A fire on a United States Navy carrier stationed off the coast of Vietnam kills 134 service members on this day in 1967. The deadly fire on the USS Forrestal began with the accidental launch of a rocket.
During the Vietnam War, the USS Forrestal was often stationed off the coast of North Vietnam, conducting combat operations. On the morning of July 29, the ship was preparing to attack when a rocket from one of its own F-4 Phantom jet fighters was accidentally launched. The rocket streaked across the deck and hit a parked A-4 Skyhawk jet. The Skyhawk, which was waiting to take off, was piloted by John McCain, the future senator from Arizona.
Fuel from the Skyhawk spilled out and caught fire. The fire then spread to nearby planes on the ship’s deck and detonated a 1,000-pound bomb, which killed many of the initial firefighters and further spread the fire. A chain reaction of explosions blew holes in the flight deck and had half the large ship on fire at one point. Many pilots were trapped in their planes as the fire spread. It took a full day before the fires could be fully contained.
Hundreds of sailors were seriously injured and 134 lost their lives in the devastating fire. Twenty planes were destroyed. It was the worst loss of a life on a U.S. Navy ship since World War II. Temporary repairs were made to the ship in the Philippines before the Forrestal headed back to Norfolk, Virginia. It was repaired and put back into service the following April, but never returned to Vietnam.
John McCain narrowly escaped the fire and, afterwards, volunteered for duty on the USS Oriskany. Just three months later, his plane was shot down over North Vietnam and he was taken prisoner. He was not released until five-and-a-half years later, in 1973.