Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It - Gregory A. Freeman The story of John McCain and the tragic fire on board the Forrestal. The author provides lots of interesting detail on the hazards of working on a carrier. Falling overboard was one of the most feared and could happen easily. One had to be always on the alert and totally aware of the surroundings. Fatigue and heat made this difficult. Sailors working in unbearably hot conditions for 12 hours at a stretch could be blown overboard by an errant jet blast, or run down by a tractor that got away when the deck shifted before it could be chocked down properly.

I did not realize there was a severe shortage of bombs for the crews flying over Vietnam. Despite assurances of McNamara and the President, crews were leaving with the wrong ordnance and ⅓ the normal bomb loads because there were not enough ordnance. There was so much bombing going on, the supply line could not keep up. Officers were told to lie about the situation and about their bombing success or lack thereof.

The shortage of ordnance meant that the Services were scrounging everywhere for bombs and the load that was delivered to the Forrestal just before the accident had their ordnance officer very upset. They were old 1000 lb. Comp B bombs dating from 1935 which had been stored in the jungles of the Philippines. Unlike the newer , more stable bombs, these became much more unstable and even more explosive over time as the ingredients began to deteriorate. Not to mention they had to be “banded” in order to hang beneath the newer planes. He was worried that any vibration, even one from the catapult as the plane was shot off the deck, might set one of them off unleashing a terrible series of explosions. The officer refused to store them with the other bombs and insisted they be moved on the flight deck where they could be loaded quickly on to the planes scheduled for a big mission the next day. The captain was informed of the danger but refused to let the ordnance officer chuck them overboard since they had no replacements.

The fire on the Oriskany had pointed up serious deficiencies in training and the way emergencies were handled. In that case safety procedures had been short-circuited in order to move planes faster off the deck. Magnesium flares were stored in the wrong locker in order to make them more accessible for loading on the planes and a sailor's failure to properly handle the accident after ignition of a flare made a dangerous situation disastrous. Failure to communicate decisions and the desire to get planes into the air as fast as possible were major factors in the Forrestal accident. Two separate groups made adjustments to safety procedures, each assuming that their early removal of two separate devices designed to prevent the accidental firing of a missile, would be prevented by the other’s safety mechanism. Independent of each other, both devices were disarmed making an accident almost inevitable.

The author does a very good job of conveying the horror faced by the sailors as the old bombs blew up, often blowing a hole through several decks down below the waterline and leaving a river of flaming fuel cascading down through passageways. It’s an amazing wonder the ship was saved even if an ungodly mess. Captain Beling, falling into a state of unreality after the fires had been brought under control, the entire aft section of the ship a mess with fires reigniting on a regular basis, 134 dead sailors, the flight deck a shambles, tried to insist that with some minor repairs the ship could be back in action over Vietnam at “80%” capacity. He even thought he could launch a couple of A-6’s off the forward catapult as they steamed into Norfolk for repairs. Fortunately, the Navy’s Admiral conducting an investigation into the fire put the kibosh on that idea very quickly. The author provides generally a favorable view of Beling. I was dismayed, however, as usual, by Belin's platitudinous speech to the crew after the fire “thanking God for sparing the ship, yada yada yada, right after that same God had just killed, in the most horrible fashion possible, 134 of their shipmates, and disfigured hundreds more. But I guess that’s typical of lala land.

Freeman quotes extensively from Beling’s testimony at the board of inquiry. He noted that the Navy had never published any kind of official training review detailing lessons learned on the Oriskany and Beling had to make 3,000 copies of an article for distribution to his crew from Reader’s Digest about the fire on the Oriskany as part of his own training efforts. There were actually few planes carrying rockets on the Forrestal and he used his degree in aeronautical engineering to, in hindsight, show the flaws in the safety mechanism on the launch circuit of the Zuni rockets. The pigtails should never have been plugged in (engaging the firing mechanism) until after the plane was on internal voltage and after being checked for stray voltage on internal power. But ultimately, he insisted the fire from the rocket strike on the plane could have been put out if they had the full three minutes available before cook-off on the modern bombs. The old 1,000 lb bombs blew up in just half that time killing most of the fire-fighting crew instantly and blowing holes in the flight deck permitting rivers of burning fuel to flow into the crew berthing spaces.

Moving account of a tragedy that should never have happened. I would hope that lessons were learned from it. Freeman nicely mixes personal accounts with detailed information on the workings of the ship and crew to create a real page-turner.

There is a good Youtube video that intersperses actual footage of the missile and bomb detonation with some re-creation of events and the investigation (one discrepancy: the video says 7 bombs exploded, the book reports nine.)