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 firstname.lastname@example.org