Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From Fire to Freedom

Sometimes a severe trial by fire prepares one for an even more demanding crucible.

Thirty-two years ago today, the USS Forrestal, the lead ship in the Forrestal class of true "supercarriers," and named for James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy during the Second World War, was on "Yankee Station" in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam conducting strike operations against communist targets. Just before 1100, as Forrestal's embarked air wing was preparing to launch the second strike of the day, a disastrous chain of events began to unfold that would involve the carrier's crew in a fiery fight for the very life of their ship.

On the crowded stern half of Forrestal's flight deck a score of strike aircraft were fueled and armed and preparing for taxi to the catapults on the forward half of the flight deck. One of the aircraft parked on the starboard side of the flight deck, a two-seat F-4B Phantom II, was armed with a pod of air-to-ground Zuni rockets. As the aircraft switched from external to internal power, an electrical surge inexplicably caused one of the rocket motors to ignite. The rocket shot across the flight deck and into the aircraft parked along the port edge of the deck. The rocket hit and ignited an underwing fuel tank on a single-seat A-4E Skyhawk. As firefighting teams rapidly responded to the fire, fuel tanks on adjacent aircraft overheated and ruptured, adding their fuel the fire. As the pilot of the stricken plane scrambled out of the cockpit and leaped to the deck, one of the bombs slung externally under the aircraft "cooked off" in the intense heat of the fuel fire and exploded. The pilot, and most of the firefighting crew, were killed in that explosion. As other bombs cooked off, pilots of adjacent aircraft also abandoned their cockpits. One, Lieutenant John S. McCain III, rather than climb down onto and then off the wing of his jet (which would have led him into the middle of the growing conflagration), climbed out onto the nose of his plane and jumped clear. While helping another pilot escape, McCain was hit by shrapnel from an exploding bomb but managed to get away from the exploding inferno with his life. It was a miraculous escape, by any estimation.

The fire on Forrestal got much worse before it was gotten under control. With most of the first line firefighters killed in the initial blasts and much of their specialized firefighting equipment destroyed, the remainder of the crew responded with improvisation that in some cases actually aggravated the situation--such as when seawater pumped onto the fire washed away the foam fire retardant initially sprayed on the deck and carried burning fuel below decks. By the time the fire was out, 134 men were dead and scores more grievously burned.

John McCain could have gone with the Forrestal back to Norfolk where months of extensive repairs were required. Instead, McCain and others volunteered to transfer to the air wing on another carrier, USS Oriskany, also conducting strike operations against the North Vietnamese. Almost three months to the day, October 26, 1967, since his escape from the fiery maelstrom on Forrestal's flight deck, McCain was shot down over Hanoi. Severely injured in his ejection and subsequent capture, the North Vietnamese initially refused him treatment and expected him to die. When they realized who McCain was, the grandson and son of admirals, they reluctantly tended to his wounds on the assumption that some propaganda advantage might be gained. When his father assumed command of Pacific Command and the war effort in 1968, the North Vietnamese offered to release McCain as a "humanitarian gesture." McCain recognized this devious ploy for what it was, and refused repatriation until all of the POWs shot down before him were released. The communists of course refused this and McCain would languish in agony from his wounds and frequent torture until all of the POWs were released in 1973.

In the summer of 1977, the Colonel was experiencing the not-so desperate, yet grueling non-the-less, crucible of Officer's Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. Sometime in July of that year--the date escapes the few remaining cognitive cells lying fallow in the recesses of my brain housing group, but had to be near the tenth anniversary of the Forrestal tragedy--then Commander McCain, still on active duty, was invited to speak to our class. I don't remember many of the details of the hour he spent on stage in front of the 250 of us seeking to follow in his patriotic footsteps. I was impressed, however. Not much else from that sweltering summer on the banks of the Chopawamsic remains as indelibly marked in my consciousness as the humble seriousness of the man who quietly recounted, not so much his heroics, but the heroics of the others who shared the incredible privation of imprisonment at the hands of the communist Vietnamese sadists. There was no empty sloganeering--just a plain spoken recounting of men enduring a crucible their civilian contemporaries safely back at home could not conceivably comprehend nor appreciate.

The man is no saint. But he is an American hero, from a generation that shamefully produced too few. He and his comrades sacrificed their very freedom so that the rest of us could enjoy ours. And now he is enjoying the freedom only a fiery trial can peacefully provide.

The Colonel has a sneaking suspicion that the Senator may be almost relieved not to be imprisoned by the office he sought last year.
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