Sailors to the End

Sailors to the End

4.6 19
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

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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 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

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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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.

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