Honoring the Men of USS Forrestal

by Steve on August 2, 2006


July 29th, marked the 39th anniversary of the deadly fire that claimed the lives of 134 men on board CVA-59. Forrestal and her crew reached Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam on July 25th, 1967, and commenced launching strikes against targets in North Vietnam. The pace was grueling but the Forrestal settled into her combat routine. On the 28th the ship and her crew prepared for a major strike planned for the next day. The USS Diamond Head, an ammunition supply ship, pulled along side to replenish ordnance and deliver 1,000 pound bombs for the strike. Underway replenishment was a routine part of life at sea but the bombs being transferred to the Forrestal were causing concern among the ordnance personnel. Contrary to the political rhetoric flowing back in 1967, there was a shortage of bombs in the pacific fleet. The bombs that were being loaded aboard the carrier were old WWII “composition B” explosives out of Subic Bay, Philippines, that should have been destroyed years earlier. They were rusty, corroded, and in some cases leaking. They were nothing like anything the crew had ever seen and with good reason; some of the crates were stenciled with a manufacturing date of 1935.

Composition B ordnance becomes increasingly unstable as it ages and is highly sensitive to heat and vibration, both of which are frequently encountered on a carrier deck. To make maters worse, aging composition B could actually produce an explosion of an even greater magnitude than originally designed. H-6 ordnance, the kind that Forrestal’s crew was intimately familiar with, had replaced the composition B inventory. H-6 was designed to withstand the modern carrier environment. It was heat resistant, vibration tolerant, and if engulfed in a fire it would not go off “high order.” It would still explode but at a much lower level than if detonated as intended. The ordnance officer on Forrestal didn’t want the deadly bombs on the ship and contacted Captain Beling, Forrestal’s CO. Beling radioed Diamond Head’s captain and in no uncertain terms refused the suspect ordnance and demanded it be replaced. The old bombs were all that was available. Captain Beling had a strike package to deliver and he needed 1,000 pounders to accomplish his assigned mission. The Navy had backed him into a corner. Forrestal continued loading the old, leaking bombs that could explode if exposed to any manner of external stimuli.

Weeks earlier Forrestal’s Weapons Coordination Board in reviewing deck procedures had decided to drop the endorsed practice of waiting to connect control cables to weapons racks until the jet was on the cat just prior to launch and connect them prior to moving the aircraft. They made this procedural change to improve the efficiency of crew’s ability to launch aircraft as fast as possible in support of combat operations. After all this was not training anymore and the safety pins would prevent any electrical signal from actually reaching the racks even with the electrical pigtails in place. What the board didn’t know is that the deck crew had started pulling the safety pins while the jets were still back in the pack, again in the interest of saving time on the cat and relying on lack of an electrical connection to act as a safety. Forrestal had redundant safety procedures in place to protect against the very disaster that was about to happen. Unfortunately well-meaning sailors viewed these redundancies as opportunities to shave precious seconds off the time it took to get attack aircraft safely airborne. Captain Beling was never informed of these changes.

The morning of the 29th the flight deck was swarming with activity as the crew prepared to launch the first strike package at 0700. By 0750 Forrestal had 37 aircraft headed for targets in North Vietnam. The second launch was scheduled for 1100 and at 1046 the carrier turned into the wind. Fully fueled aircraft, some loaded with the old unstable bombs, others with a mix of the new bombs, rockets, and missiles were spotted all over the deck and especially bunched up along either side of the landing area all pointed inward. The racks holding the missiles and rockets were armed as a combined result of the installed pigtails and removed pins. The crew of an F-4 Phantom, in preparation to taxi forward, switched from external power to internal generators and sent stray voltage down the connected pigtail and past the missing safety pin to a pod full of Zuni rockets. A single rocket fired across the deck punching a hole through the A-4 Skyhawk piloted by LDCR John McCain. Burning JP5 fuel poured from McCain’s Skyhawk and engulfed the rest of the A-4’s spotted next to him.

The initial fire was a direct result of bypassed safety procedures and stray voltage but the burning fuel alone could not have caused the catastrophe that nearly destroyed the Navy’s first supercarrier. However, the circumvented procedures were officially determined to be one of the causal factors in the disaster. For years the crew that fought so valiantly to save their ship and shipmates was told that they alone were to blame for the accident. The final investigation revealed that a small switch failed in the F-4’s rocket arming system which allowed the rocket to fire even without the electrical signal to do so. The Navy focused on the rocket but it was not the rocket that killed 134 men, it was the old bombs. The faulty ordnance was given slight mention in the reports but never the scrutiny that it deserved. It is very likely that the fire could have been controlled and extinguished within ten minutes before any of the modern bombs cooked off but after only one minute and thirty-four seconds the first of the old 1,000 pound bombs detonated from the heat of the inferno. That bomb and the others that followed ripped open the flight deck and poured burning fuel down into the ship. She continued to burn for almost nineteen hours before all the fires were put out. Twenty-one aircraft were destroyed and total damage was estimated at $72 million dollars. 134 dead and 164 more injured ranked this disaster as the Navy’s single largest loss of life during the Vietnam war.


I went to sea in the Forrestal for her last operational deployment in May of 1991. We launched off that same deck where men laid down their lives to save others. Down in hangar bay #1 is a large bronze plaque with 134 names on it:

To the officers and men of USS Forrestal, living and dead, who on July 29, 1967, proved through their comradship and heroism that uncommon valor was their common virtue.


The firefighting systems and procedures in place on today’s carriers are a direct result of the Forrestal fire, a promise to the 134 men who gave their lives that such a fire would never happen again.

For an excellent read, pick up Sailors to the End by Gregory Freeman. www.sailorstotheend.com

Efforts are being made to find a suitable home for the Forrestal as a museum but for now she sits quietly tied alongside a pier in Newport, RI.


deb50 August 2, 2006 at 9:17

Thank you for that wonderful story. I remember hearing about the Forrestal, but I had forgotten about it. Makes me wonder about how many other things I have forgotten.

SJBill August 4, 2006 at 12:53

Mr. Ambrose,

Your post is one of the best I have read on the topic. I remember hearing of this incident while underway aboard USS Essex.

The Cold War was not cold. We lost many sailors, but gaiend much from the epxeriences.

Curt August 4, 2006 at 14:27

A well written book on the fire is: “Sailors to the End” by George Freeman. I read it a few years back and am in awe of the events that lead up to the accident (using WWII bombs out of Subic didn’t help) and the heroism of those who rushed the fire to save the ship.

Curt August 4, 2006 at 14:32

Pardon me not throughly reading the entire post. I second the book…:)

Many years later, one of the programs that emerged from the investigation was the Explosives Handling Qualification and Certification Program (EHPQCP), was a source of constant irriation to the fleet, as I had to have my team inspect it abaord the LANT surface units. In the aftermath of the SARATOGA NSSMS firing incident of Oct 92, I had to visit all LANT ships, including the AIRLANT ones, to certify them safe to operate. I had one huge argument with a gunner on one of the CVs, then had to remind him it was the FORRESTAL accident that spawned the program for our collective and his safety, so he had better get it into operation. His CO agreed.

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