In addition to the human cost, eleven Skyhawks—nearly a full squadron—were either consumed by or pitched over the side, as well as seven of the high-performance Phantom fighters and three huge RA-5Cs. Needless to say, the Forrestal was in no shape to continue combat operations after its near-death experience, and sailed first for the Philippines for emergency repairs, then to Florida to drop off its crew, before anchoring at Norfolk for a six-month repair operation that would cost $217 million (equivalent to $1.6 billion in 2017 dollars).
Unlike the Oriskany fire, the Navy did not hold any individuals legally culpable, though Captain Beling was reassigned to administrative duties. It seems clear, however, that the decision to cut corners and employ unstable bombs and prematurely armed rockets in order to meet the high operational tempo expected by the Pentagon led to dozens of deaths.
The Forrestal fire did lead to major reforms of the Navy’s firefighting procedures, including better training in damage control for the crew at large. In the next two years, new firefighting devices that could flood the entire carrier deck with flame-retardant foam were installed. A Farrier Firefighting School was opened at Norfolk, named after the chief who sacrificed his life attempting to douse the first bomb.
Unfortunately, just six months later, history would repeat itself, and yet another prematurely fired Zuni rocket would trigger a deadly blaze on the USS Enterprise.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This first appeared last year.