MacKenzie and the Forrestal Fire
By J. B. Hall
USS George K. MacKenzie Association
29 July 2015
MacKenzie and the Forrestal Fire
A Very Bad Day
“Oh shit!” was the Executive Officer’s reaction when he learned that the “boom” that he had just heard had come from the aircraft carrier off the port quarter, about six miles away. He was at the Ship’s Store when he heard the explosion, and asked the sailor in line behind him what the sound was.
Brian Moe, a Machinist’s Mate, was just outside the port door to the athwartships passageway at the aft end of the deck house. He pointed out the aircraft carrier that was the source of the sound, that now was showing bright orange flames and an enormous column of dense black smoke from pools of burning jet fuel, and was having additional explosions as a total of four one-thousand pound bombs exploded on the flight deck in the first minutes of the fire.1
USS Forrestal (CVA 59) was having a very bad day. A Zuni rocket on an F-4B Phantom had fired accidentally and struck an external fuel tank on an A-4E Skyhawk awaiting launch at 1052 on Saturday, 29 July 1967.2
USS George K. MacKenzie (DD 836) had been having a more benign day. They were six weeks into a six month cruise in the Western Pacific. It was their only six-month cruise in the decade of the 1960s. Not that they didn’t deploy. They would spend six and one-half years of that decade homeported in WestPac. But right now they were homeported in Long Beach, California.
They had just returned to Yankee Station after a short period supporting the Third Marine Division in I Corps. MacKenzie was operating with USS Oriskany (CVA 34) and USS Samuel N. Moore (DD 747) as Task Group 77.8.3
Operating with carrier groups on Yankee Station was a duty of intermediate intensity for a WestPac destroyer. Not as intense as direct combat on the North Vietnamese coast in Operation Sea Dragon, but more intense than picket duty on Search and Rescue station deeper in the Tonkin Gulf. Carrier duty involved operating in formation with the carrier at high speed and the accompanying frequent refueling, and required a relatively high degree of vigilance and readiness, since bad things could happen quickly. The main function was to serve as plane guard, following in the wake of the carrier, ready to rescue anyone unfortunate enough to go in the water.
Today MacKenzie had been in plane guard position behind Oriskany all morning, and things were apparently peaceful enough that the XO could take a trip to the Ship’s Store.
Forrestal Needs Assistance
Forrestal had already requested assistance, and MacKenzie had turned left to respond and increased speed to 30 knots. Ordinarily Forrestal would have two destroyers of her own nearby. She did have two destroyers, Rupertus (DD 851) flagship of Destroyer Division 32, and Henry W. Tucker (DD 875), another DesDiv 32 ship, operating with her as Task Group 77.6. But they weren’t both available.
Late during the midwatch this morning Forrestal had lost a man overboard. A helicopter was launched, found Seaman Kenneth Dyke and lowered a rescue chair. He had gotten in the chair, but as the chair was being hoisted he fell out and disappeared.
Rupertus and Tucker were assigned to search for him. When Forrestal began flight operations around 0600, Rupertus returned to serve as plane guard, while Tucker continued the search. So Tucker was not nearby when the fire began, and MacKenzie would be the next closest destroyer after Rupertus.
Rupertus Moves to Assist
Rupertus observed the initial fire at 1053. Captain Burke assumed the conn, ordered all back full and launched their motor whaleboat. At 1055 they observed high order detonations sending equipment, planes and men over the side and went to General Quarters, leaving the whaleboat to retrieve survivors and proceeding to approach Forrestal through a wake filled with personnel, life jackets, fuel tanks, crates and other debris.5
MacKenzie Moves to Assist
On the way to Forrestal, MacKenzie stopped to pick up three survivors that had been recovered by Rupertus’ motor whaleboat. Captain Sherwin J. Sleeper assumed the conn at 1118, went to General Quarters at 1144, launched MacKenzie’s motor whaleboat at 1151 to pick up more survivors, embarked three more survivors at 1154 and proceeded to assist Forrestal with firefighting at 1155.
Destroyers’ Assistance Needed
Forrestal required firefighting assistance from destroyers because there were portions of the fire that could not be reached by Forrestal’s own fire parties. The destroyers were fast and maneuverable enough to put water on those fires. Captain John Beling of Forrestal gave the destroyers permission to move in as close as possible, but did not order them to do so. He left that decision, and that assumption of risk, to the destroyer commanding officers.6
Here the superstructure of George K. Mackenzie can be seen as the ship maintained station on the carrier starboard quarter and poured water onto sections of the fire that could not be reached by Forrestal’s firefighters.
The Risks of Steaming Alongside
Steaming alongside another ship is an inherently dangerous activity. The ships are within seconds of a collision at speed, which can be caused by any number of common occurrences: steering casualties, propulsion casualties, instrumentation casualties, human error, etc. MacKenzie had significant recent experience at steaming alongside. Since beginning this cruise six weeks earlier she had conducted sixteen underway replenishments, all of which involved steaming alongside another ship for an extended period.7
This was different. First, underway replenishment is conducted with a distance on the order of 100 feet between ships, closer when sea conditions are more benign, farther when conditions are more sporty. This firefighting would require maintaining station ten to forty feet off Forrestal.
Then there was the normal risk of steering or propulsion casualties, magnified on Forrestal. (In case you think that a flight deck fire would not affect steering, you might want to consider the fact that all three sailors in port after steering on Forrestal died in the fire, but not before, as their last act, transferring steering control to starboard after steering.)8
Added to this was the fact that Forrestal sailors were jettisoning anything they could, including bombs and whole aircraft, by pushing them over the side, requiring evasive maneuvers by the destroyers.9
And there was one more thing. Forrestal was on fire. With ordnance exploding. MacKenzie sailor John Martin remembers one of the jettisoned bombs detonating, covering Rupertus with smoke and spray.10
Aircraft Carrier Anatomy
Aircraft carriers are different from other ships, so perhaps some preliminary description is in order for the benefit of destroyer sailors like myself.
The main deck of a carrier like Forrestal is the hangar deck. Everything above this deck could be considered superstructure, although it doesn’t look much like it. The aftermost part of the main deck is the fantail, like a conventional ship, aft of the superstructure and under the overhang of the flight deck. The flight deck is on the 04 level, four levels above the main deck. The hangar bays are three levels high. There is one full level of compartments between the ceiling of the hangar bays and the flight deck, the 03 level, called the gallery deck, which contains operational spaces amidships and berthing spaces at the fore and aft extremes. (Having a bunk directly beneath the arresting gear or the catapult would seem to be less than desirable, but that’s what is there). The 01 and 02 levels exist mostly forward and aft of the hangar bays.
Below the main deck the interior of the hull is conventional, with berthing, messing and office spaces on the second and third decks and engineering spaces, store rooms, tanks and magazines below.
The exterior of the hull has some additional aircraft carrier features. Because the flight deck is devoted to, well, flight, other functions requiring deck space, like weapon mounts, mooring, underway replenishment, boats, etc., have to be accommodated differently. They are accommodated by adding structures on the outside of the hull called sponsons. These provide small areas of deck at the main deck, 01 and 02 levels, and contain additional office, workshop and storage spaces.
The flight deck and the hangar deck are connected by four aircraft elevators, all at the edge of the flight deck. Elevator number one is forward of the island on the starboard side, number two is forward on the port side, both accessing hangar bay number 1. Elevator number three is aft of the island on the starboard side, accessing hangar bay number two, and elevator number four is further aft on the starboard side, accessing hangar bay number three.11
Forrestal’s starboard quarter after the fire, showing the fantail and the sponson supporting two 5’/54 gun mounts.12
Forrestal’s starboard quarter after the fire, showing the sponson and the forward of two 5’/54 gun mounts, aircraft crane and aircraft elevator number 4 accessing hangar bay number 3.13
The position of helmsman is conventionally considered part of the job of the Quartermaster rating, and the helmsman for General Quarters and Special Sea Details would be a senior Quartermaster. The enlisted billet description for a destroyer GQ helmsman when MacKenzie was commissioned called for a Quartermaster First Class.14
That’s not how it was done in MacKenzie in 1967. Quartermasters spent most of their time navigating, not steering. The helmsman, like the lee helmsman, the lookouts and most of the other sailors in the bridge watch were non-rated sailors or Petty Officers of other ratings.
In fact, many of the jobs in the manpower-intensive World War II destroyers were filled by first-term enlisted men, mostly non-rated. The two 5”/38 gun mounts required about 70 men, only a handful of whom were rated Gunner’s Mates. Similar situations existed in the fire rooms and engine rooms, the repair parties, etc.
The title for a non-rated man in the deck occupations was Seaman. Today they would have to demonstrate that this was more than just a name, but a description they had earned.
The General Quarters helmsman today was Seaman J. D. Bigham from Pickneyville, Illinois. He was 20 years old and had been on the ship for less than a year. He had come to the bridge watch from the deck force, and he had been assigned as GQ helmsman because he was good. His relief was Ricky Davis, a Torpedoman, an excellent helmsman and a frequent flyer at Captain’s mast.
The job of helmsman demands concentration. The helmsman must continuously scan the gyrocompass repeater, the magnetic compass, the rudder angle indicator and the outside, maintaining situational awareness and hearing, responding to and acknowledging the commands from the conning officer.
Keeping the ship on course is not a simple matter of pointing. There is a lag between a command and its execution, another lag between the movement of the helm and the movement of the rudder, another bigger lag between the movement of the rudder and the movement of the ship due to momentum and inertia.
Keeping the ship on a heading requires constant adjustment. The degree of precision required varies with the situation. Independent steaming in calm seas might tolerate a few degrees of variation around the intended course. Steaming in formation would require greater precision and therefor greater concentration. Steaming alongside during underway replenishment requires the greatest precision and concentration ordinarily experienced. Today would require unprecedented precision and concentration.
The Hole Snipes
Precise control of speed is just as critical as steering. The engine order telegraph allows the conning officer the order the exact shaft rpm he desires, with adjustments as small as one rpm up or down. No automatic device makes this happen. Skilled throttlemen in each engineroom regulate the speed of their respective shaft manually, making continuous small adjustments to achieve the ordered rpm, while Boiler Technicians in each fire room manually control
their burners to maintain the required steam pressure. Most of these “hole snipes” are also young sailors in their first enlistments.
Nozzlemen and Hosemen
Fire hoses are manned by sailors in the General Quarters repair parties, composed of sailors from various departments and ratings. Today MacKenzie would deploy six fire hoses, three on the forecastle and three on the 01 level forward of the bridge. The smoke was intense enough that the hose crews required continuous relief, with men cycling from the rear of the hose to the nozzleman position, then taking a break.15
MacKenzie and Rupertus Alongside
In the first two minutes of the fire, long before either destroyer got near the Forrestal, four one-thousand pound bombs had exploded on the flight deck, created massive holes in the flight deck and creating shrapnel that the perforated compartments a great distance away from the explosions. For example, shrapnel had penetrated the port steering gear power room on the third deck under the fantail and injured all three sailors in the compartment, severing the arm of the electrician’s mate, penetrating the bottom of the ship and mangling the access to the compartment. Burning fuel was flowing into various compartments, spreading the fire and trapping men in various places.16
By 1129 Rupertus was on station 30 to 50 feet off Forrestal’s starboard quarter using fire hoses rigged on their foc’sle, torpedo deck and signal bridge to put water on burning aircraft on the flight deck aft of the island. At 1142 Rupertus moved to Forrestal’s port quarter, where they would continue fighting fires until 1309.17
Captain Sleeper brought MacKenzie up to Forrestal’s starboard quarter, dodging debris and survivors. By 1229 MacKenzie was maintaining station ten to forty feet off Forrestal’s starboard quarter at 15 knots.18 Areas that MacKenzie could reach included the fantail and the starboard quarter sponson, which included isolated decks on three levels containing two 5”/54 gun mounts, including magazines containing 5”/54 ammunition, and the boat and aircraft crane.
MacKenzie applied fire hoses to fires in those areas as Forrestal slowly changed course to port. Six fire hoses were manned, three on the forecastle and three on the 01 level forward of the bridge. An Associated Press newspaper story reported that four sailors on one of those isolated decks were saved by MacKenzie spraying water on them for an hour.19 MacKenzie sailors remember asking Forrestal sailors on the starboard sponson if they were going to jump. They said no, then waited until MacKenzie’s fire hoses had cooled the aircraft crane enough that they could climb up it to the flight deck.
Forrestal’s stern looking across from port to starboard showing MacKenzie on starboard quarter.20
At 1335 MacKenzie moved forward to put water on fires in Hangar Number 3.21 At this point MacKenzie was maneuvering adjacent to elevator number 4, the most extreme overhang on Forrestal, and the destroyer’s mast was within five feet of the edge of the elevator.22
At 1342 all fires on Forrestal were reported to be under control, although additional fires were reported throughout the afternoon and into the evening.23
Search and Rescue
At 1305 ComDesDiv 32 in Rupertus, acting as CTU 77.6.2, assumed tactical command of Rupertus, Tucker, Moore and MacKenzie as on scene search and rescue (SAR) commander.24
At 1343 Forrestal directed MacKenzie to break away, and MacKenzie increased speed to 27 knots, proceeded to retrieve the motor whaleboat, and
joined the SAR formation at 1503. Shortly thereafter MacKenzie left the SAR unit and returned to Oriskany.
The SAR unit was later augmented by the cruiser USS Saint Paul (CA 73) and destroyers Blue (DD 744), Barney (DDG 6) and Fecheteler (DD 870). Tucker was detached from the SAR unit to rejoin Forrestal. The SAR operation was terminated at 0231 on Sunday and Rupertus joined TG 77.8.25 A total of 47 men went overboard.26
MacKenzie Returns to Oriskany
MacKenzie rejoined Oriskany at 1615 as Oriskany was recovering her boats. At 1628 MacKenzie was sent back to Forrestal at 27 knots, transferring the six survivors to a helicopter two at a time and taking station on the port quarter of Forrestal again, this time to transfer firefighting foam and OBA canisters. At 2103 Mackenzie returned to station on Oriskany, who was following three miles astern of Forrestal.
USS Repose Arrives and Forrestal Departs
During the first watch Forrestal, Oriskany and escorts proceeded to rendezvous with the Hospital Ship Repose, who had come from the Danang area, and Forrestal’s dead and injured were transferred to Repose from 2253 Saturday to 1410 on Sunday. Forrestal then proceeded at 27 knots to Subic Bay, escorted by Henry W. Tucker and Baussel (DD 845).27
Just after noon on Sunday, MacKenzie detached from TG 77.8, refueled from USS Cacapon (AO 52), and proceeded to the vicinity of Quang Tri, South Vietnam for her next assignment.28
The balance of the six-month cruise included more naval gunfire support, more carrier operations and service in Operation Sea Dragon.
The Forrestal fire left 134 sailors dead and 161 injured. The dead are memorialized on panel 24E of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. None of the casualties received the Purple Heart, because this event was considered an accident, not a combat action.29
Rear Adm. Harvey P. Lanham, Commander, Carrier Division Two, embarked in Forrestal, commended MacKenzie and Rupertus on the spot for “the most magnificent ship handling I’ve ever seen.”30
The Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation (MUC) award was established on July 17, 1967, just twelve days before the Forrestal fire, to recognize conduct by a unit that would merit the award of the Bronze Star Medal for an individual.31
MacKenzie and Rupertus each received the MUC for the Forrestal fire.32 The citation for MacKenzie’s MUC reads as follows:
The Secretary of the Navy takes pleasure in presenting the MERITORIOUS UNIT COMMENDATION to
USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE (DD-836)
for service as set forth in the following
For meritorious achievement on 29 July 1967 in significantly contributing to .firefighting efforts during a major fire in USS FORRESTAL (CVA-59).
When the after area of FORRESTAL erupted into flames due to widespread fire from aircraft fuel and bomb explosions in armed aircraft which were about to be launched for a strike against North Vietnam. USS GEORGE K. MACKENZIE proceeded close aboard FORRESTAL and, in the face of extreme hazard, effectively streamed water on the raging fires and hot bulkheads of munitions spaces.
The team effort and alert professionalism of MACKENZIE’s crew contributed greatly in containing the fire and in saving lives.
By their gallant performance, the officers and men of MACKENZIE upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.