Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fifty Years Ago: Eyewitness to an Inferno Finds "Blue Eyes"

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

While attending Recruit training at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, every potential sailor goes through basic firefighting and damage control training. Among their lessons is a film called Learn or Burn. This film, along with the training film, Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life, tells the story of a tragedy that brought about sweeping changes to the United States Navy. While these films give today’s sailors a glimpse into the terror and chaos of the event as it unfolded, for others that glimpse is a memory that has yet to be erased from their minds.

This undated photograph showing launching operations aboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59) during the mid-1960s shows a similar aircraft spotting configuration to that used on the morning of July 29, 1967, off the coast of Vietnam.  Just before 11 am local time, an unguided Zuni rocket accidentally launched from the rearmost F-4 parked at the aft stern quarter into one of the A-4s lining the port quarter, which were each fully loaded with two 1,000-pound bombs and a centerline external fuel tank. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file photo)    
In 1967, a young rifleman in the United States Marine Corps named Jonnie Allen found himself as a member of the Marine Detachment (MARDET) onboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59). His duty, like the other Marines on board, would be to staff the ship’s brig, or jail. Allen, a veteran of the guided-missile cruiser USS Albany (CG 10), was not an enthusiastic “sea duty Marine.” Though he understood the reasons for and the necessity of it, he was always fearful of being trapped in a space so that watertight integrity could be maintained in order to save his ship and shipmates. He hated that he could have been trapped without any knowledge of what was going on around him. But, he was glad he was on a bigger ship since he considered being on a smaller ship in storm-tossed seas “no fun...rough…and scary."

About an hour after the catastrophic flight deck fire began, the destroyer Rupertus (DD 851) makes her approach in an effort to help combat the fire still consuming not only Forrestal's aft flight deck, but many of the spaces above the carrier's Hangar Bay Three. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Unlike other Marines, Allen’s Vietnam experience would be short, but no less dangerous. In June of 1967, Forrestal departed Naval Station Norfolk for Vietnam and reached “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 25 to begin her rotation “on the line.” After 150 bombing sorties against targets in North Vietnam, Forrestal’s ordnance stores ran low, requiring an underway replenishment on July 28 with the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head (AE 19). Among the transferred ordnance were 16 AN-M65 1000-lb bombs, which were designed during World War II and manufactured in 1953. They were reportedly in such a corroded state that the Forrestal's commanding officer, Capt. John Beling, only accepted them as a last resort because they were needed the next day for missions and because of the complete lack of newer Mk 83 bombs available for issue in theater. He ordered the bombs stowed on deck to prevent the incineration of the ship if an accident occurred in the ship’s magazines.
On the afternoon of July 29, 1967, hose teams continue to douse the flight deck of USS Forrestal (CVA-59) with seawater after bringing the fire under control as the destroyer Rupertus (DD-851) in the background hoses down the port quarter alongside the carrier.  Many of the highly-trained members of the carrier's crash and salvage crew, including its leading chief, Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handling Chief Gerald Farrier, were killed only a minute and a half after the fire began by the initial bomb detonations.  As evinced by the various modes of dress and equipment worn by those manning the hoses, many of the Sailors who jumped in to replace the fallen damage control team members lacked the equipment and training to go up against a major Class Bravo (flammable liquid) fire. The lack of coordination between teams dispensing fire suppressing foam (designed to smother fires) and those fighting the fire with water caused the foam to be needlessly washed overboard, prolonging the disaster. (NHHC image)
Jonnie Allen began his morning on Saturday, July 29, at around 7:00 or 8:00 a.m., as was normal. Like most days at sea, this one was shaping up to be routine and tedious. Allen was sitting in a chair around 11:00 a.m. when he heard a noise and felt the ship shudder and shake in a way that made clear that something awful happened, or as Allen put it, “it seemed the ship got hit hard for that ship to do that." What Allen experienced was the destruction of two fully loaded and fueled aircraft, the detonation of eight of the sixteen 1,000-lb bombs that had been loaded the day before, and the sympathetic explosion of a 500-lb bomb. The explosions instantly killed almost all of Forrestal’s flight deck firefighting team and tore large holes in the ship’s armored flight deck allowing burning fuel to pour into the interior of the ship.
This forensic photograph taken after Forrestal's return to Subic bay shows that the carrier's armored flight deck was no match the 1,000-lb bombs that detonated in the burning jet fuel, opening the way for thousands of gallons to pour into machinery and berthing spaces below. (HRNM file photo) 
Of Allen’s memories, there is one that has remained etched in his mind for the past fifty years: the eyes of an acquaintance. “Paul Newman had blue eyes, Frank Sinatra had blue eyes, I had never seen eyes like that,” remarked Allen in his description of this “good looking, young fella.” His acquaintance, a tall 18 or 19-year-old Sailor, was one of the clerks in the ship’s store, which was located below the flight deck aft. As Allen and his damage control party waded through knee and thigh-deep water, they would bump into floating corpses of fellow crew members who were in various states. Some of the victims they encountered had faces and bodies that were charred by the inferno, while others were missing limbs or had their bodies torn apart by the explosions. The men snaked through dark and mangled corridors that were “so hot, steamy, with water dripping and running all over the place” until they reached the ship’s store, which was completely unrecognizable. There Allen encountered the young clerk lying as if asleep, with no visible marks, no cuts, or burns. Instead of dying through smoke inhalation, burning to death or being blown apart by the force of the explosion, the man was killed simply by the concussion of the detonations. After seeing the man, the young Marine began to wonder, why him? Why did this young man die while he survived? Allen said that he normally went to the ship’s store around the time of the explosion and, in fact, was in it the day before, and by sheer luck he was not in it that day. 
This forensic photograph taken at Subic Bay in August 1967 shows one of the berthings on the 03 level below the flight deck where approximately 50 airmen and seamen lost their lives after working a long night of flight operations. (HRNM file photo)
The men of the Forrestal struggled to save their ship throughout that afternoon and through the night, and the many fires that erupted from the explosion were not declared out until 4:00 a.m. the next morning. The young man with blue eyes, along with 133 others, died on that solemn day. 161 more men were injured and twenty-one aircraft were destroyed outright or damaged enough to be declared total losses. Capt. Beling, offered these words that evening after personally directing damage control efforts for the previous ten hours:
Our heavenly Father, we see this day as one minute and yet a lifetime for all of us. We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. We humbly ask You to grant them peace and to their loved ones the consolation and strength to bear their loss. Help us to renew the faith we have in You. We thank You for our own lives. May we remember You as You have remembered us today. From our hearts we turn to You now, knowing that You have been at our side in every minute of this day. Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and re-man our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice.

A burned-out flight deck tractor is the only recognizable object within a hellish scene that only hours before had been a busy workplace for hundreds.  (HRNM file photo)
Indeed, the sacrifices made by the Sailors aboard Forrestal 50 years ago were not fruitless.  The disaster taught the Navy many hard lessons, but it was the impetus for a revolution in damage control training, technologies, as well as shipboard organization and regulations.  Without the changes made since then, the stories of other incidents rooted in accidents and attacks aboard USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Stark, USS Cole, and, most recently, USS Fitzgerald might have been much more tragic than they were.  

Author’s note: This story was written, in part, from an oral history collected as part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s ongoing project to record the first-hand experiences of local Navy and Marine Corps veterans of the Vietnam War. If you are a local Navy or Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and you would like to contribute, please contact our Deputy Director of Education, Laura Orr, at: LAURA.L.ORR@NAVY.MIL .


William Baker said...

What a tragic story of the dangers of serving in our armed forces. These brave men deserve our full tribute for their sacrifice and courage.

slowhiker said...

Also read the book "Sailors to the End".

Unknown said...

I was a young Radioman Seaman newly stationed at the Naval Communication Station Philippines, San Miguel, in the form tape relay when this occurred. I remember hundreds of very brief class easy teletype messages, free messages to the United States which would be processed and delivered by Western Union, to family members of USS Forrester crew members. Stating they were well and alive. This was my true introduction to the life of a Navy Radioman, processing and ensuring delivery of both health and welfare messages as well as casualty report messages from both afloat and ashore units in and about Vietnam.

Unknown said...

As a radioman on the Forrestal when this happened I cut hundreds of messages that simply stated. AM FINE, LETTER FOLLOWS, john Doe..

Thomas Callens said...

Interesting article. I served in Forrestal (VA-65) during the fire as a 19 year old. It was a life changing experience. For the early stages of the fire I was stationed just below the fire area in ready room 6. We bailed out due to smoke and water entering the space. I ended up on the flight deck and was involved with just about everything that was going on there. That night I volunteered to help with fire fighting below decks and I spent 3-4 hours with a Marine Det. fire party. One man had his hand burned real bad and I can still remember the scream he made. The next day I was on the flight deck helping with body recovery. There was a cameraman in a helo overhead and his picture with me in it is in Life magazine.