Two deadly collisions involving U.S. Navy destroyers in June and August 2017 may have cost the lives of up to sixteen sailors, leading the Navy to declare a day-long operational pause to reflect upon its safety culture. That such similar accidents took place in such close proximity reflects stresses and failings common to the maritime fighting branch.
Indeed, the recent spate of collisions echoes a succession of even more catastrophic accidents aboard U.S. aircraft carriers between 1966 and 1968 that between them claimed the lives of more than two hundred sailors. These incidents were the result of a Navy taxed by the enormous demands of the Vietnam War. In their wake came major reforms addressing the inherent dangers of operating ships packed full of explosive munitions, fuel and jet planes. This three-part series will examine why each of the accidents occurred, how the crew responded and the lessons that were drawn from the tragedies.
In July 1966, the USS Oriskany deployed for its second tour in Vietnam at Yankee Station, a point in the Gulf of Tonkin roughly a hundred miles east of Da Nang. The nine-hundred-foot-long Essex-class carrier was one of several rotating there to serve as floating air bases for nearly continuous airstrikes over Vietnam. It had been launched at the end of World War II, commissioned and serve in the Korean War. Now its five combat squadrons—including A-1 Skyraider propeller planes, as well as F-8 Crusader and A-4 Skyhawk jets—would fly nearly eight thousand combat missions in four months.
By October, the Oriskany’s air wing was nearing exhaustion, as its pilots were flying two missions a day. On October 1, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara visited the carrier and upbraided Capt. John Iarrobino when he learned that the air wing was not adhering to Pentagon guidelines stipulating that pilots should not fly more than 1.5 missions per day. The Oriskany’s skipper replied that there simply were not enough airplanes and crew to meet the demands expected of them any other way.
Weeks later, on October 26, 1966, two apprentice airmen were stowing an unexpended magnesium flare into locker A-107-M when something went wrong. The roughly three-foot-long Mark 24 Mod 3 cylindrical flares were usually dropped by parachute during night operations to illuminate targets with their two-million-candlepower glow. A wire lanyard taped to the airplane was used to trigger the flare—but after being carried on a combat mission without being used, the lanyard’s safety had not been reset.
At 7:28 a.m., one of the airmen apparently dropped the flare, either triggering the lanyard or causing the flare to spontaneously combust due to a design flaw. Either way, the airmen panicked and did precisely the wrong thing—they tossed the burning flare into the ammunition locker and locked it up.
Locker A-107-M, located on the hangar deck just next to the carrier’s forward elevator, held more than 250 flares and numerous 2.75-inch folding-fin FFAR rockets. The burning magnesium caused one of the rockets to explode, starting a fire—which in turn caused the chain combustion of all of the remaining flares. When a firefighting crew raced below deck to drown the flames in fire-retardant foam, they discovered the 5,400°F blaze had warped and melted the door closed. The deck grew dangerously hot, and flames had spread through one of the walls. The firefighters could only desperately attempt to cool off the surrounding deck with their hoses.
After five minutes, the pressure built up by the blaze finally blew open the doors in a tremendous fireball, spreading flames across the hangar. This in turn caused a liquid-oxygen tank near the elevator to ignite, setting a UH-2 helicopter on fire and triggering the ejection seat on a Skyhawk jet, causing the canopy to ricochet across the hangar.
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Thick clouds of smoke were sucked into the ventilation system, smothering the forward third of the Oriskany, fatally searing the lungs of many crew members and suffocating others. The officer’s quarters were especially hard hit. Lt. Cdr. Dan Strong, resting in his state room, was the first to fall victim.
A remarkable article by Don Moser in Life magazine recounts the ordeal of some of the survivors. Trapped in his personal quarters as fire licked under the door, Lt. Cdr. Marvin Reynolds wrapped himself in a wet blanket and breathed out of a porthole he had wrenched open, until a sailor outside provided him with a breathing mask and a firehose. Cdr. Richard Bellinger, squadron leader of the Oriskany’s Crusader fighters, found himself in a similar situation. He stripped out of his clothes and managed to squeeze himself through a porthole onto a raised walkway.
Meanwhile, Bellinger’s executive officer Cdr. Charles Swanson and two ensigns managed to rescue ten other officers from their quarters, one of them severely burned. This party was forced to flee even deeper in the ship as fires raged on the deck above them, and ultimately took refuge in a seven-story-deep void in the ship used as a storage space. The terrified sailors had to endure the lights flickering out and the oxygen supply depleting until Swanson finally found a path out through dark, twisting, smoke-filled corridors—and then had to head back into the smoky cavity three times to lead out the men behind him.