Open Forum: The Forrestal

Posted: February 21, 2014

Sailors have a special place in their hearts for the ships upon which they sailed. A ship is their home while at sea. It provides them a warm place to sleep, somewhere to eat, a place for recreation while off duty, and even a battle station in time of war. Such was the USS Forrestal, CVA-59, for me.

The Forrestal was the first of the super-carriers. It was built specifically to accommodate high-performance aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons. She was built with an angle deck rather than a straight deck for that very purpose. Her deck was more than 1,000 feet long and covered about four acres.

My squadron aboard the Forrestal was VAH-5 out of Sanford (Fla.) Naval Air Station. We flew the Douglas A-3D twin-engine bomber. We were deployed to the Mediterranean before, during, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and were ready to go to war if necessary. Fortunately it did not become necessary.

My job aboard ship was night-crew maintenance officer of my squadron. My duty station was on the flight deck. My crew and I were responsible to see that our planes were repaired, fueled up, and ready for flight operations the next day. I was also responsible to oversee loading of nuclear bombs on our planes if it became necessary. Those were nervous times during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Flight operations aboard aircraft carriers is a hazardous occupation. Accidents sometimes happen, and crewmen and flight crews sometimes die. That is the nature of the work. Men are often buried at sea, especially in time of war. Their bodies are consigned to the deep but their spirits remain with the ship. During times of war, ships are sometimes sunk and some of the crew may go down with the ship. The sea is their graveyard.

During the Vietnam War, there was a terrible fire on the flight deck of the Forrestal. Planes were loaded with fuel and ordnance and were preparing to launch when the fire broke out. Bombs detonated, and fuel tanks aboard some aircraft ruptured and caught fire.

The bombs blew holes in the flight deck and flaming fuel flowed down the holes and into the sleeping compartments of crewmen below, burning many to death. Flight-deck crewmen died from the explosions and fire. The carnage was terrible — 132 crewmen died and 62 were injured. But the crew fought the flames and saved the ship. Men were buried at sea, but their spirits remain with the ship.

The Forrestal served its country for 38 years and now it is to be cut up for scrap. The Navy is paying All Star Metals in Brownsville, Texas, the grand total of one penny to tow the ship to Texas and cut her up. How tragic.

To a sailor, a ship is a living thing and should be accorded the same respect as those who sail in her. If sailors are buried at sea, so should a fighting ship. To cut them up in a scrap yard is sacrilegious and shows little respect for the spirits of the dead within them. I would hope that the Navy would reconsider, but I doubt it will.

I have no doubt every sailor who ever served aboard this mighty ship would agree with me that she deserves to rest in peace, not in pieces. And so I salute the USS Forrestal, CVA-59, Gallant Lady. And God bless all who sailed with in her.

Jack Lillis is a resident of Frederick County.