When the USS _Forrestal_ was put into service in 1955, she was the biggest aircraft carrier in the world, able to carry twice as much fuel and weapons as the carriers that had preceded her, and the first one designed specifically for launching jet aircraft. When reassigned in 1967 to join ships already supporting the war in Vietnam, she had never seen a day of combat. Captain John Beling had assumed command of the ship the year before, an assignment that was the pinnacle for any naval aviator. For four days the _Forrestal_ joined in adding to the bombing missions over Vietnam. And then a horrible accident happened, which is now getting its first sufficient book length description. _Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It_ (William Morrow) by Gregory A. Freeman, a clear, three-part account of a disastrous fire at sea: what preceded it, the fire itself, and the aftermath. It is a dramatic and riveting account which at some points may have you in tears.
Freeman carefully explains how safety measures were overridden, causing a rocket from one on-deck fighter to be fired into another. More importantly, he shows how the Navy was using long-outdated bombs left over from before WWII in order to make it seem as if the administration had enough bombs to fight the Vietnam War. Not only were the bombs outdated, but they became touchy and more unsafe as the years passed. Beling knew of the problem, and insisted that he needed better bombs; but he had a job to do, and the old ones were the only ones he was going to get to do it. Newer bombs could stand a lot of heat, and the old ones could not. Much sooner than anyone expected, one of the bombs blew up, a thousand pounds of explosive impacting at zero range. Of the 35 crewmembers nearby, 27 were killed instantly or got fatal injuries, and among this number were the expert firefighting team. It was merely the start of the larger disaster, for eight more of the old bombs were to go off. Most of the crew below decks thought that enemy bombers had found the _Forrestal_ and were attacking.
There are horrific and at times inspiring stories are told here with enormous sympathy for men pushed beyond all limits. Slowly the large fire was brought under control, although for days afterwards there might be rekindled fires to fight. The rear of the ship was so torn up that access could only come by lowering sailors into the compartments, and bodies were still being found weeks after the fire. The ship limped home to Norfolk. Freeman explains the aftermath of the disaster and the ruination of Beling's career, but more importantly explains how it affected the many other veterans he interviewed. The voluminous reports on the disaster neglected the importance of the faulty bombs but placed most of the blame on the firefighting deficiencies of the crew, a point of view emphasized in the firefighting training all sailors now get. This has been an unfair burden surviving crewmembers have had to bear, but Freeman has found that they are still proud of their service and of their ship, which was decommissioned in 1993, having seen a total of those four days in combat during her entire time at sea. The veterans want to turn her into a museum. The 134 men who died have their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and those whose bodies were never recovered have a monument near the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington. Now, too, they have an unforgettable volume that in recounting the horrors and the heroism of the incident will be among their most lasting and fitting monuments.
The tragic fire aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Forrestal, which claimed the lives of 134 U.S. servicemen and horribly wounded many more, was very much overshadowed by The Vietnam War, which the ship was then fighting. At a time when there were more casualties each week in the ground war and America's cities were erupting into racial and anti-war violence, the disaster quickly faded from the news. Now, author Gergory A Freeman has done a terrific service to both the victims and survivors with his fair, well-balanced and highly readable account.
Give Freeman credit right off the bat for not attempting to cash in on the celebrity interest potential of then-navy pilot John McCain's narrow escape by unjustly playing up McCain's involvement. In Freeman's story, McCain is just one more survivor, and one who made it out with only minor injuries. The real story is one of a preventable trajedy, and Freeman does not shy away from the laying the blame for the disaster where it belongs, on the political leadership of the time and on the navy bureaucracy.
Freeman's account of the fire itself and resulting ordinance explosions as seen through the eyes of the survivors is absolute riveting. He strikes just the right tone, relaying the horrible events without sensationalizing them. The book's title come from a particularly poignant moment in which three trapped sailors uncomplainingly performed a final vital duty for their shipmates even as they knew they were about to die. Theirs is just one of the many incredible stories that Freeman has unearthed.
Overall, "Sailors to the End" is an expertly written work of military history that should appeal to both military buffs as well as to general readers.
on July 12, 2003
This narrative recounts the causes and consequences of the disastrous flight deck fire that engulfed USS Forrestal (then-CVA 58) in the Tonkin Gulf at the end of July 1967. When the smoke cleared 134 sailors were killed - often in the most agonizing manner imaginable - and more than 100 more were seriously burned or otherwise injured. The explanation of the how the fire started (technically from equipment failure, but the failure would never have occurred if plane handling crews had not deviated from safety regulations) and got out of control (obsolete ordnance exploded on the flight deck in less than one-and-a-half minutes, before the initial fire could be contained). To me that is the best part of the book.
The tales of the fire from the perspective of several young "citizen sailors" and the carriers experienced CO and wizened Engineering/Damage Control officer offer a heart wrenching view of the conditions faced by those fighting the inferno. Although some of the sailors exhibit "attitude problems" (as did I as a citizen sailor in the same era) they fight bravely with inadequate equipment and (according to the author) little fire line leadership (Freeman says lots of the equipment and the best trained firefighters were lost in the explosions at the beginning of the fire). The courage, tenacity and eventual success of the citizen sailors in saving the ship belies the snide, condescending remarks Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recently made comparing the U.S.'s current military to supposedly inferior draft-era servicemen (the sailors, while not draftees per se were also not, by 2003 standards, "professionals"). The book would have been stronger if Freeman had tracked down some junior officers and senior petty officers who fought the fire, since there's virtually no account from anyone between E-4 and full Commander.
Overall I enjoyed the book and, sad though the story is, recommend it to anyone interested in aircraft carriers in general and the Vietnam-era Navy in particular. If you are knowledgeable about the Navy and carriers, be warned there are lots of errors (e.g., Forrestal was certainly NOT the most powerful carrier at the time, that honor clearly goes to Enterprise) and repeated wording errors really grate on a sailor's ears (e.g., ships don't have "mess halls" as Freeman repeats over and over, they have "mess decks"; also a quote from the CO addressing the crew as "comrades" (?!) rather than "shipmates" is improbable). A review of this book in the August 2003 Naval History magazine REALLY pans it and calls it "historical fiction", but I wouldn't go that far. There is a documentary on the Forrestal fire, Situation Critical - The U.S.S. Forrestal, also sold on Amazon.com.
on September 10, 2008
The men -- the heroes -- of the USS Forrestal deserve better.
"Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It" by Gregory A. Freeman (July 2002, William Morrow, $25.95) is, for those unaware or only superficially aware of the events depicted, an engaging, heartbreaking and powerful read. It will make the basis for a good 2000-ish special effects movie.
Freeman--an "award-wining journalist"--however, misplaced his journalistic tools when writing this book.
Forty-one years ago, on Saturday, July 29, 1967, the Virginia-born and based USS Forrestal, the first of the super-carriers, was racked by fires and explosions while on Yankee Station off the North Vietnamese coast. It started when a rocket accidentally fired from an F-4 Phantom II fighter hit the fuel tank of a bomb-laden A-4 Skyhawk. One hundred thirty-four sailors and airmen died, hundreds more were wounded, many horribly. Forrestal was but one unlucky explosion from the sea bottom.
"Sailors to the End" attempts to relate the story in the human terms of the crew who lived the horror of that day.
When the minutia that puts the stamp of veracity onto a subject known by a reader isn't there or, worse, is wrong, it paints the whole work. Such is the case with this book. Freeman should have hired a competent editor who knows something about the Navy and aircraft carriers. Plus he should have interviewed at least a few of the principals he quoted.
Some of the minutia: His description of the catapult launching mechanism more accurately describes that in use today, not the method Forrestal used 41 years ago. An illustration showing the placement of aircraft on deck at the time of the fire is inaccurate and uses F-16--a current Air Force model--outlines and a generic outline to illustrate four different types of aircraft.
He uses the term "aviation groups" when making reference to the two fighter squadrons aboard Forrestal. The "head knock" in an A-4 was generally called the "head knocker."
We learn not only that "the Midway-class ships... had played such important roles in World War II" (What were those roles if the first, Midway, was commissioned eight days after the Japanese surrender?) but also that oxygen is the "quintessential fuel for any fire." That's not aviation or Navy, but it's still sloppy editing and worse journalism.
These alone do not make for a bad book, not even for what qualifies as history in today's writings. What does make a bad book is an obvious deliberate omission.
From various citations, the reader can tell Freeman read in part and relied to some degree on the definitive government report on the fire: the Basic Final Investigative Report Concerning the Fire on Board the USS Forrestal (CVA-59). Indeed, it is listed in his bibliography.
Throughout the book, one of the central characters is LCDR John S. McCain III, now the senior senator from Arizona. Freeman cites -- as do many other sources including the senator -- that it was McCain's Skyhawk that was struck by the Zuni rocket.
However, the first sentence of the Investigative Report at the behest of RADM F. Massey, Commander in Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet, states that "A review of the voluminous material contained in the Report of Investigation establishes the central fact that a ZUNI rocket was inadvertently fired from an F-4 aircraft (#110) and struck the external fuel tank of an A-4 aircraft (#405)..."
LCDR McCain's aircraft number was 416.
This is not to imply that McCain is engaging in deceit and others are perpetuating a myth. It is in the literal heat of such an occurrence that observation and recollection have their limits. This is simply a matter of written fact as determined by a duly appointed and highly technical investigative body.
Nowhere in the book is the statement of fact as found by the investigative body noted. A good journalist would note the statement of fact no matter what his beliefs. Freeman did not.
What is worse is that the pilot of #405, LCDR Fred D. White, is not mentioned anywhere in the book with the sole exception under the list of dead. His rank and pilot status are not mentioned.
White was one of only three pilots killed that day. The others are named as is a description of the occurrence of their deaths. On the previously cited drawing, of the five aircraft involved in the center of the conflagration, all have the pilot's names beside them, except one. The one in the center. White's #405.
This is so obvious, it makes one wonder why -- if you knew about White in the first place. Reading "Sailors to the End," how would one ever know of Fred White?
#405 and LCDR White throw a monkey wrench into an otherwise good structure. Maybe this review shouldn't have mentioned them either.
The final insult to the memory of those who fought for their ship and died so bravely is that many of them aren't given their due. One would hope that the intention was to spare family members additional grief. It doesn't read that way.
More than a few can be easily identified by anyone with access to the Investigative Report. They are not. The more fortunate ones get first names or nicknames. One of the dead so named, however, was not on the deceased list.
Then there are questions concerning the principals.
More than a full page is devoted to CPT (then Lt. (JG)) Dave Dollarhide's experiences. Dollarhide was never interviewed by Freeman. Dollarhide told me so when I interviewed him. McCain's Skyhawk was between that of Dollarhide on the left and White's on the right. Freeman has Dollarhide escaping by going over the nose of the aircraft, when with fire all around the right of his A-4, Dollarhide jumped over the left sill. Freeman also misidentified his rescuer.
Sen. McCain's actions were described including that "he heard two loud clanks." "I never said that. I don't know where he got that," the senator told this reviewer. The author never interviewed McCain. I did.
Admittedly, there is a little sniping in this review. All the shots, however, are warranted.
Many of the proud crew of Forrestal will look to this book as their story. Rightly so. It is, but, there are crucial points which make it significantly less than what it could and should have been.
The definitive book on the gallant men and their ship has yet to be written.
on August 3, 2002
This is the perfect post-September 11th book: a moving account of the uncommon heroics of ordinary, everyday citizen-sailors. The heroes were, in the main, boys, really -- 20-, 21- and 22-year-olds -- who gallantly battled the conflagration that was quickly engulfing their ship in the Tonkin Gulf. (An accidental rocket launch had triggered a fuel-oil fire that, within 94-seconds, led to the "cook-off" and explosion of nine, unstable World War II-era, thousand-pound bombs.)
Author Gregory Freeman tells a poignant, at times heart-breaking, story. We see severely injured young men in the steering control, cut off by the spreading inferno and with no hope of rescue, slowly dying, but stoically executing orders until they expired. ("They never begged for mercy. They never whined. They never whimpered. They were sailors to the end.")
We see a young man -- his body charred beyond recognition -- lying in silence and patiently waiting to die, whose last thought is for the palpable saddness of his caregiver: "That's okay, you don't have to feel bad. I haven't done anything I'm ashamed of. I'm ready to go."
These ordinary, $150-a-month shiphands were the very definition of selflessness.
"Sailors to the End" is highly recommended for anyone looking to celebrate authentic American heroism.
on July 31, 2002
I enjoyed this book immensely. My only complaint is that it should have been longer. Former Navy men will spot inconsistencies and gaps in the editing, but what's left illustrates several points worth remembering. In the worst of moments, heros always emerge showing the best of human nature, shortcuts with safety always lead to disaster and large organizations will always coverup when negligent. The Navy allowed the Forrestal crew's reputation to go tarnished too long in order to coverup its part in the disaster. When I enlisted in 1979 the film of the fire was used (and might stil be today ) in fire fighting training . It was never mentioned that the WW2 era bombs premature detonation contributed to the severity of the fire. They only pointed out mistakes by the crew in fighting the fire, never mentioning what they did right. We were left with the unfair impression that the Forrestal was a ship full of screwups, instead of the victims of poor Navy policy. This would make a great movie. Lets hope it dosen't end up on JAG as a plot line if not already.
on July 27, 2002
An excellent book. Wars are not fought by presidents, generals or weapon systems. They are fought by everyday people who are given a uniform and placed in harm's way.
What I found most compelling about this story is that for many of the sailors on the USS Forrestal, this was supposed to be a safe trip. As the author recounts, many of the young men on this ship had volunteered for the navy specifically to avoid the danger of being drafted and sent to the ground war in Vietnam. As such, you might think these men were cowards, or timid, or at least unpatriotic. But you would be wrong.
When it counts the most, these young Americans do their best. They do their duty, and they serve with honor.
An excellent story told in a compelling style.
on March 18, 2015
As a retired sailor and someone who has worked on the flight deck, I wish that the author would have had a carrier sailor proof read this book. I have not even finished this book, because it is too painful to read. The author totally butchers carrier lingo. Don't waste your money.
on June 23, 2016
Absolutely a great read. Greg Freeman gives close look at the catastrophic fire on the Forrestal. Almost the same as being there. His descriptive style of writing puts the reader on the flight deck when the bombs cooked off, below decks in the sleeping area and on the hangar bay as burning fuel poured down on top of the people there. He gave me an insight on the personal experiences of the crew, the exhaustion, the fear and the heroism. I would recommend "Sailors to the End" to anyone interested in the Navy, it's history and the Viet Nam war.
on July 13, 2002
Like so many others, I was there and the author brings back memories that have been long tucked away. He makes that day come alive for the reader and adds details that most who were there could not have known.
Thank you for honoring those men who gave their life and who history has ignored.