By 1967, the ongoing naval bombing campaign from Yankee Station represented by far the most intense and sustained air attack operation in the U.S. Navy's history, with monthly demand for general purpose bombs (e.g., "iron bombs") greatly exceeding new production. The on-hand supply of bombs had dwindled throughout 1966 and become critically low by 1967, particularly the new 1000-lb Mark 83, which the Navy favored for its power-to-size ratio: a carrier-launched A-4 Skyhawk, the Navy's standard light attack / ground attack aircraft of the period, could carry either a single 2000-lb bomb, or two 1000-lb bombs, with the ability to strike two separate hardened targets in a single sortie being seen as more desirable in most circumstances. Until 1971, the U.S. Air Force's primary ground attack aircraft in Vietnam was the much heavier, land-based, F-105 Thunderchief, which could simultaneously carry two 2,000-lb M118 bombs and four 750-lb M117 bombs (of which the Air Force had large stockpiles available), and thus that service did not need to rely as heavily on the limited supply of 1000-lb bombs as did the Navy.
Forrestal had departed Norfolk, Virginia, in early June 1967. Upon completion of the required inspections for the upcoming West Pacific cruise, it then went on to Brazil for a show of force. It then set sail around the horn of Africa, and went on to dock for a short while at Leyte Pier at Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippine Islands before sailing to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin on 25 July. For four days in the Gulf, aircraft of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 flew approximately 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam.
In training, the damage control team specializing in on-deck firefighting for Forrestal (Damage Control Team #8, led by Chief Petty Officer Gerald Farrier) had been shown films of navy ordnance tests demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes and still be extinguished and cooled without an explosive cook off. However, these tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 1000 lb bombs, which featured relatively stable Composition H6 explosive and thicker, heat-resistant cases, compared to their predecessors; H6, which is still used in many types of naval ordnance due to its relative insensitivity to heat, shock and electricity, is also designed to deflagrate instead of detonate when it reaches its ignition point in a fire, either melting the case and producing no explosion at all, or, at most, a subsonic low order detonation at a fraction of its normal power.
The day before the accident (28 July), Forrestal was resupplied with ordnance from the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head. The load included sixteen 1000-lb AN/M65A1 "fat boy" bombs (so nicknamed because of their short, rotund shape), which Diamond Head had picked up from the Naval Base Subic Bay and were intended for the next day's second bombing sortie. Some of the batch of AN-M65A1s Forrestal received were more than a decade old, having spent a portion of that exposed to the heat and humidity of Okinawa or Guam, eventually being improperly stored in open-air Quonset huts at a disused ammunition dump on the periphery of Subic Bay Naval Base. Unlike the thick-cased Mark 83 bombs filled with Composition H6, the AN/M65A1 bombs were thin-skinned and filled with Composition B, an older explosive with greater shock and heat sensitivity. Composition B also had the dangerous tendency to become more powerful (up to 50% by weight) and more sensitive if it was old or improperly stored. Forrestal's ordnance handlers had never even seen an AN/M65A1 before, and to their shock, the bombs delivered from Diamond Head were in terrible condition; coated with "decades of accumulated rust and grime" and still in their original packing crates (now moldy and rotten); some were stamped with production dates as early as 1953. Most dangerous of all, several bombs were seen to be leaking liquid paraffin phlegmatizing agent from their seams, an unmistakable sign that the bomb's explosive filler had degenerated with excessive age, and exposure to heat and moisture.
According to Lieutenant R.R. "Rocky" Pratt, a Naval Aviator attached to VA-106, the concern felt by Forrestal's ordnance handlers was striking, with many afraid to even handle the bombs; one officer wondered out loud if they would survive the shock of a catapult assisted launch without spontaneously detonating, and others suggested they immediately jettison them. Since no one wanted to be responsible for scrubbing the next day's missions, Forrestal's ordnance officers reported the situation up the chain of command to the ship's commanding officer, Captain John Beling, and informed him the bombs were, in their assessment, an imminent danger to the ship and should not be kept on board.
Faced with this, but still needing 1000-lb bombs for the next day's missions, Beling demanded Diamond Head take the AN-M65A1s back in exchange for new Mark 83s, but was told by Diamond Head that they had none to give him. The AN-M65A1 bombs had been returned to service specifically because there were not enough Mark 83s to go around. According to one crew member on Diamond Head, when they had arrived at Subic Bay to pick up their load of ordnance for the carriers, the base personnel who had prepared the AN-M65A1 bombs for transfer assumed Diamond Head had been ordered to dump them at sea on the way back to Yankee Station. When notified that the bombs were actually destined for active service in the carrier fleet, the commanding officer of the naval ordnance detachment at Subic Bay was so shocked that he initially refused the transfer, believing a paperwork mistake had been made. At the risk of delaying Diamond Head's departure, he refused to sign the transfer forms until receiving written orders from CINCPAC on the teleprinter, explicitly absolving his detachment of responsibility for the bombs' terrible condition.
With orders to conduct strike missions over North Vietnam the next day, and with no replacement bombs available, Captain Beling reluctantly concluded that he had no choice but to accept the AN-M65A1 bombs in their current condition. In one concession to the demands of the ordnance handlers, Beling agreed to store all 16 bombs alone on deck in the "bomb farm" area between the starboard rail and the carrier's island until they were loaded for the next day's missions. Standard procedure was to store them in the ship's magazine with the rest of the air wing's ordnance; had they been stored as standard, an accidental detonation could easily have destroyed the ship.
At about 10:50 (local time) on 29 July, while preparing for the second strike of the day, an unguided 5.0 in (127.0 mm) Mk-32 "Zuni" rocket, one of four contained in an LAU-10 underwing rocket pod mounted on an F-4B Phantom II (believed to be aircraft No. 110 from VF-11), accidentally fired due to an electrical power surge during the switch from external to internal power. The surge, and a missing rocket safety pin, which would have prevented the fail surge, as well as a decision to plug in the "pigtail" system early to increase the number of takeoffs from the carrier, allowed the rocket to launch.
The rocket flew across the flight deck, striking a wing-mounted external fuel tank on an A-4E Skyhawk awaiting launch, aircraft No. 405 from VA-46, piloted by Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White. The Zuni rocket's warhead safety mechanism prevented it from detonating, but the impact tore the tank off the wing and ignited the resulting spray of escaping JP-5 fuel, causing an instantaneous conflagration. Within seconds, other external fuel tanks on White's aircraft overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to feed the flames, which began spreading along the flight deck.
The impact of the rocket had also dislodged two of the 1000-lb AN-M65 bombs, which fell to the deck, and lay in the pool of burning fuel between White's aircraft and that of Lieutenant Commander John McCain. Damage Control Team No. 8 swung into action immediately, and Chief Gerald Farrier, recognizing the risk, and without the benefit of protective clothing, immediately smothered the bombs with a PKP fire extinguisher in an effort to knock down the fuel fire long enough to allow the pilots to escape. The pilots, still strapped into their aircraft, were immediately aware that a disaster was unfolding, but only some were able to escape in time. McCain, pilot of A-4 Skyhawk side No. 416, next to White's, was among the first to notice the flames, and escaped by scrambling down the nose of his A-4 and jumping off the refueling probe shortly before the explosions began.
Damage Control Team No. 8 had been assured of a 10-minute window in which to extinguish the fire and prevent the bombs from detonating, but the Composition B bombs proved to be just as unstable as the ordnance crews had initially feared; after only slightly more than one minute, despite Chief Farrier's constant efforts to cool the bombs, the casing of one suddenly split open and began to glow a bright red. The Chief, recognizing that a lethal cook-off was imminent, shouted for his team to withdraw, but the bomb detonated seconds later—one minute and 36 seconds after the start of the fire.
The detonation destroyed White's and McCain's aircraft (along with their remaining fuel and ordnance), blew a crater in the armored flight deck, and sprayed the deck and crew with bomb fragments and burning fuel. Damage Control Team No. 8 took the brunt of the initial blast; Chief Farrier and all but three of his men were killed instantly; the survivors were critically injured. Lieutenant Commander White had managed to escape his burning aircraft, but was unable to get far enough away in time; White was killed along with the firefighters in the first bomb explosion. In the tightly packed formation on the deck, the two nearest A-4s to White's and McCain's (both fully fueled and bomb-laden) were heavily damaged and began to burn, causing the fire to spread and more bombs to quickly cook off.
Lieutenant Commander Herbert A. Hope of VA-46 (and operations officer of CVW-17) was far enough away to survive the first explosion, and managed to escape by jumping out of the cockpit of his Skyhawk and rolling off the flight deck and into the starboard man-overboard net. Making his way down below to the hangar deck, he took command of a firefighting team. "The port quarter of the flight deck where I was", he recalled, "is no longer there." Two other pilots (Lieutenant Dennis M. Barton and Lieutenant Commander Gerry L. Stark) were also killed by explosions during this period, while the rest were able to escape their aircraft and get below deck.
Nine bomb explosions eventually occurred on the flight deck, eight caused by the AN-M65 Composition B bombs cooking off under the heat of the fuel fires, and the ninth occurring as a sympathetic detonation between an AN-M65 and a newer 500 lb M117 H6 bomb that it was lying next to on the deck. The other Composition H6-based bombs performed as designed and either burned on the deck or were jettisoned, but did not detonate under the heat of the fires.
The explosions (several of which were estimated as up to 50% more powerful than a standard 1000 lb bomb, due to the unintentionally-enhanced power of the badly degraded Composition B) tore large holes in the flight deck, causing burning jet fuel to drain into the interior of the ship, including the living quarters directly underneath the flight deck, and the below-decks aircraft hangar.
Sailors and Marines controlled the flight deck fires by 12:15, and continued to clear smoke and to cool hot steel on the 02 and 03 levels, until all fires were under control by 13:42. Assistance was provided by one of the ship's accompanying destroyers, USS Rupertus, which maneuvered around Forrestal, getting as close as 20 feet from the burning carrier, for 90 minutes using her own on board fire hoses directed at the flight deck and hangar deck on the starboard side, and the port side aft 5in mount. The commanding officer of the Rupertus, Commander Edwin Burke, received praise for what Rear Admiral Harvey P. Lanham, aboard Forrestal as the Task Group commander, called an "act of magnificent seamanship". The fire was not declared defeated until 04:00 the next morning, due to additional flare-ups.
Throughout the day the ship’s medical staff worked in dangerous conditions to assist their comrades. HM2 Paul Streetman, one of 38 corpsmen assigned to the Forrestal, spent over 11 hours on the mangled flight deck tending to his shipmates. The large number of casualties quickly overwhelmed the ship’s medical teams, and the Forrestal was escorted by USS Henry W. Tucker to rendezvous with hospital ship USS Repose at 20:54, allowing the crew to begin transferring the dead and wounded at 22:53.
The fire left 134 men dead and 161 more injured. Many aircraft and a large amount of ordnance were jettisoned to prevent them from catching fire or exploding. Twenty-one aircraft also sustained enough damage from fire, explosions and salt water, to be stricken from naval inventory, including seven F-4B Phantom IIs (BuNos 153046, 153054, 153060, 153061, 153066, 153069 and 153912); eleven A-4E Skyhawks (149996, 150064, 150068, 150084, 150115, 150118, 150129, 152018, 152024, 152036 and 152040); and three RA-5C Vigilantes (148932, 149284 and 149305). The fire also revealed that Forrestal required a heavy duty, armored forklift for use in the emergency jettisoning of aircraft (particularly heavier types such as the RA-5C Vigilante) as well as heavy or damaged ordnance. Sailors had been forced to manually jettison numerous 250 and 500 lb bombs by rolling them along the deck and off the side.
On 31 July, Forrestal arrived at Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines, to undertake repairs sufficient to allow the ship to return to the United States. With repairs completed, she departed on 11 August, arriving at Naval Station Mayport on 12 September to disembark the remaining aircraft and air group personnel stationed in Florida. Two days later, Forrestal finally returned to Norfolk to be welcomed home by over 3,000 family members and friends of the crew, gathered on Pier 12 and onboard Randolph, Forrestal's host ship.
From 19 September 1967 – 8 April 1968, Forrestal underwent repairs in Norfolk Naval Shipyard, beginning with removal of the starboard deck-edge elevator which was stuck in place. It had to be cut from the ship while being supported by the shipyard's hammerhead crane. The carrier occupied drydock number 8 from 21 September 1967, until 10 February 1968, displacing USS John King, an oil tanker, and a mine sweeper that were occupying the drydock. During the post-fire refit, the ship's four aft 5"/54 caliber Mark 42 guns were removed. The forward four guns were removed prior to 1962.
While Forrestal was undergoing its refit, Captain Beling was temporarily assigned to work in the office of Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, then the Chief of Naval Operations. Although the subsequent Naval investigation absolved Beling of responsibility for the fire, he was transferred to staff work, and did not return to active command. From 8–15 April 1968, Captain Robert B. Baldwin sailed the ship down the Elizabeth River and out into the waters off the Virginia capes for her post-repair trials, the ship's first time at sea in 207 days. While accomplishing trials, the ship also recorded its first arrested landing since the fire, when Commander Robert E. Ferguson, Commander, CVW-17, landed on board.
The fire aboard Forrestal was the second of three serious fires to strike American carriers in the 1960s; a 1966 fire aboard USS Oriskany killed 44 and injured 138, and a 1969 fire aboard USS Enterprise killed 28 and injured 314.
The US Navy uses the Forrestal fire and the lessons learned from it when teaching damage control and ammunition safety. The flight deck film of the flight operations, entitled "Learn or Burn", became mandatory viewing for firefighting trainees. All new navy recruits are required to view a training video titled Trial by Fire: A Carrier Fights for Life, produced from footage of the fire and damage control efforts, both successful and unsuccessful. On the one hand there were damage control teams spraying fire fighting foam on the deck to contain the flames, which was the correct procedure, while on the other hand, crewmen on the other side of the deck sprayed seawater, washing away the foam and worsening the situation by washing burning fuel through the hole in the flight deck into the decks below. The burning fuel was not easily extinguished and was spread by water. Due to the first bomb blast, which killed nearly all of the specially trained firefighters on the ship, the remaining crew, who had no formal firefighting training, were forced to improvise.
In response, a "wash down" system, which floods the flight deck with foam or water, was incorporated into all carriers, with the first being installed aboard Franklin D. Roosevelt during her 1968-69 refit. Many other fire safety improvements also stemmed from this incident.
The Farrier Fire Fighting School Learning Site in Norfolk is named after Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate Gerald W. Farrier, a sailor who died in the initial explosion in an attempt to delay the detonation of ordnance with the tool he had available to him- a single PKP extinguisher.
Eighteen crewmen were buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Names of the dead are also listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The incident was featured on an episode of Discovery Channel's Destroyed In Seconds.
Although investigators at the time could not identify the exact chain of events behind the carnage, they revealed potential maintenance issues, including concerns in circuitry (stray voltage) associated with LAU-10 rocket launchers and Zunis, as well as the age of the 1,000 lb (450 kg) "fat bombs" loaded for the strike, shards from one of which dated it to the Korean War in 1953.
Safety regulations should have prevented the Zuni rocket from firing. A triple ejector rack (TER) electrical safety pin prevented any electrical signal from reaching the rockets, but it was known that high winds could sometimes catch the attached tags and blow them free. The backup was the "pigtail" connection of the electrical wiring to the rockets pod. Regulations required they be connected only when the aircraft was attached to the catapult and ready to launch. The navy investigation found that four weeks before the fire, Forrestal's Weapons Coordination Board had a meeting to discuss the possible problem of a faulty pigtail delaying a mission while the aircraft was removed from the launcher. The board ruled that, in the future, the crew could ignore protocol and connect the pigtails while the aircraft were still queued. Though never made official, the crew immediately acted on the ruling. The inquiry found that the TER pin was likely blown free while the pigtail was connected, and that the missile fired due to a power surge when the pilot transferred his systems from external to internal power. This incident also led the US Navy to implement safety reviews for weapons systems going on board ships (whether for use or for shipping). Today, this evaluation still exists as the Weapon System Explosives Safety Review Board.