At 10:52 am on July 29, 1967 a Zuni rocket was accidentally launched from an F4 Phantom sitting on the flight deck of USS FORRESTAL (CVA-59). The rocket shot across the deck and impacted a fuel tank of an A4 Skyhawk, spilling thousands of gallons of JP5 fuel across the deck and igniting a raging inferno.
The flames caused live bombs on nearby aircraft to explode, and soon the fire was out of control. Brave firefighters fought their way toward the fire, only to be killed as more explosions erupted. Sailors were trapped in berthing compartments beneath the flight deck, and many were doomed to die from the fire and heat.
But the FORRESTAL Sailors kept fighting. With most of the experienced flight deck firefighters gone, new faces showed up to continue the battle. After thirteen hours the fire topside was out; the fires below deck took another twelve hours to die.
The conflagration took the lives of 134 FORRESTAL Sailors, and became the defining, tragic event that followed the ship its entire life.
But the story of FORRESTAL isn’t about the fire. What really defines America’s first supercarrier is the character of her Sailors.
You can see evidence of their mettle in old footage from the fire. Men ran toward the flames, even those lacking training or protective gear. Chief Petty Officer Farrier was one of the first to rush into the inferno in an attempt to put out the fire before it could spread. He warned off his men and went in alone, almost certainly knowing that ordnance would explode any second. He gave his life in an attempt to save the ship. And there were many others.
That character has not been diminished by time. FORRESTAL Sailors still keep in touch, still remember, and still honor their fallen shipmates 42 years after the disaster. In fact the FORRESTAL Association is one of the strongest and more active veteran/alumni associations around.
Every year its member gather in Norfolk at the Farrier Fire Fighting Facility to honor those who lost their lives, as well as those who served aboard the mighty ship throughout her life of service.
This year, a special memorial and presentation took place as well in Washington, D.C. About sixty FORRESTAL Association representatives and surviving family members gathered to pay tribute to fallen shipmates at the Vietnam Wall and at the FORRESTAL gravesite at Arlington National Cemetary.
They also took part in a dedication ceremony, at which a replica model of a RA-5C Vigilante from RVAH-11 (a squadron aboard FORRESTAL at the time of the fire) was donated to the Cold War Gallery at the Navy Museum. The model had been commissioned by the son and daughter of then CDR Tom Kilcline, Commanding Officer of RVAH-11 at the time of the fire. CDR Kilclineâ€™s back seater was LCDR Vince Monroe, who was later killed in combat action over Vietnam. Both of their names appear on the replica.
CDR Kilcline eventually rose to the rank of Vice Admiral, as did his son, VADM Tom Kilcline, Jr., Commander of Naval Air Forces.
VADM Kilcline, Michael McLeod (model maker), and Mrs. Mary Kilcline Novak
These ceremonies are just a few examples of what takes place at the end of July every year, but they give evidence to the enduring character of those Sailors who served aboard FORRESTAL, and who refuse to forget those left behind.
They are our heroes of the week.
Our heavenly Father, we see this day as one minute and yet a lifetime for all of us. We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. We humbly ask You to grant them peace and to their loved ones the consolation and strength to bear their loss. Help us to renew the faith we have in You. We thank You for our own lives. May we remember You as You have remembered us today. From our hearts we turn to You now, knowing that You have been at our side in every minute of this day. Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and reman our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice.
Offered by Captain John K. Beling, Commanding Officer, USS Forrestal, July 29, 1967