The 1967 USS Forrestal fire represents one of the most tragic and influential incidents in the history of the United States Navy.

This catastrophic event occurred on July 29, 1967, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59), then stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.

The fire, which resulted from a series of explosive and rapid chain reactions, claimed the lives of 134 sailors and injured 161, making it one of the deadliest accidents in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Contents

Background

Commissioned in 1955, the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) was the first of its class of supercarriers and represented a significant advancement in naval aviation. As the largest aircraft carrier of its time, the Forrestal was designed to accommodate the larger, more powerful jet aircraft that emerged after World War II. This technological leap forward brought with it complexities in operation and maintenance. The carrier was equipped with cutting-edge technology and a diverse array of armaments, making it a formidable tool in U.S. military strategy during the Cold War era.

USS Forrestal in the Mediterranean Sea in 1962.

During its service in the late 1950s and 1960s, the Forrestal played various roles, from deterrence patrols in the Mediterranean to participating in joint military exercises. By 1967, the carrier was deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin to partake in Operation Rolling Thunder during the Vietnam War. This operation involved intensive aerial bombardment campaigns against North Vietnamese targets, placing the Forrestal and its crew in a high-stakes, high-pressure operational environment.

The Fire On USS Forrestal

At the heart of the catastrophe was an electrical issue. On the morning of July 29, as the ship was preparing for combat operations, an electrical power surge occurred. This surge, likely due to an electrical anomaly, caused a Zuni rocket to be accidentally fired from an F-4B Phantom II fighter jet parked on the deck.

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The F-4B, like other aircraft on the Forrestal, was prepared for combat with its weapons armed. This state of readiness, while necessary for the mission objectives, also meant that the aircraft were more vulnerable to accidents in the event of equipment failures. Investigations later suggested that the wiring in the F-4B may have been faulty or damaged, contributing to the inadvertent firing of the rocket.

The misfired Zuni rocket traversed the deck and struck an external fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk. This aircraft was being piloted by then-Lieutenant Commander John McCain. The impact of the rocket ruptured the fuel tank, causing a massive spill of JP-5 jet fuel. The highly flammable fuel quickly ignited, creating an intense and rapidly spreading fire on the deck.

Moments after the Skyhawk’s fuel tank was hit by the Zuni missile.

Compounding the disaster was the presence of World War II-era AN-M65 Composition B bombs. These bombs, loaded on the aircraft for the mission, were known to be less stable and more sensitive to heat and shock than newer ordnance. Due to a shortage of newer bombs, the ship had been equipped with these older, more dangerous munitions.

In the blaze that followed the initial rocket strike, these bombs began to cook off – detonating much sooner than expected. Standard procedure at the time was based on the assumption that bombs would not detonate for at least 10 minutes when exposed to intense heat, providing time for firefighting efforts. However, the Composition B bombs on the Forrestal detonated within minutes, causing massive explosions that further fueled the fire and led to additional casualties and damage.

Response And Containment

As soon as the fire broke out, following the misfire of the Zuni rocket and subsequent explosions, the crew of the Forrestal sprang into action. Firefighting teams, known as damage control parties, were rapidly deployed to the flight deck. These teams, composed of sailors who had received basic firefighting training, were the first line of defense against the spreading fire. Their primary goal was to extinguish the flames as quickly as possible and prevent them from reaching the ship’s magazine, where the bulk of the munitions were stored.

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The fire was intense and fueled by jet fuel, which made it particularly challenging to control. The situation was further exacerbated by the explosions of the older, unstable bombs that added to the ferocity of the flames. These explosions not only spread the fire further but also created additional hazards for the crew trying to fight it.

One of the resulting explosions as more Skyhawks burn.

One of the major challenges in containing the fire was the lack of preparedness for such a large-scale and complex emergency. While the crew had undergone standard firefighting training, the scale and intensity of the Forrestal fire were beyond their usual scope of experience. Additionally, the ship’s firefighting equipment, though state-of-the-art at the time, was not adequate for the unexpected and rapid succession of events, particularly the explosions of the ordnance.

Moreover, the crowded conditions on the flight deck, with numerous aircraft loaded with fuel and munitions, made it difficult for the damage control teams to navigate and effectively combat the fire. The heat and smoke further impeded their efforts, creating a chaotic and dangerous environment.

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Despite these overwhelming challenges, the crew’s response was heroic. Sailors who were not part of the designated firefighting teams joined in the effort, using whatever means available to fight the fire. In several instances, crew members risked their own lives to save their shipmates and to jettison burning aircraft overboard to prevent further spread of the fire.

Crew members fight the fires on the ships deck.

One significant act that prevented an even greater disaster was the successful effort to cool and protect the ship’s magazine. If the fire had reached this area, the resulting explosions would have likely been catastrophic for the entire ship. The success in preventing this outcome is a testament to the bravery and quick action of the crew.

The Aftermath Of The USS Forrestal Fire

The immediate aftermath of the fire was grim. The tragedy claimed the lives of 134 sailors, making it one of the deadliest accidents in the history of the U.S. Navy. Additionally, 161 sailors were injured, many severely, due to burns and other injuries sustained during the fire and subsequent explosions.

The material damage to the USS Forrestal was extensive, with 21 of the 73 aircraft aboard destroyed and 40 more damaged. Also, significant portions of the flight deck and other areas of the ship were heavily damaged or destroyed. The carrier itself required extensive repairs before it could return to service.

USS Forrestal underwent temporary repairs in the Philippines before travelling back to the US.

The disaster prompted an immediate and comprehensive review of Navy safety protocols, damage control procedures, and emergency response measures. One of the most significant outcomes was the overhaul of firefighting and damage control training. The Navy recognized the need for more rigorous training that simulated the conditions of a major fire more accurately. This led to the development of more realistic training programs and facilities where sailors could train under controlled, yet challenging conditions.

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In addition to training improvements, the Navy also revised its policies regarding the handling and storage of munitions. More stable and less sensitive types of bombs and other ordnance were developed and implemented to reduce the risk of similar accidents. The storage and handling procedures of these munitions aboard ships were also significantly improved.