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NavSource Online: Aircraft Carrier Photo Archive

Courtesy of CAPT Gene Oleson, CHC, USN (Ret)

The Forrestal Fire,
July 29, 1967

Ship's Logs

Contributed by Ken Killmeyer, USS Forrestal Association Historian.
Aboard July 29, 1967.

July 29, 1967 (Saturday)

The tragic fire began with the accidental launching of a Zuni rocket from a F-4B Phantom aircraft. This rocket launch was not the result of error on the part of the crew. The rocket streaked across the flight deck and struck the external fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk aircraft, spilling volatile aviation fuel across the flight deck. Within five seconds the fuel ignited, spreading under other aircraft loaded with ordnance and fueled for the second launch of that morning. Huge clouds of black smoke billowed three hundred feet into the air. Scores of flight deck personnel rushed to contain the spread of the flames from reaching thirteen adjoining aircraft all loaded with ordnance. In one minute and thirty-four seconds after the fire started, the first 1000 lb. bomb exploded. Flying shrapnel tore into other aircraft, ruptured more fuel tanks, and spread lakes of flaming aviation fuel over the deck. In a period of four minutes, seven major high order explosions shook the entire ship ripping seven huge holes through the thick armored steel flight deck with some reaching through the ship to the water line. Countless high and low order detonations continued. Some 40,000 gallons of jet plane fuel leaking from punctured aircraft fuel tanks, spread into holes ripped through the deck, spreading flames to many compartments far below the flight deck. Courageous fire fighting teams, officers, and enlisted men were knocked down, injured, or killed by the series of explosions. Rockets, missiles, and 20 mm shells shot across the flight deck, and ejection seats fired into the air. Twelve minutes after the last major explosion, but with minor explosions continuing, flight deck directors moved aircraft from near the island super structure while fire fighting teams kept the fire from advancing farther forward. Aircraft, some still in flames, were jettisoned in an effort to keep the fire from spreading. Fires continued out of control in the after part of the ship far into the night. Finally the fire was extinguished at 0400, 30 July 1967. Heroic crewmembers risked life and limb to battle the blaze, rescue fellow crewmembers and save their ship.

The crew of over 5,000 men saved their ship. One Hundred Thirty-four crewmembers made the supreme sacrifice. One hundred sixty-one men were injured with sixty-four personnel sustaining severe injuries.

  "Situation Critical: USS Forrestal" - Documentary about the tragic 1967 fire  

Steaming as a unit of Attack Carrier Striking Group 77.6 in company with the USS Rupertus (DD-851) and USS Henry W. Tucker (DD- 875) on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, sixty miles off the coast of North Vietnam on course 090 at 12 knots. Senior Officer Afloat is Commander Attack Carrier Striking Group 77.6, Rear Admiral Harvey P. Lanham embarked in Forrestal as Commander Attack Carrier Striking Group composed of USS Forrestal, USS Rupertus, with Commander Destroyer Division Thirty-Two embarked, and USS Henry W. Tucker. Tactical Officer in Command is Captain John K. Beling. Destroyers in screen 3C2 with USS Henry W. Tucker in station one and USS Rupertus in station two. Boilers 1B, 2A, 2B, 4A, 4B and Generators 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 are on the line. General Condition of Readiness III and Material Condition Yoke are set throughout the ship.

0315 Man overboard.
0513 USS Forrestal secured from man overboard, USS Henry W. Tucker (DD-875) and USS Rupertus (DD-851) continuing man overboard search.
0544 USS Rupertus (DD-851) secured from man overboard search, rejoins USS Forrestal.
0600 Commenced combat air operations. Alpha strike, 37 aircraft.
0749 Forrestal completes launching her Alpha Strike.
0914 Completed recovering Alpha strike, all aircraft returning.
1034 Commenced launching two KA-3B Skywarrior aircraft.
1048 Launched KA-3B Skywarrior from catapult #2.
1049 Launched EA-1F Skyraider from catapult #1.
1050 E-2A Hawkeye spotted on Cat #1, KA-3B Skywarrior spotted on Cat #2.
1052 Zuni rocket accidentally launches, striking an A-4E Skyhawk spotted on port side. Fuel of center line fuel tank begins leaking. Fuel tank erupts. Called away fire parties to man fog foam stations.
Called away General Quarters. All hands manning General Quarters stations, setting material condition Zebra throughout the ship.

Forrestal fire as viewed from flight deck.

1053.26 First 1,000-pound bomb explodes.
1053.36 Second and third 1,000-pound bombs explode.
1054.18 Fourth 1,000-pound bomb explodes.
1054.20 Missile streaks forward.
1055 Helicopter Angle 20 of HS-1, USS Oriskany (CVA-34) recovers first USS Forrestal crewmen from water.
1056 USS Oriskany (CVA-34) maneuvering to close on USS Forrestal.
1057 USS George K. Mac Kenzie (DD-836) maneuvering at 27 knots closing on USS Forrestal.
1102 USS Rupertus places motor whale boat in water, maneuvering to close on USS Forrestal.
1105 Helo Angle 20 recovers three more USS Forrestal survivors from water.
1108 Detonations have ceased. Movement of aircraft away from island commences.
1112 USS Rupertus (DD-851) maneuvering to take station on port quarter of USS Forrestal.
1114 USS Forrestal speed 7 knots.
1115 USS Forrestal commenced requesting medical assistance. USS Rupertus maneuvered to starboard quarter of USS Forrestal.
1117 All USS Forrestal crewmen trapped by smoke are instructed to move forward via hangar bay or second deck passageways.
1118 Helicopter Angle 20 recovered another USS Forrestal survivor, ammunition, equipment, and burning aircraft.
1120 USS Forrestal informed crew to take injured to forecastle for treatment.

(XO of VF-74 "Be-Devilers" on 29 July 1967)

It's the flight deck of Forrestal at the start of the fire on July 29, 1967. I have close connections with that photo. The folded port wing shown is that of the F-4B Phantom I was manning at the start of the fire. I was amidships, port side, chained down with the engines running, no ground crew in sight. I looked back when the fire first started, and said to my RIO, LT(JG) Jim Martin (now deceased), "this is really going to screw up this launch." It looked like just one aircraft on fire. Little did I know. When the fire spread across the after end of the flight deck, I was anxious to get unchained and taxi forward. I told Jim that if no one came to unchain us, I would go into burner to try to break the tiedowns. At that moment, a plane captain named Dale Goldinger came running aft, toward the fire, and unchained me and also wingman John Orsburn's F-4, and we scooted up the deck. It was obvious we needed as much separation as possible from that fire. At about 1 minute 20 seconds after the fire started, the first bomb exploded. It was like it went high order like it was properly fuzed. The difference between the bombs exploding and the fuel tanks previously exploding was infinite. The bomb explosions severely jarred the whole ship. Until the first bomb went, I was calm. When the first bomb went, I switched to the extremely scared mode. My knees were knocking and doing a dance on the cockpit floor. Having taxiied forward, there were no tie-down chains. Goldinger showed up again and gave me the signal to do what plane captains did to avoid having to sit holding the brakes in the process of being towed. They would loosen the seat belt and put it around the emergency pneumatic brake handle, then tighten the seat belt. I did that and was satisfied the plane would be OK, so I got out. I headed for the ready room, thinking my RIO would follow. Reaching the ready room and not finding Jim behind me, I retraced my steps to the catwalk. There was Jim, taking photos. (RIO's were required to carry cameras to record battle damage if possible.) I am sure he got some of the most spectacular photos of the fire. We all credited him with taking the shot that John Newlin shows as photo of the day. Years later, when RADM Peter Booth published his books, the photo appears and Pete says he took it. The conflict about who took it never came up in my squadron, because Pete left the ship right after the fire to arrange a transfer to a Phantom squadron in the Gulf of Tonkin. The day after the fire, the Maintenance Chief came to me and said, "Mr. Martin blew the rear canopy off your F-4 before he got out. We told him about it and he denies it. But the rear canopy is missing; he must have done it." I asked Jim about it and he denied jettisoning the canopy. I had lots of other things to worry about so nothing else was said about it. Many, many years later I was looking at that photo, and behold, there's the rear cockpit canopy on the flight deck a hundred or two hundred feet aft of the plane. You can barely make it out in the photo John publishes; if you could see the same photo in the Forrestal cruise book, it's much clearer. Look for it on the flight deck; in the photo, it's just below the A-4 which is about to be engulfed in flames, just about the center of the photo. The view of the canopy is from the left rear of the canopy; the arc of the rear of the top of the canopy can be clearly seen. Wow, what a day.

P.S.: A human interest angle is that [Lieutenant Commander, and future] Sen. John McCain was manning one of the A-4's near the one that was hit by the Zuni. I have seen some stories that it was McCain's A-4 that was hit. I think that is incorrect. I believe it was the A-4 of LCDR Fred D. White (VA-46) which was struck by the Zuni. That's what was said in the aftermath of the fire. White did not survive.

Photos by LT(JG) Jim Martin,
via CDR John Newlin, USN (Ret)

Forrestal fire as viewed from miles away. (Larger image submitted by Alex Tatchin.)

1124 Captain Beling ordered all badly damaged aircraft to be pushed over the side.

1126 Recovered helo from USS Oriskany with medical assistance. Rocket magazine on port side 03 level is flooded to prevent further explosions.
1128 Detonation from aircraft along starboard side aft of elevator throws aircraft parts toward advancing fire fighters.
1129 USS Rupertus directing fire hoses on starboard aft flight deck, and two burning aircraft. USS George K. Mac Kenzie embarked three USS Forrestal survivors.
1133 Two helicopters from USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) proceeding to rescue USS Forrestal survivors from water.
1135 USS Rupertus (DD-851) directing fire hoses on hangar bay three areas.
1139 Five USS Forrestal men reported in water starboard side.
1141 USS Rupertus (DD-851) maneuvering clear of USS Forrestal's starboard side.
1142 Fires out on two burning aircraft on starboard side.
1144 USS Rupertus maneuvering to take station on USS Forrestal's port quarter.
1146 Intense fire reported in compartment at port quarter 01 and 02 level. USS George K. Mac Kenzie sights survivors in water.
1151 All ordnance on second deck bomb assembly area has been stowed in magazines.
1154 USS George K. Mac Kenzie embarked three USS Forrestal survivors.
1155 USS George K. Mac Kenzie proceeding alongside USS Forrestal to assist in fire fighting.
1158 One RA-5C Vigilante jettisoned from angled deck forward.
1200 Two USS Forrestal crewmen observed falling overboard.
1203 USS Rupertus maneuvering to maintain position on USS Forrestal's port quarter.
1204 USS Oriskany commenced lowering both motor whaleboats into water. USS Oriskany maintaining station 3,000 yards off USS Forrestal's starboard quarter.
(Left) NS025916c.– This is a rare photo in that it shows, in the same frame, USS Forrestal (CVA‑59); USS Rupertus (DD-851); and helo Childplay Angel 20, from HC-1 "Pacific Fleet Angels" Det. G, USS Oriskany (CVA-34). Several crewmen who had been blown overboard from Forrestal were rescued from the water by Angel 20, pilot LT David E. Clement, ENS Leonard M. Eiland, Jr., Aviation Machinist's Mate James O. James, and Airman Albert Barrows. (Thanks to Ken V. Killmeyer, Fire, Fire, Fire on the Flight Deck Aft; This Is Not a Drill.)

Photo submitted by Jeff Guidry, for his uncle Steve Guidry, who served in V-3 Division in 1967 aboard
U.S. Navy photograph. Photos above submitted by Robert M. Cieri.
(Above) NS025916.– The skipper of the destroyer USS Rupertus (DD-851), in what Rear Adm. Harvey P. Lanham, ComCarDiv Two, called an act of "magnificent seamanship," maneuvers his ship to within 20 feet of USS Forrestal (CVA-59) so fire hoses could be effectively used on the worst fire aboard a U.S. carrier. More than 130 crew were killed in the blaze 29 July 1967 off the coast of Vietnam.
1209 USS George K. Mac Kenzie maintaining station on USS Forrestal's starboard quarter.

NS025924 (above) submitted by Bob Canchola, BT, USN (Ret.)
NS025928 (below) submitted by Alex Tatchin

1214 USS Rupertus alongside port quarter of USS Forrestal.
1215 USS Forrestal reports fire on flight deck out. USS George K. Mac Kenzie reports sighting survivors in water. USS Henry W. Tucker proceeding at 28 knots to join USS Forrestal. USS Samuel N. Moore (DD-747) directed to search for survivors.
1216 Nine USS Forrestal survivors reported in water.
1218 USS Bon Homme Richard conducting search for survivors of USS Forrestal.
1225 USS Rupertus concentrating hoses on after port five-inch gun mount and below.
1229 USS George K. Mac Kenzie alongside USS Forrestal's starboard side.
1245 Stubborn fires remain on 01, 02, levels Hangar Bay Three.
1254 Two major fires reported aft on port and starboard sides.
1309 USS Rupertus maneuvering to clear USS Forrestal.
1311 USS Rupertus commenced to form up search line for survivors.
1335 USS George K. Mac Kenzie maneuvering from USS Forrestal's fantail area to Hangar Bay Three area.
1342 USS Forrestal reports fires under control.
1343 USS George K. Mac Kenzie breaking off from USS Forrestal to recover her whaleboat.
1348 USS Forrestal reports fires in the 01, 02, and 03 level still burn, but that all machinery and steering is operational.
1349 USS Henry W. Tucker proceeding to join search for USS Forrestal survivors. USS Rupertus maneuvering to investigate debris in water for survivors.
1412 USS Forrestal reports after radio compartment evacuated. All fires extinguished on 01 level.
1445 USS Forrestal reports fire in Hangar Bay Three out.
1447 USS Forrestal reports compartment fires continue, but progress is being made. USS Forrestal commenced steaming to rendezvous with hospital ship USS Repose (AH-16).

NS025925.– Crewmen work feverishly to remove external fuel tanks and ordnance from burning an RA-5C Vigilante and other aircraft on the after section of USS Forrestal (CVA-59) during the worst fire aboard any US carrier. One hundred thirty-four crew were killed in the blaze on 29 July 1967 off the coast of Vietnam.

U.S. Navy photo.

NS025915a.– The crew of USS Forrestal (CVA-59) extinguishes the remaining fires on the flight deck off the coast of Vietnam, 29 July 1967. In the foreground are the remains of an F-4B Phantom, behind which can be seen the burned hulk of a second Phantom. One hundred thirty-four crew died in this fire, the worst aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.

U.S. Navy photo.

NS025915.– Crew members fight a series of fires and explosions on the carrier's after flight deck, in the Gulf of Tonkin, 29 July 1967. The conflagration took place as heavily-armed and fueled aircraft were being prepared for combat missions over North Vietnam.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph (# USN 1124794) in the collections of the Naval Historical Center.
1510 USS Forrestal reports fire on starboard quarter.

NS025929.– This diagram was taken from a drawing provided by USS Forrestal and shows the location of CVW-17 aircraft spotted for launch moments before the fire broke out. From "Naval Aviation News," October 1967 issue.
1550 Commander Task Force 77 announced he is sending USS Forrestal to Subic Bay after USS Forrestal joins up with USS Repose.
1600 Holes cut in flight deck to allow fire hoses into 03 level compartments. Chlorine gas reported on 03 level starboard side at frame 214.
1639 USS Forrestal speed 20 knots.
1800 USS Forrestal speed 27 knots.
1844 USS Forrestal reports fires still burning.
1900 USS Forrestal speed 10 knots. Fire reported in compartment 03-222 starboard and port sides.
1907 Fire in compartment 02-210-1-L out of control.
1920 USS George K. Mac Kenzie proceeding to port quarter of USS Forrestal to affect fog foam and OBA Canisters.
2030 USS Forrestal reports fires on 02 and 03 levels are contained, but the area is still too hot to enter.
2033 USS Forrestal reports fires on 02 level are under control but fire fighting is greatly hampered by smoke and heat.
2054 USS Forrestal reports only fires on 02 level port side are still burning.
2141 USS Forrestal reports radio contact with USS Repose.
2253 USS Forrestal commenced transferring deceased and injured personnel to USS Repose.
2258 Forrestal commences maneuvering on various courses and speeds while maintaining station astern of Repose.
2306 Forrestal assumes tactical command of USS Bausell (DD-845).

NS025926.– Grimy and exhausted, crewmen of USS Forrestal and her airwing continue firefighting efforts in the aftermath of the blaze that killed 134 of their shipmates 29 July 1967. The ship was on station off the coast of Vietnam. In the background are what remains of a row of F-4B Phantoms that were parked along the starboard stern quarter.

U.S. Navy photo.

NS025927.– Firefighters check the burned out hulk of an A-4E Skyhawk [from VA-106 "Gladiators"] destroyed in the worst fire aboard a US aircraft carrier. The fire erupted aboard USS Forrestal on 29 July 1967 as the carrier was on station off Vietnam and killed 134 of the ship's crew and airwing.

U.S. Navy photo.

(Left) The aft, starboard pair of 5"/54 gun mounts as seen in April–May 1964, during New York City World's Fair (John N. Adriani Sr. Collection.)
(Center) A view of the same area, after the July 1967 fire (Ken Killmeyer, USS Forrestal Association.)
(Right) Another view of the same area, after the July 1967 fire (Bob Canchola, BT, USN (Ret.)

Photos submitted by GS-12 Philip Creasor

1,000-pound bomb damage.

Aft port side.

Battery locker hole.

Remains of an F-4B Phantom.

SH-2A Sea Sprite helicopter tail.

Bomb damage.

Gun tub.

Jet Test Cell damage.

Looking down a hole.

Photos submitted by Bob Canchola, BT,
USS Oriskany (CV-34), 1971–1973

Forrestal's flight deck.

Forrestal crewmen are assisted by those from Rupertus in fighting the fires raging aboard the carrier, while a helicopter ferries firefighting supplies to the burning ship. Photo USN 1124786.

Forrestal as seen from Oriskany, several miles away. Duane Thomas Colman says: "I took this picture, changed film, got half way thru the next roll and the MPs confiscated it, but I still have that one shot."

Forrestal on fire, as seen from Oriskany, several miles away.
(See also photo NS0234ce.)

Forrestal as seen from USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31), several miles away. Richard L. Brenner took the photo and comments: "That is the Forrestal burning. That is the closest we got. I took this from the flight deck of the Bonnie Dick. I was a Plane Captain in VA-212."

CAPT John K. Beling (left), CO, USS Forrestal (CVA-59).

Remnants of an RA-5C Vigilante.

RA-5C Vigilante, Reconnaissance Heavy Attack Squadron (RVAH) 11 "Checkertails."

Bomb damage.

List of Casualties
Submitted by Tom Wimberly, Captain, U.S. Navy (Retired)
(aboard July 29, 1967)

Remarks at USS Forrestal Forty Year Memorial Tribute,
Farrier Fire Fighting School, Norfolk, VA, July 27, 2007
by Tom Wimberly, Captain, U.S. Navy (Retired)
(aboard July 29, 1967)

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