Remembered Sky: A Naval Aviator Lies in State

 You Only Live Twice

“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I’ve tried to serve our country honorably…” John Sidney McCain III

Navy Wings

A Naval Aviator lies in state  today – since 1852 only 30 people have done so before him. Yet social media continues to extrapolate their dislike and even hatred backwards to his military career, no matter the truth of those times – found in ample sources. You “only live twice” from the James Bond movie seems an appropriate description and vehicle for discussion of the certain elements in the first life of John McCain and the truth out there for those are interested in truth vs. politics. What follows addresses three issues wrongly stated:

  1. McCain having crashed and lost three aircraft was a bad aviator,  and only got his wings because of his daddy the admiral.  The basic a/c loss fact is true, the conclusion misleading. What must be considered is this – and guess you’ll just have to trust another naval aviator on this – no one gets their wings of gold unless they measure up, no one. Second, keeping those wings and flying fighter or attack aircraft off of a carrier requires completing maybe the toughest qualification in all of aviation – night carrier landings. That should be instructive. Was he as good as Jimmy Thach, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Mugs McKeown, Lew Chatham, James Stockdale, or Blue Angel quality? Who knows and who cares. Being a carrier aviator with night quals places him forever in a very select class of pilots.
  2. McCain (Johnny Songbird) again as daddy’s boy – Admiral J.S. McCain II – was not tortured and received special treatment as a prisoner of war and was indeed a traitorous songbird. I offer two quick counters: First please refer to American Patriot; The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day by Robert Coram, specifically pages 186-190 on McCains arrival in the Hanoi prison system. Day would be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was undeniably one of the toughest of the tough and had McCain acted as charged, Day would have scorned him and never been his life-long friend. Second, after their return in 1973, two senior POWs Col Ted Guy and Capt. Jim Stockdale brought charges (later dismissed) against 10 prisoners who were deemed to have aided the North Vietnamese. Again, very tough men and in no way would they have exempted John McCain, no matter his father.  In multiple accounts there is not a single mention of McCain as being considered in relation to that group. One reference that covers those men under suspicion by a non-POW Craig Howes: Voices of the Vietnam POWS; Witness to Their Fight.
  3. McCain (Johnny Wetstart), clowning around before a launch on the USS Forrestal, executed a wet-start causing a flame to come out of his tailpipe and ignite a rocket on the F-4 behind him which caused the firing and killing of 134 men. This will be addressed below by an F-4 pilot on Forrestal that day but first a couple of reference pictures both of which pretty much debunk this by them selves:

Fire story

For McCain’s actions to have caused the F-4  to launch a rocket, the phantom Phantom would have needed to be floating on a pedestal in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Forrestal Fire

McCain’s A-4 is the one still visible with fire underneath.

The wet-start story simply could not have happened.  It is undoubtedly a fabrication from the 2008 anti-McCain group.  It has several variants but careful reading exposes serious and/or absurd flaws in all. Now please read the following.

Memorial Day Post 2018 from a career F-4 pilot on Forestal

It being Memorial Day, and with my friend John McCain apparently near death, I decided to publish this narrative today.

            Last July, I started to write a commemorative of the 50th anniversary of the Forrestal Fire. I didn’t finish it. A month or two ago at Gregory Lodge, a Masonic Brother told me he would like to hear the rest of the story. Here it is, with other material.

Over fifty years ago, on July 29, 1967, I was in the Tonkin Gulf aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal (CVA-59), engaged in combat operations against North Vietnam. At 10:52 AM, I was strapped in an F-4B Phantom II jet belonging to my squadron, Fighter Squadron 74, on the flight deck port side amidships, with engines running, preparing to launch at 11:00 AM. (RS note: see previous deck spot graphic showing two Phantoms forward of the A-4s)

At 10:52, somehow a rocket fired itself from an F-4 Phantom belonging to Fighter Squadron 11, positioned on the flight deck starboard side aft. The rocket crossed the flight deck and struck an A-4 Skyhawk aircraft loaded with fuel and bombs, causing the A-4’s fuel to explode. This started an inferno. At various times over the years, you may have seen news clips on TV about the incident. In the Navy, it’s commonly referred to as “the Forrestal fire.” My squadron, VF-74, lost 42 men to the fire. The other fighter squadron, VF-11, lost 47. Total deaths were 134. Last year I started to send you some of the details of the disaster, but there was too much to tell, so I abandoned the attempt.

The accidental firing of the rocket happened as the VF-11 Phantom finished starting its engines. Theoretically, it should have not been possible for it to happen. Ordnance is not supposed to fire from that model aircraft unless the master armament switch is on and the aircraft is airborne with no weight on the landing gear. But a rocket did fire somehow, likely through a stray voltage impulse, the source of which was never determined. It flew across the flight deck and hit an A-4 Skyhawk parked on the port side of the flight deck, loaded with fuel and bombs. The A-4 exploded, the pilot died, and the fire quickly spread to other loaded aircraft causing them to explode or burn, and creating a very intense fire on the after flight deck.

At the time, there was a shortage of the modern low-drag Mark 82 series bombs. An ammo ship had offloaded to us the day before a goodly number of old World War II bombs. These were recognized by the Gunnery Officer (in charge of the ship’s magazines) as not being as safe as the modern bombs. The Air Boss and the Captain were informed and it was decided that these old bombs would not be struck below into the magazines; they would be kept and loaded onto strike aircraft and flown off to be dropped on North Vietnam as expeditiously as possible. On 7/29, at about one minute twenty seconds after the fire began, these old bombs, in the midst of the inferno on the flight deck aft, began to detonate. That is, they went off high order, just as if they had been detonated by a fuze. I explain it this way. As the fuel laden A-4 and A-6 aircraft were engulfed in the fire, they exploded.

From my cockpit, waiting to be unchained so that I could move forward away from the fire, these explosions sounded like “KA-WHOOMPH,” and you just heard the noise. At a minute & 20 seconds, when the first of the old bombs detonated, it was a completely different sound and shock. If I am telling the story at a table, I clench my fist and strike the table top as hard as I can. The detonations rattled my teeth; their shocks were felt throughout the ship.

Several of these detonations were immediately overhead two sleeping compartments just underneath the flight deck, and blew holes in the overhead of the compartments. The compartment on the port side of the ship was occupied by the VF-74 night crew and the one on the starboard by the VF-11 night crew. 42 men in VF-74 died, and 47 in VF-11 died. When the fire first started , the general alarm was sounded: clang clang clang “General quarters, all hands man your battle stations.” (Editorial note: since my original publishing of this message, I have found that the actual message passed on the ship’s announcing system was “Fire, fire, fire on the flight deck aft” not “General quarters” etc.)

The ones who got out of those compartments alive were the ones who immediately jumped up and started out when that message was passed. As the VF-74 survivors got out, they came to our pilots ready room (they didn’t have any place else to go). I started interviewing each of them to get a handle on who had gotten out OK and who had not. With regard to the missing, I asked, did anyone see him? What was he doing? One who lost his life was reported to have said, this is a damn drill, I’m not getting up. Others were seen to be moving slowly. Another was seen sitting on his bunk putting his shoes on; this is sad because sailors are taught that in a fire aboard ship, get your shoes on. Decks heat up rapidly. He didn’t make it out.

We had a third class petty officer by the name of Robert A. Rhuda. He had the job we called “compartment police petty officer.” He was supposed to see that the sailors cleaned up their messes and the compartment was kept in good order. Rhuda was one of the ones who got out in a hurry, but a survivor told us that as they were moving forward from the compartment as fast as they could, Rhuda stopped and said, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to go back in there and get everybody out.” So he returned to the compartment, and it cost him his life. I recommended him for a Navy-Marine Corps Life Saving Medal, and he received it posthumously.

Of the 42 my squadron lost, I knew many of the senior enlisted personnel very well. But as executive officer of the squadron, I had had personal dealings with every one of these forty-two. I have visited them all at the Wall in Washington, DC, along with a large number of pilots known to me who perished on dates other than 7/29/67.

Some might think of those 134 we lost as dying in a rather inglorious way. But the victims were just as dead and just as sincerely mourned for as if they had died in hand to hand combat with the enemy.

Not mentioned thus far in this post: John McCain. John McCain was in an A-4 squadron and at the time of the fire was in an A-4 about 150 to 200 feet aft of me. He was able to get out of his plane and get clear; his plane was one of the many that were destroyed by fire. A little about John McCain now, and then some more about the fire.

John McCain is a friend of mine. I will not mention politics in that regard.

We got acquainted in 1961 when, as a senior lieutenant, I was Guided Missiles Officer of USS INTREPID (CVA-11) and he was a lieutenant junior grade in an attack squadron. One night when INTREPID was in Naples, Italy, I was late in going ashore and so was John. We teamed up for the evening. We went to a bar and restaurant very popular with Americans in Naples: “Mario’s” – it was very crowded. We waited and then got a seat at a table. Mario said “No menu, I bring you something, you gonna like it.”

A few years later, in 1965 at the Army-Navy football game, I had the chance to chat with John. At the time, I was personal aide to a three-star admiral in Washington. He invited the senior aide and myself and our wives to go with him to the Army-Navy game; with his rank, we had great seats on the 40-yard line. I looked down a couple of rows and there was John. His Dad being an admiral, they also had good seats. I went down and chatted with John. At the time, he was a flight instructor at the jet training base at Meridian, Mississippi; he had flown up on a training flight from Meridian in a T-2 Buckeye.

Back in my office in DC Monday morning, on the message board there was a report that John McCain had had to eject from a Navy trainer jet on Saturday afternoon. I went to my admiral and said, this is an error; remember we saw the McCains at the football game Saturday afternoon. A message correction followed; it was Sunday when John had to eject, on his flight back to Meridian. Many years later, when I was commander of the training air wing at Chase Field at Beeville, John was CO of the A-7 Corsair II replacement squadron at Cecil Field at Jacksonville, Florida. On one of his trips, he stopped by Chase Field to visit.

Now, a little more on McCain’s connection with the Forrestal fire. Within the past couple of months I have received some ridiculous assertions about McCain’s connection with the fire. One assertion: that it was McCain who fired the rocket which started the fire. BALONEY.

Another assertion: that McCain intentionally caused his A-4 to suffer a “wet start,” which somehow started the fire on the flight deck. BALONEY. A wet start is an occasion in which, on starting, fuel is being supplied to the engine but it is not being ignited to start the engine. I never encountered a wet start in any of the jets I flew, and I flew a lot in the TA-4 at Chase Field, in which the engine and fuel system is very similar to that of the A-4 Skyhawk which John was manning. I don’t think McCain would have intentionally done a wet start, if it had been possible.

Another BALONEY: that McCain lost a number of aircraft in his flying career. (Or maybe this should be a SO WHAT instead of a BALONEY.)

Another complaint about McCain: that he didn’t deserve but somehow achieved his assignment as Commander of the A-7 Corsair II replacement squadron at Cecil Field. My comment: he may have actively lobbied for the job. So what?

(RS note: Any naval aviator worth anything, will always lobby for a flying job, particular one of command. Would have been a negative mark if he didn’t IMHO)

MORE BALONEY connected to the Forrestal fire. I have read some reports that Forrestal was in danger of sinking. Absolutely BALONEY. Doesn’t anyone know about watertight integrity and compartmentation? Forrestal had so many compartments that were sealed off watertight that it would have taken major catastrophic damage to a very large part of the hull before she would be in any danger of sinking. Relevant subject: The Titanic. If she had had the watertight integrity customary for warfighting ships, she would not have sunk. The series of huge engineering spaces from forward aft were not able to be sealed off at the top. That’s why they were able to predict early in the game that she would sink, because these spaces would be flooded from the top, and they were able to predict that it would take two hours or so for her to sink.

From F-8 Crusader pilot Dick Nelson on McCain

I was not a fan of John McCain’s political record, but in honor of his service and his family, I’d like to debunk some myths floating around about John.

One myth that prevails is about the Forrestal fire, in which he nearly died with seconds to spare: It is widely believed that McCain was performing “wet starts” of his A-4, deliberately pooling fuel in the engine and then late-igniting it. The myth goes on to say that his “wet start” caused the Forrestal fire.

First, I knew some fairly outrageous Naval Aviators in my day, and NEVER heard of one doing this. There are very good reasons for this. At the top of the list, the Flight Deck Officer, the Air Boss, the CAG, the squadron CO, the squadron maintenance Chief, and the other pilots would NEVER permit this. It would tend to damage (or destroy) the aircraft, and the safety hazards to the deck crews are obvious. The first time would be the last time, and you would trade your wings for a destroyer billet.

Second, the fire was definitely caused by a short-circuit in an F-4 across the flight deck from McCain. The malfunction fired a Zuni rocket into McCain’s external fuel tank. McCain had the good judgment to slide over the nose of the aircraft and swing away from the growing fireball by using the long inflight refueling probe. You can see this clearly in the videos. The ordnance began to cook off shortly thereafter and many sailors were killed or wounded. The Navy investigation board confirmed that the faulty rocket caused the disaster. If McCain had done a “wet start,” they would have easily confirmed that.

The next part of this myth is that McCain was so guilt-ridden, that he went directly to his stateroom and hid in shame. Total nonsense. First of all, he was burned in the fire, but still helped deck personnel roll bombs over the side. His first stop was then sick bay.

(It should also be noted that although he was offered a shore tour after that, he volunteered for duty in one of the most loss-ridden squadrons aboard the ill-fated USS Oriskany. During that tour, he was shot down and captured.)

The other myth involves his conduct as a POW. Although some POWs clearly did not like him, he overcame his severe injuries to provide moral leadership for the other POWs. His refusal to cooperate with the NVA put him in solitary confinement for years, with torture a daily occurrence. When offered an early release because of his father’s rank, he refused it and spent nearly six years in Hanoi.

Perhaps the most instructive data on his POW conduct are his medals and their citations for that period. Bear in mind that after release in 1973, the senior leaders of the POW group, like Col. Bud Day, VADM Stockdale ’47, and RADM Jeremiah Denton ’47 were consulted in detail about the conduct of the other POWs. Two (NOT McCain) were nearly prosecuted, but senior officials decided against it as prolonging the agony of Vietnam.

From my discussions with some ex-POWs, it appears that one marker of “staying the course and keeping the faith” was the award of a Silver Star or higher medal. These were all carefully reviewed and approved by the senior POWs who returned. Any POW who got those was cleared of being a collaborator. But John did not just get the Silver Star. Specifically for his POW tour, McCain received the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit with Combat “V”, the Bronze Star with Combat “V” (THREE awards), and the Purple Heart. The Navy would never have gambled its own reputation on a “songbird” or collaborator by awarding these medals.

However you feel about John McCain, he was not a turncoat.

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