The Navy’s Farrier Firefighting Facility at Surface Warfare Officers School Command (SWOS) Engineering Learning Site in Norfolk held its annual USS Forrestal (CVA 59) memorial ceremony with the support of the USS Forrestal Association, July 26.
For the first time in 30 years, the annual ceremony was held indoors. The event is held each July in honor of the 134 service members who died as a result of a fire that broke out aboard Forrestal during the Vietnam conflict while the ship was on Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf. An additional observance was held at Arlington National Ceremony on July 29.
In attendance was Cmdr. Blane Shearon, director of Fleet Enlisted Engineering Training, SWOS who introduced guest speaker Kenneth V. “Ken” Killmeyer, the USS Forrestal Association historian and crew survivor, and retired Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Joe Costello, who serves as the memorial services coordinator. The audience included former Forrestal crew members, surviving family members, Sailors, instructors and guests.
Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Charles Branch from the SWOS Engineering Learning Site served as master of ceremonies. The invocation and benediction was provided by Lt. Cmdr. Chris E. Hester, chaplain aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). The presentation of colors was executed by Naval Station Norfolk color guard and the national anthem was sung by Dean Englert.
“I did the first one [ceremony] in 1981 in Washington, D.C. and they merely had a prayer and nothing visual,” said Costello. “A young fellow that was in damage control on the ship suggested two-by-four’s and the [American] flags. So we stopped by Beach Ford and said we are looking for 134 flags and they said ‘no problem.’ We made the name tags, and couple years later, we added the pictures. It has since been a feature with us every year.”
The American flags were prominently displayed in front of the main stage with the words “First In Defense – Forever In Dignity” painted on the display. Memorabilia from and about the ship was on display throughout the room, and a video was played during the ceremony that announced each service member’s name that died in the tragic fire as their photo was displayed on the projector screen. A bell was tolled for each name while the solemn sound of bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” in the background.
According to historical documentation, a massive fire broke out on the flight deck of Forrestal after a Zuni rocket from an F-4 Phantom jet fighter was accidentally launched on July 29, 1967. The rocket struck a parked A-4 Skyhawk jet, spilling fuel that caught fire. The fire spread to nearby planes on the ship’s deck and detonated a 1,000 pound bomb, spreading the fire further, which set off a chain reaction of explosions that killed many of the initial first responders. It took a full day before the fires could be fully contained and the fire is said to be one of the most devastating in naval history.
The Navy has since changed the way it handles damage control aboard ships and all Sailors are now required to go through firefighting training to prevent future disasters.
One of those who died in the initial explosion during an attempt to extinguish the fire was Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Gerald W. Farrier. The Farrier Firefighting Facility is dedicated in his honor.
“The Navy is steeped in history,” said Shearon. “While we continue to modernize and develop techniques and procedures through the years, it’s the lessons that are learned by those that have gone before us that we take forward and really create the foundation for the Navy we have today.”
“[The ceremony] is highly important because all of these Sailors and Marines gave their lives for us today,” said Branch. “Because of what they went through, not only for this school, Navy Sailors are able to fight fires on the ships and insure that damage control, or any type of firefighting, doesn’t become the end of their lives.”
For Killmeyer, who was only 20 years old at the time of the incident, that frightful day in July will forever be remembered in his mind. During his presentation, he took on the difficult task of transporting the audience back to the flight deck during the fire as he recounted the vivid details.
“Different people are reminded by the event even though they are on their daily path, whatever it might be, at home,” he said. “It might be an odor, a fire department call, a loud unexplained explosion or noise that takes them back to the time this occurred.”
When describing the fire, with tears in his eyes, Killmeyer said it’s still very difficult to talk about the incident, but advised to not “take anything for granted because every day is precious.”
“It’s an event that changed every one of us,” he said. “It makes us more appreciative of our daily life. Those 134 didn’t get to do what we did,” referencing that those who died in the fire were unable to experience the many joys that life bestows.
Another fire survivor in attendance was retired Chief Warrant Officer 3rd Class Fred Stanley, an engineer at the time, recalled being in the ship’s galley for lunch when the fire occurred. As he was traversing to his battle station, located in the generator room, the first bomb went off.
“It shook the ship and we almost fell … that’s how hard that bomb blast was,” he recalled. “It kept going on and on. We didn’t know what was going on … at first we thought maybe someone got a rocket or something in from the North [Vietnam] and started a chain reaction. We had no idea what started it and it was quite some time before we realized what had happened.”
Stanley wore a black in memoriam T-shirt for the ceremony that featured the names of the 134 service members on the back.
“Because of what we went through together as a crew, it’s dear to my heart,” he said. “So I usually keep up with it and go to the reunions, I’m a member of the association and I’m here every year for this memorial.”
“When they read the names it brings me back to the day it happened,” he continued. “Every time I see a reading of the names or every time we do anything with the ship itself or watch a tape of the fire, it puts you right back to that day. It’s something that never goes away.”
The ceremony concluded with a moving rendition of “Taps” by Englert, which was followed by a gathering of those in attendance who partook in food, refreshments and a ceremonial cake.
Press Release, July 31, 2013