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.
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.
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.