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Home > July 2017 > Intrepid First Responder
Intrepid First Responder
Seperator
Posted: 7/28/2017 8:09:23 PM

On Scene at the Forrestal Fire.

 

Fifty years ago today, on July 29, 1967, the U.S. Navy suffered the single worst disaster aboard ship since the last days of World War II: the fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. That morning, Forrestal, the Navy’s first supercarrier, was preparing for one of its first major strikes against targets in North Vietnam. At 10:50am, a rocket from an F-4 Phantom misfired across the flight deck, hitting a fully armed and fueled A-4 Skyhawk.
Though the rocket did not detonate, the Skyhawk’s fuel spilled out and began to burn. The fire in turn detonated the Skyhawk’s ordnance, setting off a chain reaction among the other armed, fueled and tightly packed aircraft nearby. The explosions were so powerful that they tore holes through Forrestal’s armored flight deck, allowing the growing conflagration to spread across and down into the ship. As the fire burned, other ships of the Seventh Fleet rushed to Forrestal’s aid, among them USS Intrepid.

When the fire broke out aboard Forrestal, Intrepid was approximately 180 miles away and on its way back from liberty in Japan. Just before noon, Intrepid received word of the disaster and set a course for Forrestal. The first help from Intrepid to arrive on scene came in the form of helicopters and transport aircraft. As related in the ship’s newspaper a few weeks later, “Throughout the day, and far into the night, Intrepid ferried doctors, medical supplies and fire-fighting equipment to the stricken vessel.” Later, Intrepid’s aircraft also helped to move the dead and wounded to other nearby ships.

 


USN1125490 A plume of smoke rises high into the sky as Forrestal burns on July 29, 1967.
(Taken from USS Oriskany) (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

At 1:30pm, the first medical personnel from Intrepid, two flight surgeons and four corpsmen, arrived above Forrestal in two transport planes. Lt. Kenneth Marshall, the Intrepid detachment’s lead flight surgeon, described the scene in the ship’s newspaper: “As we flew over the burning ship, we could see men pushing planes over the side. The entire port side was engulfed in smoke and flames. Helos were over the stern wash picking the survivors out of the water.”

After more than an hour circling, they landed on nearby carrier USS Oriskany and went to work on treating the 42 casualties moved there from Forrestal, 31 of whom were in critical condition. In addition to treating numerous compound fractures and burns, Marshall himself performed surgery on two Forrestal crewmen. During an oral history interview conducted at the Museum in 2015, Marshall remembered that “the most seriously injured was about 18 or 19 year old guy who had multiple burns, an open chest wound and broken limbs. . . he died in front of me.”

Marshall also examined a much-shaken Skyhawk pilot who turned out to be none other than future senator John McCain. Lieutenant McCain’s aircraft was right next to the Skyhawk hit by the rocket. As the fire spread, he managed to get out of his cockpit and roll off the flight deck onto a catwalk just before the explosions began. Ducking inside, McCain ran through the ship while bombs detonating above his head tore through the armored deck behind him. In 2015, Marshall noted that McCain “had nine lives that day, and he was literally shaking in sick bay when I was talking to him.” Following the arrival of USS Repose, the Intrepid detachment assisted in the transport of the wounded from Oriskany to the hospital ship.

By the next morning, Intrepid was sailing behind Forrestal as a service platform. Doctors, rescue workers and even journalists landed first aboard Intrepid and were then ferried to and from Forrestal. Meanwhile, Intrepid’s crew got a firsthand view of the devastation. Among those looking on was Sam Taylor. Years later, Taylor remembered that Intrepid “got close enough we could see it [Forrestal] burning, and I could see they had pumped a lot of water. The bow was sitting up.”
Sam Taylor Throughout the night, Taylor helped to load five-gallon drums of firefighting foam aboard helicopters bound for Forrestal, exhausting Intrepid’s supply. Lacking foam, Sam worried about what might happen if a fire broke out aboard Intrepid: “I know in the fire station that I manned. . . there was none left. Not a can.” Meanwhile, another fear ran through his mind: the fate of his cousin Robert. Sam and Robert Taylor had joined the Navy together and after boot camp were assigned to different ships. Sam had last seen Robert months earlier, when Forrestal and Intrepid were docked side by side in Norfolk. At the time, Robert had given Sam the grand tour of his supercarrier. During the tour, Sam was struck by just how much bigger Forrestal was than his own carrier. Now looking across at the blackened remains of Forrestal, Sam had no idea if Robert was alive or dead.

Aboard Forrestal, the last of the fires were finally put out around 4:00am on July 30. In total, 134 men had been killed and more than 160 wounded. Forrestal itself would spend more than a year under repair and never again return to Vietnam. Around 11:00am, after “assisting in restoring Oriskany’s Sick Bay to its normal self,” Marshall and his team headed back to Intrepid. Later, Captain John Beling of Forrestal sent a message thanking Intrepid for its help: “Your prompt medical assistance in our hour of need has undoubtedly saved many lives. We of Forrestal are deeply indebted and greatly appreciative of your efforts.”

As for Sam Taylor, in all the confusion that followed the fire, he tried in vain to find out about Robert. Eventually, Sam had to write home for news. Finally, 30 days after the fire, he received word from his mother that Robert was alright. In the meantime, Intrepid headed into Subic Bay for supplies. A few days later, Intrepid went back on the line, resuming operations against North Vietnam.

 


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