Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It

Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It

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by Gregory A. Freeman

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The aircraft carrier USS Forrestal was preparing to launch attacks into North Vietnam when one of its jets accidentally fired a rocket into an aircraft occupied by pilot John McCain. A huge fire ensued, and McCain barely escaped before a 1,000-pound bomb on his plane exploded, causing a chain reaction with other bombs on surrounding planes. The crew struggled for


The aircraft carrier USS Forrestal was preparing to launch attacks into North Vietnam when one of its jets accidentally fired a rocket into an aircraft occupied by pilot John McCain. A huge fire ensued, and McCain barely escaped before a 1,000-pound bomb on his plane exploded, causing a chain reaction with other bombs on surrounding planes. The crew struggled for days to extinguish the fires, but, in the end, the tragedy took the lives of 134 men. For thirty-five years, the terrible loss of life has been blamed on the sailors themselves, but this meticulously documented history shows that they were truly the victims and heroes.

Editorial Reviews
When an accidental rocket firing aboard the USS Forrestal causes a fighter jet to explode, igniting its deadly bombs, it's up to the ship's brave crew -- including future Senator John McCain -- to try to save as many lives as they can before the vessel is completely destroyed.
Library Journal
The tragic events that occurred on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in July 1967, while the ship's crew was preparing for an air strike against North Vietnam, ranks high with other naval disasters at sea. Told through personal narratives of 12 eyewitness sailors, the book shows how through a series of accidents misfire from a Phantom aircraft's Zuni rocket struck another aircraft on the flight deck, piloted by (later Senator) John McCain. The misfired rocket set off a series of explosions, some from 1000-pound vintage World War II bombs already loaded on jets on the flight deck. The ensuing series of cataclysmic events caused a bloody carnage and loss of 134 men. Freeman (Lay This Body Down) doesn't spare the gruesome details. McCain, a combat pilot and POW during the Vietnam War, was caught in the middle of exploding aircraft and walls of jet fuel fireballs. Sailors were trapped below decks or thrown overboard by each succeeding explosion as deadly shrapnel hissed across the deck. Despite the damage and loss of life, the aircraft carrier did not sink. This thorough, absorbing account is recommended for large public libraries and Vietnam War collections. Gerald Costa, Brooklyn P.L., NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A riveting true tale of heroism and tragedy at sea. On the morning of June 29, 1967, the US aircraft carrier Forrestal was preparing to launch a routine air raid against America's North Vietnamese enemies. The heaving deck was packed with fueled warplanes and a motley combination of old and new ordnance: Belgian-made Zuni rockets, leaky thousand-ton bombs of WWII vintage, Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, and hundreds of other rockets and bombs. An instant after pilot John McCain (yes, that John McCain) gave the thumbs-up signal to his parachute rigger, he felt an enormous impact. A Zuni rocket had accidentally fired, gashing the side of McCain's plane and pouring hundreds of gallons of jet fuel onto the deck. Freelance journalist Freeman (Lay This Body Down, 1999) spares the reader no detail of the ensuing horror. First, fire engulfed the deck, then volatile WWII bombs "cooked off" in pools of jet fuel, triggering successive explosions from the munitions on the deck, blasting away sections of the ship, and wreaking bizarre damage on the bodies of the young men working there. Many died, while for those who survived to conquer the fire, just doing their jobs constituted unbelievable heroism. Freeman tells a few representative stories in detail. One kid stayed at his post at general quarters, alone, for five hours, because he'd been ordered to; three dying men, trapped in a steering compartment, uncomplainingly followed orders to transfer steering control before succumbing. In the end, 134 men died in the fire, and many survivors were left with haunting memories and crippling injuries. Incredibly, McCain survived with only minor wounds. Freeman blames the incident in large part on anelectrical surge in the rockets and the use of old and faulty thousand-pound bombs, but leaves unclear whether the Navy's investigation of the fire, an unsatisfying combination of whitewash and scapegoating, taught it any enduring lessons. A compassionate account of a dramatic incident in modern naval history, told with cinematic immediacy and narrative skill.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Harper Perennial
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)
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Read an Excerpt

Sailors to the End

By Gregory Freeman

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Gregory Freeman All right reserved. ISBN: 0060549416

Chapter One

Cast Your Fate to the Wind

July 1967

Bob Shelton was still troubled by the nightmare when he reached the bridge of the aircraft carrier. He had hoped that getting out of his bunk and making his way topside to watch the sun rise would help him shake it off, but it was still with him - the puzzling images of fire and smoke on the ship, and the vague sense of dread. He kept going over it in his mind as he watched the horizon begin to glow golden, finally breaking into brilliant sunlight while the USS Forrestal sailed in the waters off of Vietnam.

For Shelton, sunrise on the carrier was one of the few reliable indicators that time had passed. Life aboard the carrier could be disorienting and stressful as the young men worked long hours completely separated from therest of the world. The Forrestal was an island where nothing seemed just like home, not even the hours that made up a day. Most of the crew worked belowdecks, the long workdays and irregular sleep schedules melting together, with few clues from the outside world that yesterday had ended and today had begun. But for those who could see it, the sunrise was a reassuring reminder that there was life beyond the ship.

It hadn't taken Shelton long to realize that he didn'tcare much for life on board a carrier-even though he had always longed for a job in aviation, one that involved the planes that fascinated him so much. He wanted to be part of the fast-paced, glamorous world of navy flying even if he weren't the one sitting in the cockpit. His deployment to the USS Forrestal, the world's biggest and most sophisticated warship, was a plum assignment by most standards and his actual workstation wasn't far from the flight-deck operations. But still, the novelty had worn off quickly and he had grown weary of standing in line for everything, whether it was a meal or a haircut. Like so many of the other thousands of young men on board, he was riding out his military service and looking forward to going home. Shelton had been in the navy for more than a year and still had a year left to serve on the Forrestal. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and the workload on the carrier had increased dramatically since the ship arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin a few days earlier and started launching air strikes against the mainland. He knew the next year on the Forrestal would be hard.

In the meantime, Shelton tried to take advantage of the little perks afforded him, and the sunrise was one of them. He reminded himself every day that many men belowdecks rarely got the chance to see daylight, much less something as beautiful as the day slowly breaking over the calm waters.

Shelton had access to this small joy, because sheer luck and a few innate skills had resulted in his assignment to a group of sailors who worked on the bridge, standing within feet of the captain in -the big control center that rose over the flight deck, the panoramic windows providing a bird's-eye view of everything happening on the flight deck and the world beyond. Shelton didn't work there every day, sometimes rotating through a few other assignments, but even if he wasn't working a shift on the bridge, no one minded if he hung around one of the nearby break areas for a cup of coffee and some conversation.

On this morning in late July 1967, Shelton was arriving even earlier than he had to. He wanted to take some time to relax before reporting to duty as quartermaster of the bridge, keeping detailed records of every order given and nearly everything that happened. It could be a demanding job if a lot was going on, so he liked to relax a bit first. And besides, he couldn't sleep after that nightmare.

Shelton was still a little shaken by it. The whole experience just seemed so unusual. Shelton wasn't the type to have nightmares; he couldn't even remember the last time he'd had one, and he rarely remembered any dreams when he woke up. He wasn't worried or upset about anything, so he was surprised by how much it had grabbed him. The experience was so bad that when he awoke, panicked and breathing like a racehorse, it took Shelton a minute to realize it was only a nightmare. The images were too vivid, the sense of horror too real. Shelton had sprung up and sat on the edge of his bunk, waiting for his heart to slow down, wiping the sweat from his face. He was glad to be awake. He was glad to see that everything was okay, and yet, he couldn't get past the feeling that something wasn't.

Shelton had lain back in his bunk, wide awake and still energized from the nightmare. With the rustling and snoring of his crewmates in the background, Shelton's mind kept flashing with images from the nightmare. There were great bursts of light, loud noises, and fire. Nothing was clear, but he did see fire. More than anything else, though, there was a terrible sense of fear and dread.

Shelton realized he would never get back to sleep, and he wasn't sure he wanted to anyway. After lying in his bunk for a while, wide awake, he got up and dressed. He was assigned to work on the bridge that day, so he had to put on the crisp white uniform instead of the denim work clothes he might wear to other assignments. On the way out of his sleeping area, he passed by his buddy James Blaskis, who was sound asleep just a few bunks away from his. Shelton noticed that Blaskis had a new pinup of a...


Excerpted from Sailors to the End by Gregory Freeman
Copyright © 2003 by Gregory Freeman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Gregory A. Freeman is the author of Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves. An award-winning journalist with twenty years' experience, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Sailors to the End 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just recently learned about the tragic fire on the USS Forrestal, which occured in 1967. After doing some research I discovered Gregory Freeman's book on the Forrestal and thought it was an excellent read. Freeman provides background on the ship, its crew, and the alignment of a whole host of circumstances that opened the door for the tragic fire. This book is both engrossing and very sad, as the author explains the complexities of serving on the ship, the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and the fact that decisions made by higher-ups and politicians cost so many young men their lives. He also touches on Sen. John McCain, who was nearly trapped in his plane when the fire broke out. I highly reccommend the book and wish more people knew about these brave men who served their country with honor.
sainthelenaislandman More than 1 year ago
Superbly researched and told, this story is a gory reminder of the crucial nature of safety training and procedures. It is also a glowing reminder of the stellar quality of our naval personnel over the years. After what amounted to questionable safety protocol combined with freak electrical conditions on a parked aircraft and the acquisition of disastrously unstable WWII-era ordinance, a horrendous fire broke out. Containing that fire and tending to the scores of critically injured sailors brought out the best in the crew. This is ultimately their story of valor but one with broad implications for any organization dealing with potentially deadly materials under stressful conditions. Very highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Being an ex Navy carrier pilot, I looked forward to reading this book. It became quickly clear however that the author didn't research the facts. I couldn't get past the section where the author described carrier landings and take offs. Down right false statements and simplified layman comments. Rubbish. Should have had someone who knows what they're talking about proof the book. Credability lost. Couldn't continue the read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As part of navy boot camp I was required to watch the footage of the Forrestal fire, it scared me to death. Years later I ended up serving aboard her for 2 years. I remember walking past the memorial plaques in the hanger bay dedicated to those that perished. There is no plaque to remember those that saved the ship and fought to save their fellow shipmates, "Sailors To The End" is their plaque. This is a forgotten piece of naval history, my thanks to the author for not letting it stay that way. I have met many of the men who's stories are told in the book including the captain, I'm glad to see they will not be forgotten. Good book, worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
mystirie More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because my husband was on the Forrestal and would never talk about what happened, however he would answer direct questions about the experience. So I used it as a tool to learn what happened and to get him to talk about it at least in short conversations.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
sometimes parts were slow, byt this was a great read, wish it had been longer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I LOVE reading these types of books. I have read numerous books about different WW2 naval incidents and felt it was time to broaden my horizons a bit. Reading a story that took place during Vietnam really was touching. I was born shortly after that era and know a lot of people who served, both in the jungle and on these ships. It really makes me appreciate these people even more!
Guest More than 1 year ago
My father was a witness to the Forrestal disaster July 29, 1967, so I was familiar with the event long before this book was written. On occasions where I'd discussed the tragedy with friends who had served in the Navy, I had been told of the firefighting training films they'd been shown where the instructor would ridicule the sailors who so bravely endeavored to save their ship, pointing out everything that, according to them, they'd done wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we read through the pages of Sailors to the End, we experience the fire through the eyes of a select number of individuals, who represent a fraction of the men who are haunted to this day by the events they witnessed, including the deaths of shipmates and friends, and the injuries they suffered. The author also provides some background on each of these sailors so that they become more real and human to us, rather than just a cast of characters in a history text. We learn that the catastrophe was not due to their incompetence, but old, faulty ammunition left over from World War II that exploded prematurely and wiped out the Forrestal's firefighting teams mere minutes after the fire started. Personally speaking, this book provided a perspective of the disaster that my father had not, and probably could not have, expressed to me. Freeman does an excellent job of relating the emotions and experiences of those who were directly involved in the disaster. What was even more poignant to me after finishing Sailors to the End was its featured program on BookTV where several of the Forrestal sailors discussed in the book took the podium and talked about what they had gone through. Unfortunately, BookTV's website only has a two month archive of their featured programs, but if you're able to access a recording of the broadcast, I highly recommend watching it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a Forrestal survivor, it is refreshing to read accurate information. Much has been said and recorded on "supposed documentaries" over the years, but Gregory Freeman's book is the most accurate report I've found. It is like being there again, yet it is done in a tasteful way that does not cheapen the memory of those men who died valiantly in this terrible disaster. I salute Mr. Freeman and and thank him for setting the record straight once and for all. It may not matter to a lot of people, but it matters to me and to every other man who was there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was aboard the Forrestal on that warm late July day just off the coast of North Vietnam. As a witness to the carnage on the flightdeck, I was struck by the courage of all the crew. Self sacrifice and was not an order it was everyone's goal. Nine one thousand pound bombs sank most World War Two carriers. If not for the crew of Forrestal, that was about to be our fate. To answer an earlier review comment, the course of the WestPac cruise was; South from Norfolk Virginia, crossing the equator June 19, 1967. A three day port of call in Rio de Janeiro, then South East to the "Cape of Good Hope off the coast of the South Africa. Finally, North east through the Indian Ocean to Subic Bay Philippine Islands.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was so glad to see this little-known story told in a manner befitting the heroic actions of the dedicated crew of the USS Forrestal. As a parent of three in the military (two on flattops) this book is a bit difficult to read, as the author re-enacts the fire with vivid detail. It is a story of boys forced to become men in an instant, and shows that more than just those that died lost their lives that fateful day. This book is truly a story of ordinary men performing extraordinary deeds. While in many ways the truth of what happened that day is still 'too little, too late', I was mesmerized to see the story unfold via the eyes of the sailors that lived through this horror. It is a shame our gov't insists on finding scapegoats when they should be recognizing heroes. I know it cannot bring back anyone's son, but my daughters have a better chance of being safe because of some of the lessons learned that day, too. Oh, and I'm confused by the reviewer's complaint about editing - to go around the Cape of Good Hope, one must sail around South America. If you like non-fiction/historical reads, I'd give the book 4 1/2 stars.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Everyday I go to work in uniform, I wear a belt buckle depicting the USS FORRESTAL. Even when the usual, disrespectful comment is 'Oh, you served on the forest fire?' I wear the buckle with great pride. As a single sailor, she was my home for the majority of the three years I was assigned to her as part of the ship's company. Several years later, I was honored to return to her for one more cruise as part of the airwing. So, why the background? Well, I wanted to provide a context for my comments, and relay to the reader my commitment to this ship and its memory. Given my experience with the ship, I read the book with great interest, and I enjoyed the book very much. Even with my personal knowledge about what took place aboard FORRESTAL years before I sailed aboard her, the book filled in a tremendous amount of detailed information in a format that was enjoyable and easy to read. I also believe the author did a very good job of explaining the complexities of a Navy aircraft and Navy terminology, in a manner that nearly anyone could understand. However, the discovery of the simpliest error, makes me wonder about other inaccuracies or mistakes the author may have made. I am specifically referring to the route the FORRESTAL took to get to Yankee Station off of Vietnam. By the time I reached page 65, I noticed there were three places where the author made references to how the ship got to the Pacific Ocean, and those statements conflict each other (see pages 9, 59 & 65). Page 59 reads, 'The FORRESTAL sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa.' Six pages later the author writes, 'On the voyage around South America, he (the Captain) and Rowland stepped up the routine drills and exercises.' I believe the former is correct, but I don't know for sure. If possible, I would give the book three-and-a-half stars.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My husband was on the Forrestal 3 different times. This is not an accurate account of the fire. He was there! He knows what happened and he lost many friends. It was a terrible fire. We also have the film from the Navy files and the one from the Discovery Fire. It could have been a good book but he should have contacted more sailors that fought the fire. My husband used to have nightmares..he would wake me up fighting the fire in his sleep. Maybe one day we will write our own book concerning the Navy and the Forrestal fire.