Worst aircraft carrier fire since WWII: a tale of survival at sea

Veterans Voices

DEALE, Md. (WDVM) — It’s been called the “worst fire aboard an aircraft carrier since World War II” — the fire on board the USS Forrestal shook the U.S. during the Vietnam War and killed 167 personnel.

Black smoke billowed air as USS Forrestal burns after the tragic accident that killed 167 personnel; 50 of them pilots.

Rick Stringer, a 19-year-old graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, was repairing a radio-telephone on the right rear side of USS Forrestal, the nation’s first “Super-Carrier,” when the unthinkable happened — a rocket was accidentally launched from an F-4 Phantom that was part of an afternoon strike package that was preparing to launch from Forrestal at midday on July 29, 1967.

Fire Suppession Teams cool down overheated munitions and aircraft at the rear of Forrestal with water hoses.

“Sitting on what is called the sponson, where there used to be a five-inch gun mount, I could hear the roar of two dozen aircraft engines as the fully-armed and fueled aircraft prepared to move onto forward catapults and launch into the wind. Suddenly, I heard a giant “SWOOSH” over my head,” said Stringer.

Petty Officer Second Class Singer told WDVM he thought it was a giant air leak or something and then he heard a “THUNK.”

Naval aviator stands next to a Zuni rocket.

That “SWOOSH” was the sound of a Zuni rocket being fired from an F-4 Phantom, No. 110. The “THUNK” came when the 8 foot long air-to-ground rocket hit the 400-gallon auxiliary centerline fuel tank on Lt. Commander John McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk attack fighter, No. 405 that was part of a 27 plane strike package.

It’s been over 50 years since the Forrestal was turned into a raging inferno. Stringer says he can still hear loudspeakers blaring: “General Quarters, General Quarters. Fire on the Flight Deck.”

An aircraft handling officer was helpless as he watched 27 aircraft burn.

Explosions rocked the big warship as Stringer headed below the flight deck to Hangar Bay No. 3 at the rear of the ship.

“Something rung my bell like I’ve never had it rung before,” said Stringer as he was blown through a hatch. As he lay on his back, he couldn’t breathe or move his legs and started thinking, “This was it, I’ll never see my family again.”

The rocket that hit McCain’s fuel tank didn’t explode, but it punched a big hole in it; causing high-octane jet fuel to gush out and ignite. The fire caused bombs to overheat and explode. Thirty members of Damage Control Team Nine were wiped out when that happened.

“I think had the aircraft been armed with modern 1,000-pound bombs and not Korean War vintage bombs,” the outcome wouldn’t have been as horrific,” said Stringer. “A buddy of mine and I watched crews pulling the bombs out of storage as we ate breakfast in a chow hall. They were rusty and the casings were thin, not heavy-skinned. And when they cooked off, the result was horrific.

Faced with having to cancel the day’s air attacks on North Vietnamese targets for lack of new 1,000 pounds, the Forrestal’s skipper reluctantly accepted delivery of the older munitions, and almost lost his ship in the process.

“Without his skill in steering his burning ship into the waves and wind which kept the fire and smoke blowing over the rear of the ship, I might not be here talking to you,” said Stringer, looking out of his parent’s home that he inherited when they died.

Rick Stringer’s father led a squadron of Navy Dauntless dive-bombers during World Two. His ship, USS Intrepid which is on display along the East River in Manhattan, was the only aircraft carrier that was allowed to enter Tokyo Bay when Japan unconditionally surrendered during World War Two.

Ironically, Intrepid steamed to Forrestal’s side in the South China Sea. The tragic fire caused the United States Navy to upgrade firefighting techniques aboard ships and install new foam fighting systems on aircaft carrier decks.

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