By Chief Damage Controlman (SW/AW) Teddy Yates
Recruit Training Command
On Saturday July 29, 1967, in the Gulf of Tonkin, the USS Forrestal (CVA 59) is preparing for a strike against targets in North Vietnam when a missile is accidentally fired across the flight deck, hitting an A-4 Skyhawk that is fully loaded with fuel and ordinance. Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Gerald Farrier grabs a fire extinguisher and rushes towards the trapped pilots. As Farrier and two fire parties rush to the scene, two 1,000 pound bombs engulfed in a pool of burning fuel explode and kill all the Sailors combating the fire, allowing burning fuel to enter into three additional levels of the ship and one of the hangar bays.
Within five minutes of the fire’s eruption, the ship is rocked by nine explosions. With the primary fire crew’s dead, Sailors unfamiliar with firefighting rush into action. Fires on the flight deck last late into evening and interior fires are extinguished the following day. The Navy lost 134 Sailors who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and whose courageous actions saved their shipmates and their ship.
As a result of these tragic events, a documentary called “Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for its Life” was produced and to this day is shown to all incoming recruits at Recruit Training Command (boot camp) during their fifth week of training. We never forget those lives that were lost on the Forrestal and we continue to learn and grow from the lessons we learned 48 years ago.
The courageous actions of the Sailors shown in the video who played a role in the rescue efforts, and the teamwork of all those on deck exemplifies those values we instill today as we train every Sailor to be a firefighter no matter what your rate or job.
One of the main lessons emphasized in the video is the importance for every Sailor to be properly trained and familiar in all aspects of damage control. Today, all Sailors aboard the Navy’s vessels are required to have damage control training and are taught the use of firefighting personal protective equipment (PPE), how to operate aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) stations, and how to egress from compartments within a ship.
Recruits receive week-long training in compartment identification, fixed and portable extinguishers, battle dress, the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and the emergency escape breathing device (EEBD). Recruits are tested on their knowledge and skills by having to use portable extinguishers, using charged hoses to fight fires and demonstrating the ability to egress from compartments that are heated and filled with smoke.
Before graduation, all recruits must complete firefighting training in the USS Chief Firefighting trainer at RTC, led by a dedicated team of instructors who are experts in the damage control field. For the past year and half as an instructor I’ve trained over 63,000 new recruits. It is rewarding to know that the training we provide here today could one day save the life of a shipmate.
The training our newest enlisted Sailors receive at Boot Camp is only the first taste of firefighting and damage control readiness they receive.
I have been fortunate throughout my career and have not encountered any major fires or casualties first hand. I have seen how our continuous training in the fleet using lessons learned from past experiences enhances quick reactions of watch standers and all Sailors on deck. Throughout their career, our Sailors train continuously and use the lessons from events such as the USS Forrestal to never forget our shipmates who lost their lives, and help prevent those tragic mishaps from happening again. Fleet readiness starts with quality training.