The USS Forrestal has been deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin in 1967 for the Vietnam War. During a routine launch a rocket accidentally fires across the deck and hits a fuel tank. An explosive chain reaction follows, engulfing the ship in fire. Fighter aircraft on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal prepare to launch for a sortie over Vietnam. An electrical power surge together with an ineffective safety mechanism and altered weapon-arming procedures cause the accidental firing of a Zuni rocket. The rocket strikes another armed and fuelled aircraft, starting a fire that detonates various munitions. Firefighting efforts inadvertently spread the fire below deck. The disaster kills 132 personnel with a further 161 wounded and 2 missing, presumed dead.
The 1967 USS Forrestal fire was a devastating fire and series of chain-reaction explosions on 29 July 1967 that killed 134 sailors and injured 161 on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59), after an unusual electrical anomaly discharged a Zuni rocket on the flight deck. Forrestal was engaged in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War at the time, and the damage exceeded US$72 million (equivalent to $502 million today) not including damage to aircraft.
Forrestal had departed Norfolk in early June 1967. Upon completion of the required inspections for the upcoming WESTPAC Cruise, she then went on to Brazil for a show of force. She then set sail around the horn of Africa, and went on to dock for a short while at Leyte Pier at N.A.S. Cubi Point in the Philippine Islands before sailing to “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin. For four days in the gulf, aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 flew about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam. Because of a shortage of 1,000 pounds (453.6 kg) bombs, old Composition B bombs (World War II-vintage AN-M65s) had been loaded from the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head, instead of newer Composition H6 filled (500-lb. Mk 82 and 1,000-lb. Mk 83), capable of withstanding higher temperatures.
At about 1050 (local time) on 29 July, while preparations for the second strike of the day were being made, an unguided 5.0 in (127.0 mm) Mk-32 “Zuni” rocket, one of four contained in a LAU-10 underwing rocket pod mounted on an F-4B Phantom II, was accidentally fired due to an electrical power surge during the switch from external power to internal power. The surge originated from the fact that high winds had blown free the safety pin, which would have prevented the fail surge, as well as a decision to plug in the “pigtail” system early to increase the number of takeoffs from the carrier.
The rocket flew across the flight deck, striking a wing-mounted external fuel tank on an A-4E Skyhawk awaiting launch, aircraft No. 405, piloted by LCDR Fred D. White. The Zuni Rocket’s warhead safety mechanism prevented it from detonating, but the impact tore the tank off the wing and ignited the resulting spray of escaping JP-5 fuel, causing an instantaneous conflagration. Within seconds, other external fuel tanks on White’s aircraft overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to feed the flames, which began spreading along the flight deck.
The impact of the Zuni had also dislodged two of the 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs (World War II-vintage AN-M65s), which lay in the pool of burning fuel between White and McCain’s aircraft. The fire team’s chief, Gerald Farrier (without benefit of protective clothing) immediately smothered the bombs with a PKP fire extinguisher in an effort to knock down the fuel fire long enough to allow the pilots to escape. The pilots, still strapped into their aircraft, were immediately aware that a disaster was unfolding, but only some were able to escape in time. LCDR John McCain, pilot of A-4 Skyhawk side No. 416 next to White’s was among the first to notice the flames and escaped by scrambling down the nose of his A-4 and jumping off the refueling probe shortly before the explosions began.
According to their training, the fire team normally had almost three minutes to reduce the temperature of the bombs to a safe level, but the chief did not realize the “Comp. B” bombs were already critically close to cooking-off until one split open. The chief, knowing a lethal explosion was imminent, shouted for the fire team to withdraw but the bomb exploded seconds later – a mere one and a half minutes after the start of the fire.
The detonation destroyed White and McCain’s aircraft (along with their remaining fuel and armament), blew a crater in the armored flight deck, and sprayed the deck and crew with bomb fragments and burning fuel. The on-deck firefighting contingent took the brunt of the initial blast; all were killed instantly with the exception of three men who were critically injured but ultimately survived. LCDR White had managed to escape his burning aircraft but was unable to get far enough away in time; he was killed along with the firefighters in the first bomb explosion. In the tightly packed formation on the deck, the two nearest A-4s to White and McCain’s (both fully fueled and bomb-laden) were heavily damaged and began to burn, causing the fire to spread and more bombs to quickly cook off.
LCDR Herbert A. Hope of VA-46 (and operations officer of CVW-17) was far enough away to survive the first explosion, and managed to escape by jumping out of the cockpit of his Skyhawk and rolling off the flight deck and into the starboard man-overboard net. Making his way down below to the hangar deck, he took command of a firefighting team. “The port quarter of the flight deck where I was”, he recalled, “is no longer there.” Two other pilots (LT Dennis M. Barton and LCDR Gerry L. Stark) were also killed by explosions during this period, while the rest were able to escape their aircraft and get below.
Nine bomb explosions eventually occurred on the flight deck, eight caused by the “Comp. B” bombs and the ninth occurred as a sympathetic detonation between an old bomb and a newer H6 bomb. The explosions tore large holes in the armored flight deck, causing flaming jet fuel to drain into the interior of the ship, including the living quarters directly underneath the flight deck, and the below-decks aircraft hangar.
Sailors and Marines controlled the flight deck fires by 1215, and continued to clear smoke and to cool hot steel on the 02 and 03 levels until all fires were under control by 1342. The fire was not declared defeated until 0400 the next morning, due to additional flare-ups.
Throughout the day the ship’s medical staff worked in dangerous conditions to assist their comrades. HM2 Paul Streetman, one of 38 corpsmen assigned to the carrier, spent over 11 hours on the mangled flight deck tending to his shipmates. The large number of casualties quickly overwhelmed the ship’s Sick Bay staff, and the Forrestal was escorted by USS Henry W. Tucker to rendezvous with hospital ship USS Repose at 2054, allowing the crew to begin transferring the dead and wounded at 2253.