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Fire! Fire! Fire! This is not a Drill!

Bill Duncan recalls the Blazing Inferno on the

USS Forrestal (CVA-59) – July 29, 1967

By Carol Glassman

An aerial view of the Forrestal.

The USS Forrestal, the flagship of the 7th Fleet and pride of the Navy, was so large it was classified as a super carrier. The nearly 60,000-ton Forrestal was launched in 1954 and in spite of its size, could still attain speeds of 33 knots. On June 6, 1967 she left Norfolk, Virginia for combat deployment, routed to WESTPAC (Western Pacific) duty. On July 25, fully loaded with fighter/attack squadrons, the giant carrier arrived in Yankee Station, Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam to begin combat operations under Commanding Officer Captain John K. Beling. During the next four days her aircraft flew 150 sorties and at 10:52 a.m. on July 29, just as a launch was being readied, a Zuni rocket accidentally fired from an F-4 Phantom that was parked on the starboard side of the flight deck aft of the island. A terrifying chain reaction followed: the missile shot across the deck rupturing a 400-gallon fuel tank on a parked A-4D Skyhawk, spraying highly flammable fuel onto the deck. This ignited and spread flames over the flight deck and under the fully loaded aircraft preparing to launch. Ordnance exploded, other rockets ignited, and the wind quickly spread the flames to turn the flight deck into a blazing hell. The first explosion killed almost all of the specially trained firefighters aboard. Pilots, trapped in their cockpits, were forced to jump onto a flaming deck and run for their lives or be incinerated. Fifty men trapped immediately below the flight deck died, while others were blown or jumped overboard. Before the day of horror was over, 134 personnel were killed and 21 aircraft destroyed. Even after the fire on the flight deck was under control following nine explosions, secondary fires took almost half a day to be controlled.

Author Gregory A. Freeman in “Sailors to the End” documents the ensuing hours and days as the crew tried to battle the fire to reach mates trapped in damaged compartments and waiting to die. The majority of them were just teens of 18 and 19 and Freeman interviews a cross-section of them as they painfully recall what many label “the worst day of my life”.

Bill holds a photo of his friend Don Jedlicka who has a special place in the Duncan’s home. Photo by Val Simon

How did such a catastrophic event occur on the pride of the navy? Author Freeman discloses information which he has assembled from naval documents and personal recollections, correcting the official U.S. view: for 35 years, the government allowed the Forrestal crew to carry an undeserved share of the blame for the tragedy, never acknowledging that it sent the carrier faulty bombs that exploded before the crew even had a chance to contain the initial fire. Many felt that although Captain John Beling was finally exonerated from blame, his final assignment as Commander, Iceland Defense Force, during the Cold War instead of aboard a ship was a kind of ‘undeserved punishment’ for him as scapegoat.

Freeman seems to have an agenda of his own in the book: he praises the crew as the true heroes of the event and lays the blame on old, defective ammunition, the source of those massive explosions that took most of the 134 lives that were lost.

“The ship’s ordnance experts were enraged when they were supplied with these ancient, defective and dangerous bombs the day before the accident — but they were told nothing else was available. Lyndon Johnson had ordered a big escalation in the bombing campaign, regardless of the fact that there was not enough modern ammunition available to do the job.”

Freeman claims this factor was swept under the rug in official assessments of what went wrong that July morning.

Another contributing factor was the short-circuiting of two separate safety precautions concerning the activation of rockets on planes ready to take off on bombing missions. This is one of those bureaucratic mix-ups that can happen, and as any veteran can tell you, there is no larger or more bureaucratic entity than the U. S. military.

The young sailors never flinched. Submitted photos

Bill Duncan of Marco Island was just one young man aboard the Forrestal on that horrific day and it has taken him years to be able to talk about it. Even though more than 40 years have passed, it is obviously a very painful experience for Bill to recall: the day he lost his best friend, Don Jedlicka, who perished in the Forrestal fire.

Bill was aboard the Forrestal in Fighter Squadron 11, an Electronics Counter Measures Technician (ECM) whose job it was to put devices on certain planes to jam enemy radar detection systems and deceive their surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems. He was also on a fire/rescue team and assigned to a ship’s company, Four Fox Fire and Rescue, trained to extinguish fire from new bombs in three to four minutes using fog foam. According to Bill, the ship had taken on some old World War 2 black powder bombs that blew in 90 seconds, just as the highly trained fire fighting teams arrived on the scene; in the first few minutes of the fire 70% of the best firefighters were killed.

“It has haunted me for years,” said Bill with typical survivor’s guilt. “I was the only one to get out of the cubicle where I slept with five other guys. Don was on the bottom bunk directly across from me.

“In the navy we trained, trained, trained: they’d say, ‘General quarters, this is a drill. That morning however, they called, ‘General quarters, Fire! Fire! Fire! Flight deck! This is NOT a drill!’”

USS Forrestal - a blazing inferno.

Bill, who fortunately was up, awoke another crew member and was able to get to the berthing area exit port just as a bomb exploded and blew him down a ladder to the next deck. When Bill and his Fire/Rescue team arrived at the catwalk and peered out to see what was happening, “A missile launched by the fire came right at us, about twenty feet in front of us, didn’t go off but bounced and went over our heads into the sea.”

What amazes Bill, even to this day, is that all these young men — boys really — who had voluntarily enlisted, did not cut and run but headed straight into the inferno to help others. Badly burned and wounded himself, Bill helped others to the sick bay that was full of the badly burned and injured. He spent four months recovering from burns and shrapnel wounds in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.

“One minute we were the flagship of the Seventh Fleet, and then I was standing beside Captain John Beling and heard him say to the executive officer, ‘Prepare to abandon ship’ as we were leaning so hard we were in danger of capsizing. The fire was so intense that when we turned water from the fire hoses on the bulkheads it turned to steam and came back and burned us. So much for those who used to say, ‘Oh you went into the navy — you took the easy route.’”

Bill went back and served another tour in Vietnam. When he returned home, he found it difficult to discuss what he had endured personally because of the emotional pain and Vietnam was not exactly a ‘popular’ war among the masses. Unfortunately, he points out, many young heroic men received less than a hero’s welcome home because of public sentiment.

He states that his experiences changed his life permanently, in how he regards things: “When things are blowing up, flying by, whizzing by — the turning point in my life was when I realized I could run, move, and perform my duty as I was trained to do. A great peace came to me.

With this revelation, everything became clearer; it changed my whole perception forever. Everything – the colors were more vivid, the smells, all my senses were more intensified. All I could think was that my mom and dad would not understand, but if I died right there I was okay with that. I knew I was right where I wanted to be and I could accomplish anything I wanted.”

At his mother’s insistence that he enlist or get a job, 18-year old Bill had chosen the Navy where he became best friends with Don Jedlicka, a young sailor from Iowa. They made a pact to see each other’s families if anything happened to either one of them; however, when Don was killed, Bill was hospitalized and as time went on, it became even more difficult psychologically, he said, to make the call. When Bill retired to Marco Island in 1999 he got in touch with Don’s sisters Helen and Joan. They said, “We’ve been waiting for this call for over 30 years” and hastened to add, “It’s a good thing that you didn’t call until now. Our mom never accepted his death. She just died at the age of 92 and she still drove his car. If you had come right after he died it would have killed her. Every holiday she set his place at the dinner table thinking he was going to show up.”

When Bill went to see them in person, he said he finally realized just how cold and callous it must have been to be on the receiving end of a body shipped home with little explanation. Don had big dreams and things he wanted to do, but he died before he was 21.

“The kid went off, the letters stopped, you got no notice. You got a telegram and a box came home. They called the Navy chaplain and they would say they’re sorry but they have so many dead coming home (like 500 a week) at that time that they didn’t have any details to give you.”

W. M. Duncan, third from the left in the back row.

Bill attributes his wife Denise with encouraging him to air his feelings about the past in order to heal. He went out to meet Don’s family in Sioux City, Iowa and found the area very different but the commonality offered by sharing the loss of someone in war was the best reward for him. They had photos of the two sailors and wanted to know every detail of every experience he had with his friend. He shared their being propositioned by a young woman for the equivalent of fort-five cents and not accepting the offer, in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Don, a “good Catholic boy” admitted to Bill he confessed “just enough” of their activities to the priest.

“Oh yeah, that’s our Don!” they replied — making it so real for them and removing a heavy load from Bill’s shoulders after many years.

Bill, who has a picture of Don in his great room at his home and has Bill’s Vietnam Service medal attached to the picture, believes that the ones who didn’t return are the real heroes.

John K. Beling, Rear Admiral USN (Retired) who had been captain of the Forrestal in July 1967, passed away Friday, November 5, 2010 in Reston, VA. He was 92.

On June 16, 2010 the USS Forrestal was towed out of the berth where it has sat idle for the past 16 years, its fate uncertain, but possibly headed for a Navy storage site in Philadelphia where it will either be dismantled or sunk to create an artificial reef.

This article is dedicated to the courageous young men and women who served in the Armed Forces, especially those who did not return. http://forrestalmemorial.com/index.html


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