burst/separated 1 man in front of me. Whoa! Ride 'em cowboy! That broke the tension pronto.

Now get busy boys, what was that about that whole Z-kink thing...

I think the AFFF was a bigger mess to clear than the fuel woulda been. Yes, it took a while to unfoul the deck. Think we might have been blue water up Norpac at the time...

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Danny said...

I don't know the particulars of the Forrestal incident. Who or how was the fire started? Did John McCain help extinguish the fire? Thanks!

6:11 AM  
Blogger Xavier said...

If you watch the five videos in this post, Danny, you will see how the fire started.

It's doubtful that McCain helped extinquish the conflagration. That the job of the enlisted man. McCain was in the same position as Dave Dollarhide. It was his plane that was struck by the zuni.

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Danny said...

Thanks for the info. Sorry, but my connection is pretty erratic right now and I can't seem to play the videos for more than five seconds. I'll play it later.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a ringside seat to the filming of that line parting film Doc. The line they were using broke the tattletale but didn't want to part so they took off the strain, added a little det cord, re-applied tension, and got the footage they wanted. Also Mayport about 82 IIRC. Fun times! Rey B (USN Ret.)

9:32 AM  
Blogger DanMartin said...

During June of 1977, I attended the US Navy Shipboard Firefighting School on Treasure Island. As part of the class we watched the DoD film about the USS Forrestal fire. By the end of the film, there was not a dry eye to be seen.

Dan Martin
City of Richmond Fire Department
Richmond California

11:29 AM  
Blogger Old NFO said...

It was a sad day, but the lessons learned have kept MANY sailors alive... The fire on GW a couple of months ago could have had much more serious results, if not for the crew's training. And yeah, cleaning up the AFFF was a PITA... Had to do that a couple of times on Coral Sea after things went south during a recovery. It was especially bad during blue water ops, when you had to get Texaco off, but the deck was fouled. THAT got interesting!

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Dutch said...

i was aboard the carrier Coral Sea that relieved Forrestal as she limped toward Subic Bay, Philippines, still smoking.

In the days right after the fire, the crew of Coral Sea (CVA-43) was bombarded daily with constant re-runs of the Forrestal's flight deck camera version of how the fire started. This film was repeated often over our ship's estimated 1,000+ TV sets (sometimes displacing or interrupting Batman, Laugh-in, Mission Impossible, etc.). It wasn't until later that the "official" Forrestal Fire movie was produced from the massive amount of film shot by bystanders with their souvenir cameras.

In those days, the three most popular items to bring home from overseas were reel-to-reel stereos, cameras (8mm video and still), and green suits/tuxedos from Hong Kong. There was a lot of amateur film of the fire available. Regretfully, the film shows much more what not to do than the positive. The fire below decks took a long time to put out due mostly to bad communication between fire parties.

I have not yet watched the "dramatization" as i am a slow typist and have much left to do today, but i wanted to thank you for giving aging members of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club a touchstone to bygone days. Not that i wish bad things on people, but tragedy and memories of heroism tend to unite folks who have not seen each other since the event. You may have started something.

5:27 PM  
Blogger R said...

I was aboard the "FID"-as we called her-as part of the Air Group (VA-37/Fighting Bulls)on her last scheduled deployment. A Med cruise supposed to depart October of '89, it was delayed about a month due to a fire. No kidding. That film was gut wrenching to watch the first time at Great Lakes RTC. That movie scared the bejeezus outa me! As a nonrate airman getting sent the "fleet". I thought I was lucky getting sent to a squadron and not ship's company. I remember the shipboard and flight deck fire fighting classes at NS Mayport, FL. I remember the plaque in hangar bay 3 with all the names of the deceased. Spent my first day on the flight deck as a Plane Captain trainee the next day with that film running through my head the whole time. Gotta hand it the Navy they know how to make point...

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We met up with the Forrestal on her way back,We escorted her back home to May port.Saddest duty we ever had while at sea ,

5:40 PM  

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