USS Forrestal (CVA-59) Fire Remembered

Remembering USS Forrestal — 40 Years Later

By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Wyscaver, Fleet Public Affairs Center, Atlantic

NORFOLK (NNS) — The Farrier Firefighting School Learning Site (FFSLS), part of Naval Station Norfolk, commemorated the 40th anniversary of the devastating events on board aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA 59) in a ceremony July 27.

Former Forrestal crew members, surviving family members and instructors from the fire fighting school attended the ceremony.

“My earliest memories of fire fighting training on the dangers of fire at sea center around the fire aboard USS Forrestal and our lessons learned from that day,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert E. Sutler, department head at FFSLS.

On July 29, 1967, while operating off the coast of Vietnam in the Tonkin Gulf, an accidental firing of a Zuni rocket from an F-4 Phantom struck an armed A-4 Skyhawk causing one of the worst losses of life in naval history. One hundred thirty-four crew members lost their lives and 67 were seriously injured. The damage to Forrestal totaled more than $70 million.

Lou Braasch, a Forrestal survivor, read the names and rang a single toll in memory of each individual Sailor who sacrificed their lives battling the blaze that erupted aboard.

The accidental launch and substantial impact caused a fuel tank and 1,000-pound bomb on the Skyhawk to fall off, leading to a fuel-powered fire on the flight deck. The following minutes would contain sights of burning aircraft, spreading fires and massive holes in the steel foundation of the vessel.

Retired Capt. Tommy C. Wimberly, former Forrestal crew member, explained, “about a minute to a minute-and-a- half after the fire started, the first bomb detonated. It’s difficult to describe what the detonation of those bombs felt like, it was a severe shock.”

In the midst of all of the chaos, Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handler) Gerald W. Farrier, armed with only a portable fire extinguisher, fought the fires to the best of his ability until a bomb exploded, taking his life.

To help honor Farrier’s efforts and those of his shipmates, the Farrier Firefighting School is named in his honor and serves as one of the top facilities for training service members in critical firefighting areas.

“Here at this magnificent facility are taught many of the lessons learned from the events in the tragic aircraft carrier fires of the Vietnam era,” Wimberly added.

One former crew member that survived the horrific experience noted the impact of Forrestal.

“They made the supreme sacrifice and the least we can do is gather together annually and honor their bravery. A lot of us were close to the fire that day and it’s something I will never forget,” said Bradford Jones.

As the ceremony concluded, a few individuals took time to reflect on the past while looking forward to the future of the Navy in terms of firefighting.

“I hope that places like this, [The Farrier Firefighting School], will save a lot of lives and prepare a lot of people to helps themselves and help others to survive and fight another day,” said Jones.

USS Forrestal Readies for Final Voyage

40 Years Ago Today:

A Personal Remembrance by AGCM Fred Baillie, USN, Ret.

USS Forrestal remained at Pier 12 Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, VA, until very early 20 May 1967, 3,500 family members, friends and relatives of Forrestal crewmembers arrive on board FORRESTAL this clear, sunny Saturday for a Family Day Cruise.
Friends and family members start arriving early for the exciting day. Soon the mooring lines were hauled in and Forrestal began to get underway.

After Special Sea and Anchor Detail is secured families walked around the hangar bays, looking at the various aircraft. Friends and family members were shown the mess deck area and berthing compartments of their sailors. Sailors took their guests to the small store and jewelry shop on the second deck. They walked up to the 02 level and showed them the forecastle. The size of the anchor chain links really impressed them, when he told them each link of the chain weighed 360 pounds.

Later the destroyer USS Vogelgesang (DD-862) came alongside for the highline transfer. They watched the transfer from the starboard side. Ensign John F. Elsheimer, the First Division’s junior division officer is being transferred over to, and back from the Vogelgesang because he is Forrestal’s most junior officer. Some officers have all the luck.

Later the families walked up on the flight deck before flight operations started. Air Wing SEVENTEEN treated the guests to an Air Show/Fire Power demonstration. The air wing pilots flew close by the ship, conducting a firepower demonstration dropping numerous types of ordnance for the guests to watch, plus mid-flight refueling.
The families had lunch on the forward mess deck and later he just walked them around to let them get the full feeling of what the Forrestal is all about. The sights and sounds of the aircraft landing and launching is an exciting experience. All on board had a good time.

Forrestal returned to pier 12 at later in the evening.

….and then later on…on the 20th of August Mary Kay Baillie was born… I missed the birth as I did most of my six kids…but I did see her before her two-month birthday !!!

(Editor’s Note): Just two months later, on July 29, 1967, the USS Forrestal would experience one of the worst shipboard accidents in US Naval history. Watch this space in July for a special on the USS Forrestal accident, as reported by one who was there.