By Hank Stewart, Commander, USN (Retired), Assistant Professor of Engineering, Maine Maritime Academy
Editor’s note: While on active duty, Commander Stewart wrote his U.S. Army Command and General Staff College master’s thesis on ‘The Impact of The USS Forrestal’s 1967 Fire on United States Navy Shipboard Damage Control.’ The thesis examined the impact of the 1967 flight deck fire on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59) and the two resulting investigations, on the development of U.S. Navy damage control doctrine and equipment. His research into the incident make him uniquely qualified to explain just how today’s Navy has been shaped a disaster from a half century ago.
One of the most serious disasters in modern naval history occurred fifty years ago this month aboard the U.S. Navy’s first “supercarrier”, USS Forrestal (CVA 59). On July 29, 1967, she was operating in waters off the coast of Vietnam.
Forrestal increased speed to nearly 30 knots and turned into the wind as she prepared to launch her second strike of the day against targets in North Vietnam (she was generating high relative winds over her flight deck to provide enough lift to safely launch her aircraft). Twenty seven fully armed planes were crowded together on the flight deck as their crews conducted final preflight checks. Each aircraft carried a full load of fuel, bombs, rockets, and ammunition. In addition, several tons of bombs on wooden pallets were also on the flight deck.
Several of the planes started their engines in preparation for launching. Without warning, a rocket was accidentally fired from an F-4 Phantom jet fighter. The rocket struck and ripped open an A-4 Skyhawk on the other side of the flight deck. The rocket passed through the aircraft without exploding and hit the ocean. However, several hundred gallons of jet fuel poured from the Skyhawk’s punctured fuel tank and was ignited by burning rocket fuel left on the flight deck. Burning fuel was spread by the heavy winds across the flight deck and covered several more planes. Within seconds, these aircraft began burning, and the fire continued to spread. The ship immediately sounded general quarters (sending the crew to their battle stations), and an announcement notified the crew of the fire on the flight deck. The heat of the fire exploded a bomb on the flight deck approximately 90 seconds after the fire began, and a second bomb exploded a few seconds later. These explosions severely damaged the carrier and killed several Sailors on the flight deck. The fuel tanks of other planes ruptured, adding to the intensity of the blaze. The exploding bombs also created several holes in the flight deck, spilling burning jet fuel into the ship and allowing fire and smoke to spread inside the ship.
Forrestal’s crew battled and eventually extinguished the fire, with assistance from other Navy ships in the area. It took more than 24 hours to extinguish the fires below the flight deck. The losses caused by this incident were high and included 134 Sailors killed by the fire, and 161 injured. More than 20 aircraft were destroyed. The damage forced Forrestal to suspend combat operations and conduct temporary repairs in the Philippines before returning to the U.S. for permanent repair. Repairs to the ship cost approximately $72 million (equal to more than $528 million in 2017 dollars), and took approximately two years to complete.
Damage Control Today
As a Navy Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), I learned about the fire aboard Forrestal during training before reporting to my first ship. We watched the film “Trial by Fire,” a documentary produced by the Navy using actual footage of the fire. Although the Forrestal’s fire happened more than 20 years after World War II, her crew was still using most of the same procedures, equipment, and minimal protective gear used a generation before. I later served as Chief Engineer and Damage Control Officer on two destroyers, and decided to learn more about the impact this tragedy had on the Navy’s approach to damage control. I studied the investigation reports and how Navy damage control training, procedures, and equipment changed from lessons learned from that fire, and published a report on my research in 2004. I found the fleet’s Sailors had become very skilled at fighting fires caused by numerous enemy attacks during the Second World War, but the Navy’s focus on ensuring the highest levels of damage control readiness appeared to have gradually declined over the many years since the fleet had experienced significant battle damage. Following the Forrestal fire, investigators recommended creating more exits from work and sleeping areas in ships, high-visibility exit markings, standardized fixed firefighting systems, improved personnel protective equipment such as Emergency Escape Breathing Devices (EEBDs), improved firefighting clothing, and better hoses and nozzles. The Navy also invested heavily in improving damage control training for Sailors. The implementation of these improvements was tracked at the highest levels of the Navy and helped prepare crews to save their ships following severe damage in later years.
The explosions on the Forrestal’s flight deck shortly after the fire started killed many of her most experienced firefighters. Many surviving personnel on the flight deck were unfamiliar with firefighting procedures and how to use Forrestal’s firefighting equipment. When USS Stark was struck by two Exocet missiles in 1987, all her officers and Chief Petty Officers were qualified in general damage control. Every Sailor in Stark’s repair lockers was trained and qualified for their position.
The investigation into the attack on Stark noted that EEBDs worked and saved lives, and noted that Stark suffered no deaths or serious injuries in connection with the damage control efforts. However, Sailors could not open the plastic EEBD pouches with wet hands, and had to use their teeth. Although Stark carried many more canisters for the Oxygen Breathing Apparatus (OBAs) than required, the supply was still exhausted while fighting the massive fire started by the missiles, and additional canisters had to be provided by other Navy ships in the area.
“Modern warships are built with design improvements recommended based on lessons learned in earlier incidents.”
Further improvements based on lessons learned from this and other incidents such as the October 12, 2000 attack on USS Cole ensure today’s Sailors are effectively trained and equipped to fight fires and control damage to their ships. For instance, many Sailors fought Forrestal’s fire wearing jeans, short sleeve shirts, and no gloves or helmets, but Sailors now have protective clothing comparable to what is used by firefighters ashore. Air bottles used in self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) on today’s ships can be recharged using compressors on the ship, unlike the disposable OBA canisters supplies of which were exhausted fighting fires on Forrestal and Stark. EEBDs can now be opened easily by Sailors with wet hands. Modern warships are built with design improvements recommended based on lessons learned in earlier incidents.
Although I am now retired from the Navy, I remain intensely interested in shipboard damage control. I teach future merchant marine officers in classrooms ashore and underway on Maine Maritime Academy’s training ship, the former USNS Tanner (T-AGS-40). In the merchant service, as in the Navy, ship’s crews depend on each other to save their ships (and lives) when disaster strikes.
The words from a Navy damage control manual published a few months after the fire aboard Forrestal still apply today: all crew members “must know where to go, how to get there, what may be needed, and what to do upon arriving at the scene of a fire. It is only by constant drilling that fire-fighting parties can learn to function as teams.” Sailors “must be trained to act immediately and use the proper equipment and correct procedure. . . An effective protection against fires in ships is the quantity and quality of training before a fire starts.”