Northeast Times

Keeping memories afloat

A former sail­or on the USS For­re­s­tal or­gan­izes a ce­re­mony to sa­lute the ship and re­mem­ber a deadly fire.

Burholme’s Jim­mie Stew­art has a fond­ness for the USS For­re­s­tal, hav­ing served on the ship from 1960 to ’62.

The su­per­car­ri­er was named after former Navy and De­fense Sec­ret­ary James For­re­s­tal, and it was known for be­ing the first Amer­ic­an air­craft car­ri­er to be con­struc­ted with an angled flight deck and to spe­cific­ally sup­port jet air­craft.

Sadly, on Ju­ly 29, 1967, a fire claimed the lives of 134 sail­ors as the ship was in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vi­et­nam.

Today, the For­re­s­tal is docked at an in­act­ive-ship stor­age fa­cil­ity on the Delaware River in South Phil­adelphia, near the Navy Yard. Navy of­fi­cials are ex­pec­ted to de­cide to sink it or sell it as scrap.

“They shouldn’t do either,” Stew­art protests. “The For­re­s­tal was the first of its kind and a me­mori­al.”

Back in 1997, Stew­art or­gan­ized a ce­re­mony on board to mark the 30th an­niversary of the deadly fire. The fol­low­ing year, the For­re­s­tal de­par­ted for a nav­al sta­tion in New­port, R.I. The ship re­mained there un­til June 2010, when it made its way to Pier 4 in Phil­adelphia, next to the USS John F. Kennedy.

One day re­cently, Stew­art was sit­ting in Breen’s, a bar/res­taur­ant in Rockledge. Own­er Hugh Breen, know­ing his in­terest in the ship, offered to re­serve a space on the din­ing-room wall for a plaque com­mem­or­at­ing the For­re­s­tal and me­mori­al­iz­ing the men who lost their lives.

Stew­art eagerly ac­cep­ted the of­fer and timed the ce­re­mony for Ju­ly 29, the 44th an­niversary of the blaze.

The of­fices of nu­mer­ous pub­lic of­fi­cials — U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Ca­sey Jr., Lt. Gov. Jim Caw­ley, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Sen. Tina Tartagli­one, state House

Speak­er Sam Smith, state Rep. Brendan Boyle and Ben­s­alem May­or Joe Di­Gir­o­lamo — de­livered pro­clam­a­tions.

Guests listened to an au­di­o­tape re­cord­ing and watched a tele­vi­sion screen list­ing the names of the 134 fallen sail­ors, in­clud­ing 12 from Pennsylvania. The cas­u­al­ties in­cluded two Phil­adelphi­ans, Wayne H. Ott and Wil­li­am J. Shields.

The day also in­cluded a 21-gun sa­lute, the plaque un­veil­ing and the read­ing of a pray­er that Capt. John K. Bel­ing, the For­re­s­tal’s com­mand­ing of­ficer, read to the sail­ors as the fire was be­ing brought un­der con­trol. Bel­ing died last Novem­ber.

Also re­cog­nized was Sgt. James M. Lynch, a Mar­ine killed on the same day while serving on the ground in South Vi­et­nam. He was rep­res­en­ted by John Lynch, his cous­in and class­mate at Present­a­tion BVM and Car­din­al Dougherty.

The For­re­s­tal was known as “For­rest Fire” or “Fire­stal” be­cause of a high num­ber of blazes on board.

Noth­ing topped the 1967 fire. In ad­di­tion to the deaths, 161 oth­er sail­ors were in­jured. Twenty-one air­craft were des­troyed, cost­ing the Navy $72 mil­lion, which was a lot of money back then.

For four days lead­ing up to the fire, the For­re­s­tal had been launch­ing air­craft from the flight deck. In all, there were about 150 mis­sions against tar­gets in North Vi­et­nam.

Dur­ing pre­par­a­tion for an­oth­er strike, a rock­et mis­fired and hit a parked plane. The pi­lot, a young Navy lieu­ten­ant com­mand­er and fu­ture U.S. sen­at­or named John Mc­Cain, es­caped in­jury, but the rock­et’s im­pact rup­tured the plane’s fuel tank. Fuel from the leak­ing tank caught fire, and the blaze burned for 14 hours.

The For­re­s­tal was re­stored and re­turned to ser­vice. It was de­com­mis­sioned in 1993.

Among those at the Ju­ly 29 ce­re­mony were four men who served on the For­re­s­tal on that fate­ful sum­mer day in 1967. Ted Ry­an, Dav­id Cad­dick and John Dott all lived with­in a few blocks of one an­oth­er in Ox­ford Circle. Roy Har­ris grew up in Frank­ford.

“I star­ted see­ing people run­ning around, and I was run­ning back to where my battle sta­tion was,” Dott said. “The next thing I knew, I was on the bot­tom of the deck on the ground.”

Cad­dick re­mem­bers sail­ors jump­ing to the safety of the wa­ter be­low. He re­called the in­cid­ent as tak­ing place at 10:52 a.m., just eight minutes be­fore the sched­uled launch.

“All hell broke loose,” he said. “Bombs kept go­ing off, and the ship was shak­ing all over the place.”

Ad­ded Har­ris: “I was go­ing up a lad­der to go to lunch. Just be­fore I got there, the first bomb went off. The fire las­ted in­to the next day. Even­tu­ally, things were brought un­der con­trol.” ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­ing@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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