Lt. Cmdr. John McCain under literal fire

This morning, as everyone absorbs the news of the passing of Senator John McCain of Arizona, you can find any number of tributes to his long career of service to his nation flooding the web. There’s one brief portion of his life, however, that I wanted to focus on as the nation pays tribute to his legacy. I never had the honor of meeting Senator McCain, but while I didn’t realize it until many years later, it turns out that I had seen him back in the seventies when I was only 18 years old. It wasn’t in person, though. I had caught a glimpse of McCain in action while watching a movie.

I was finishing up basic training at Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, destined to later go and serve on an aircraft carrier. Everyone was required to attend damage control classes as part of basic training, learning how to deal with most emergencies one might encounter on a warship at sea. As part of that training, we had to watch a film with the simple but chilling title, “Fire on the Forrestal.” It was required viewing in basic training back in the seventies and for all I know, they still use it today. It’s a gritty, black and white documentary showing how everything can go wrong at once on a carrier and how a determined crew with the proper training and equipment can still manage to save their ship, even at the cost of scores of lives. It gave me nightmares.

What I didn’t realize back then was that Lt. Cmdr. John McCain featured prominently in the events portrayed there. On the morning of July 29, 1967, the Forrestal was on station in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam during the thick of the war. Owing to a series of bad decisions in the supply corps, a load of ancient, rusting bombs which never should have been put into service had been taken aboard the carrier. Also on board was Lt. Cmdr. McCain, sitting in the cockpit of his A-4 Skyhawk, one of more than two dozen fighters parked on the deck awaiting their turn to launch the next sortie. Parked next to McCain was Lt. Cmdr. Fred White in his own Skyhawk. The defective bombs were all staged on the flight deck a few dozen yards away.

That’s when everything went wrong. An F-4B Phantom II was prepping to launch when an electrical surge caused it to fire an improperly secured Mk-32 Zuni rocket across the deck. The rocket wasn’t armed, but it smashed into the fuel tanks of the two Skyhawks, rupturing them and setting off a conflagration under the planes of McCain and White. Adding to the problems, the impact also dislodged another bomb from one of the planes which landed in the pool of burning fuel between the two aircraft. Flight deck personnel immediately began trying to extinguish the flames, but the pilots had to bail out. The hatch on McCain’s plan exited right into the burning pool of fuel so he wound up having to go out throught he canopy, slide down the nose of the aircraft and swing down from the refueling pipe on the front.

McCain crossed the deck and was assisting another pilot who was literally on fire when the bomb exploded. White died from the blast and McCain was blown ten feet through the air, hit with shrapnel and knocked unconscious. The fire spread and more of the faulty bombs went up. Dozens of men died right there on the deck and the fire managed to spread to the lower portions of the ship. Those who had to fight the fire below decks were caught in a living hell, but they eventually contained the flames and saved the ship. It was taken as a teachable moment for the Navy, demonstrating how much care has to be exercised to prevent such a catastrophe and what damage control training was required to be able to defeat the flames and explosions when everything goes wrong.

McCain went on to recover and continue his duties until being shot down and captured in October of that year. The rest is history. He was awarded the Silver Star, two Legions of Merits, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and the Prisoner of War Medal. He eventually retired with the rank of Captain. But before all of the widely celebrated tales which defined the rest of his life, John McCain survived one very, very bad day at sea in the Gulf of Tonkin, winding up being an unintentional star in a film I wound up grimacing through in boot camp. I just thought you might want to know. Rest in peace, Captain McCain. Your service is complete.

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