Earlier this month, a fire burned for five days injuring 63 people aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego. The blaze is under investigation to determine the cause. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) are assisting with the probe, and questions remain as to whether the ship can return to service.

This catastrophic fire emphasizes how things can go wrong even when a ship is not under enemy attack in battle.

The deck and aircraft are on fire during the July 1967 disaster.
July 29, 1967, a rocket launched accidentally from an F-4B jet fighter triggered this disaster.

Fifty-three years ago today, a much more violent fire occurred aboard the carrier USS Forrestal in the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War. On July 29, 1967, a rocket launched accidentally from an F-4B Phantom II jet fighter plane, shooting across the deck and striking an A-4 Skyhawk jet waiting to take off.

The Skyhawk’s pilot was John McCain, the future Senator from Arizona and U.S. Presidential candidate. He escaped without injury, but fuel leaked from his plane. The fire engulfed several other planes in the flight deck, exploding a 1,000-pound bomb – followed by another nine seconds later – that killed many the fire fighters who rushed into try to extinguish the flames. The explosions triggered others, killing even more including pilots stuck inside in their planes, and left holes in the flight deck. Half of the carrier was on fire at one time during the incident.

Black and white photo of the deck.
Records show that 134 had died that day and hundreds more were injured.

By the time the fire was out and a day later, 134 had died and hundreds more were injured. The ship, after returning to sea worthiness, returned to Norfolk, VA., for further repair. It represented one of three deadly fires about U.S. carriers between 1966 and 1969.

After the USS Forrestal fire, McCain transferred to the USS Oriskany, which endured a similar explosion that killed 44 sailors a year earlier. Shot down October 26, 1967 over North Vietnam and captured, McCain spent the next 5½ years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison.

As for the USS Forrestal, it eventually returned to service, but saw no further action during the Vietnam War. The Navy decommissioned the carrier in 1993, scrapping it in 2015.


  1. That was a good read, thank you. My son created a website for his eagle project about another fire that happened here in San Diego bay.


  2. David Douthit · · Reply

    I was stationed on that ship in the 80’s this incident profoundly changed the ways the Navy fights fires and handles ordinance. As this fire was caused during a stray voltage check on the firing system of another aircraft resulting in a 5in Zuni rocket being launched towards the fantail of the ship resulting in a mass conflagration resulting in the loss of 134 of my shipmates from another era. The damage caused by that fire took out 1/3rd of the ship. from the number 3 deck edge elevator to the fantail and from the fan tail all the way down to the 3rd deck and aft steering. To this day the lessons learned from that fire were implemented in the way ship board fires are fought on warships.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: