In Summer of 1967, an accidental launch of a rocket left 134 service members dead aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59).
This tragic incident remains the second deadliest U.S. Naval ship occurrence since the Second World War. Notably, the late U.S. Senator John S. McCain III survived the fire.
While the destruction of 21 aircraft, injury of 161, and death of 142 sailors and aviators was a horrible consequence of the fire, the incident transformed the service’s approach to damage control, ordnance handling, and firefighting which has unquestionably contributed to minimizing damage and loss in future events.
Introducing the USS Forrestal
The USS Forrestal was a supercarrier that initially commissioned with the Navy in 1955.
As the leader of her class, the Forrestal was given the moniker “First in Defense” after her namesake, the first U.S. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal.
This cutting-edge carrier was the first of its kind to sport an angled flight deck, steam catapult and an optical landing system.
The tragic incident that left 134 sailors dead
After arriving on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1967, the USS Forrestal suffered severe damage when a rocket from an F-4 Phantom II was accidentally triggered and shot across the carrier’s flight deck, striking a parked A-4 Skyhawk jet piloted by John McCain.
The airframe then spilled out fuel and caught fire, which quickly spread to nearby airframes on the ship’s deck. To make matters worse, the fire detonated a 1,000-pound AN-M65A1 bomb which ignited a chain reaction.
The hefty bombs were brought onboard the Forrestal the previous day and were reportedly very old and in bad condition. Ultimately, roughly half of the carrier was in flames at the peak of the fire.
Many of the 142 service members killed were firefighters or first responders when the Skyhawk was initially struck.
The details of the incident were described in the initial Informal Board of Investigation mishap report:
“In a period of four minutes, seven major explosions shook the entire ship and some 40,000 gallons of jet fuel from aircraft spotted on the flight deck was ignited and contributed to the damage. Fire-fighting teams, pilots, and squadron personnel on deck were knocked down, injured or killed by the series of explosions. The fire spread with the first explosion to every aircraft across the entire after part of the flight deck. Seven holes were ripped through the deck from explosions of 750 lb., 500 lb., and 1000 lb. bombs. Rockets and 20mm shells shot across the deck, and ejection seats fired into the air.”
Notably, the USS Forrestal disaster was not the only fire that occurred aboard U.S. Naval carriers during the 1960s.
In 1966, a magnesium parachute flare was accidently triggered onboard the Oriskany, killing 44 sailors and aviators.
In 1969, an improperly positioned airframe starter ignited a Zuni rocket setting off a series of explosions.
The USS Forrestal incident, however, resulted in the greatest loss of life of these three incidents. Following these events, firefighting training for all crewmembers aboard U.S. carriers became required.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.
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