CVA 59

I worked on the flight deck during the night check crew attached to Fighter Squadron eleven (VF-11). As a plane captain, I was in charge of my aircraft mechanically and was inseparable during its time on deck. My plane was a McDonald Douglas F4-B Phantom two seat fighter. The daily routine off the coast of North Viet Nam was a twenty four hour a day operation with each combat sortie lasting between forty five minutes to one and a half hours. I think it was a night or two before the fire, I remember a member of the VF-11 ordinance crew was arming missiles and bombs as the aircraft was rolling up to the catapult. I don't remember the crewmen's name but, as he was moving about under the moving aircraft, he fell and the F4 Phantom rolled over his foot then, pinning him, rolled over his shoulder. The night before the fire Tim Michelfelder and I went to visit our injured shipmate in sick bay. The part of his arm we could see was black and we heard from medic's in sick bay that he was going to loose his arm. The flight deck, at night in combat, was not for the faint hearted.

My flight deck duties ended at 0800 hours. I hit the sack at about 1000 hours. VF-11 berthing space was located on the 03 level (just below the flight deck) and aft of the arresting gear engines. It was an area that was difficult to get a good night sleep. Fifty thousand pound aircraft landing within a few feet overhead, just forward the arresting gear engines howling as they pay out one and a half inch diameter arresting gear cable to bring the aircraft to a halt in less that two hundred feet. The ship's four, twenty two foot, five blade propellers were directly below at about seven decks.

At 10:52 I awoke to the 1MC (a loud speaker public address system) blaring, "Fire, Fire, Fire on the flight deck aft". Just as I was getting up the first one thousand pound bomb detonated on the port side forward of our compartment. (Now, thirty three years later, if I don't sleep well I'll suddenly awake to that sound of a grossly over amplified BANG in a pitch black compartment and find myself on the floor) My friend Joe Kosik, said that he thought a plane had crashed on the flight deck and then disappeared in the smoke. I never saw Joe again. The compartment quickly filled with thick black smoke. Overhead light fixtures came crashing down and a locker fell on my foot causing an ankle to become dislocated. Fire balls boiled slowly along the overhead in the port 03 passageway imparting an unearthly glow in the smoke and silhouetting crewmen moving about in the compartment.

Most of the VF-11 night crew were congregating on the port side due to the debris laying about. I was on the starboard side of the compartment. I wanted to get over to my friends but was blocked by debris. Larry Huxoll came by with a flashlight and quickly decided to exit the compartment. When confronted by a fire your natural tendency is to move away from it. Huxoll and I went down a starboard hatch, down the ladder three decks to the hanger deck. (the main deck) The hatch to enter lower levels of the ship were dogged. We then entered the huge expanse of the number three hanger bay. It was, like everywhere else we had tried, filled with smoke and totally closed. (condition Zebra).

We knew if we tried to find our way in the black smoke filled hanger we would not get out. Also there was about a foot or two of water in the hanger bay which made us think the ship was going down. We then heard another bomb cook off, the ship shuttered. We knew then that we had little time left to escape. We climbed the ladder back up three decks to the 03. The 03 passageway runs nearly the full length of the ship with few dogged hatches but at each frame an oval cut out that is about a foot short of opening to the deck. These oval openings are affectionately called "knee Knockers" by the crew. Huxoll and I stood outside the compartment to consider going back in. We didn't hear any voices or noise except the activity above on the flight deck. We thought we were the last of the crew still back in the aft portion of the 03. Quickly we moved forward to what we thought was suicide because we were moving toward the fire but we were out of options. At some point we came upon an OBA locker (Oxygen Breathing Apparatus) but there wasn't any OBA's in the locker. I remember thinking to myself, I wonder what my parents are going to think when they find my burnt body back in the aft passageway. We would walk, as the deck was getting hotter and hotter, until our leg's hit a "Knee Knocker" with a thud again and again until we came to a frame with light and fresh air, probably about midship. We were quickly escorted away to a compartment and given blankets because we were covered in soot and looked as if we were badly burnt. First aid was applied to our hammered legs and an ace bandage for the ankle. The first thing we asked for was a cigarette. You would think after breathing that much smoke the last thing you would be interested in was more. We were asked if we had seen any other crew back aft. We responded that we thought we were the last out.

At some point, after we were at this compartment, a thousand pound bomb went off over our berthing compartment killing everyone in the compartment. From that point we were brought to the number one hanger bay starboard elevator and we were helped with donning life jackets because most crew thought we may go down. As we sat next to the elevator door the elevator came down to the hanger bay with a completely nude crew men standing with his arms stretched out like he had been nailed to a cross. An IV bottle with a line that snaked into his arm and large sheets of broiled skin hung off his body like sails. Soon we were given clothing and headed up to the flight deck. My general quarters station was my aircraft but it had been destroyed. Huxoll and I volunteered to man a fire hose but we were not allowed because we didn't have flight deck boots on. We had been given shower shoes in the rush. As I sat on a tow bar waiting for someone to bring up a pair of shoes I noticed an odd piece of material lying next to the bar. as I picked it up I froze, it was a piece of tissue, human hair on one side, and what looked like hamburger on the other. Within an hour or two the fire on the flight deck was under control.

Sick bay, on the Forrestal, was located on the deck just below the hanger (2nd deck) and between the aft and forward galleys. Due to the fire there was not access to sick bay via the aft hatch. All injured crew members were rushed down the ladders to the forward galley then thought the galley to the sick bay. The walls and ladder were blasted everywhere with blood. We didn't eat in the galley for days afterward due to the reminder leading down to the galley of just what our shipmates had endured. One of the most persistent memories I have are of the Vigilante recon aircraft being thrown overboard on the port angle to my left and the nude sailor on my right. Every time I see that footage (the aircraft being tossed overboard) in "Situation Critical" I remember the smell of blood and smoke.

A few days after we were back in Subic Bay K.B. Deering and I went to a, I don't know what to call it, ship's company get together at a large Quonset hut at Subic Naval Station. What a brawl, We knew how to blow steam off in those days. Even the base marines left us alone that night.

On the trip back to the U.S. the ship labored through high winds and heavy sea's south of the Cape of Good Hope South Africa.

With the pitching and rolling of the ship, large cracks caused by the bombs began to expand. A watch was formed call a "crack watch". We would strike a line with white chalk and date it to determine the rate of expansion of the crack. During one of those watches, I think midnight to 0400 hundred hours, (the Dog Watch) I walked back aft on the 03. A string of sixty watt light bulbs had been temporally strung to illuminate the ghostly passageway. I marked the cracks and dated them when I noticed a spot of tile left unburnt on the deck. It was a spot roughly in the shape of a cross and it was where I had found my friend. My father died of a heart attack when the ship was near Puerto Rico. I flew off the ship to attend my dad's funeral having not seen the welcome home at Mayport Florida.

Don "Joe" Cook VF-11 USS Forrestal 7/29/1967

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