Vietnam veteran Bernie Sasse of Onalaska was aboard the USS Forrestal when it caught fire in 1967 in a tragedy that left 134 of his fellow crew members dead.
Sasse was present for the Onalaska Area Historical Society’s Oct. 17 program about the disaster, which went on to play a major role in the way the U.S. Navy trains seamen in firefighting.
The historical society’s members and guests learned about the explosions and fire aboard the aircraft carrier through a documentary about the incident and from Sasse.
“It’s been 50 years,” Sasse said. “I did have nightmares when I first got out (of the Navy).”
The documentary, “Trial by Fire” recounted the mistakes made in causing the explosions and those made in the subsequent fire suppression efforts. The 20-minute video is now used by the Navy to train all sailors in proper firefighting techniques.
Stationed on board the ship, third class petty officer Sasse was serving a two-year tour as a store keeper. Another survivor, U.S. Sen. John McCain, a pilot stationed aboard the Forrestal, barely escaped as the fire from the explosions moved toward his aircraft.
Before the incident, pilots assigned to the Forrestal flew 700 sorties in four days over Vietnam while the carrier was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. This extensive operation created a shortage of bombs.
To meet this shortage, bombs from the World War II and Korean War eras were taken out of storage in the Philippines and shipped to the Forrestal. Because of their age and improper storage, a number of the old bombs leaked and were unstable.
The explosions and fire started at about 10:50 a.m. July 29, 1967, while the fight crew was preparing for the second flight of the day. During the preparations, a rocket accidentally launched and flew across the flight deck, striking a fuel tank on a Skyhawk waiting to be launched.
While the rocket’s warhead safety mechanism prevented it from detonating, the impact tore the fuel tank off the jet’s wing and ignited it. Within seconds, the aircraft’s other external fuel tanks overheated and ruptured, releasing more jet fuel to spread along the flight deck.
Among the mistakes leading up to the explosions and fire was the fact aircraft were bring fueled while ordnance were loaded onto jets. The foam firefighting equipment also hadn’t been charged.
When the first line of firefighter were lost in the early part of the incident, breaking the chain of command, untrained crew members took up the battle, spraying water indiscriminately. The water hampered the foam’s ability to fight the blaze and damaged sensitive equipment.
Since the incident, the Navy has changed its protocol to give all sailors training in proper firefighting techniques.
“Now, everyone gets trained in fighting fires,” Sasse said.
In addition to the crewmen who lost their lives, 161 were injured. The injured were transported to the hospital ship USS Repose.
While the fire on the flight deck was extinguished by the end of the day, fires below deck took another day to put out.
Sasse mentioned he and a number of the surviving crew members attended a 50-year reunion in Washington, D.C. this year.