USS Forrestal (CV-59)

The supercarrier USS Forrestal (CV-59), formerly AVT-59 and CVA-59, was named after former Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and was the lead ship of her class of aircraft carriers. The other carriers of her class were the USS Saratoga and USS Ranger. She was the largest aircraft carrier since Shinano of World War II vintage, and the first to specifically support jet aircraft. The ship was affectionately called "The FID", because James Forrestal was the first ever Secretary of Defense, FID standing for "First In Defense". This is also the slogan on the ship's insignia and patch. She was also informally known in the fleet as the "Zippo" and "Forrest Fire" because of a number of highly publicized fires onboard.

Forrestal was launched December 11, 1954 by Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Newport News, Virginia, sponsored by Josephine Forrestal, widow of Secretary Forrestal; and commissioned October 1, 1955, Captain R. L. Johnson in command.

Forrestal was the first American aircraft carrier to be constructed with an angled flight deck, steam catapult, and landing signal lights, as opposed to having them installed after launching.


From her home port, Norfolk, Virginia, Forrestal spent the first year of service in intensive training operations off the Virginia Capes and in the Caribbean. An important assignment was training aviators in the use of her advanced facilities. During this time she often operated out of Mayport, Florida. On November 7, 1956, she put to sea from Mayport to operate in the eastern Atlantic during the Suez Crisis, ready to enter the Mediterranean Sea should it be necessary. She returned to Norfolk December 12, to prepare for her first deployment with the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, for which she sailed January 12, 1957.

On this, as on her succeeding tours of duty in the Mediterranean, Forrestal visited many ports to "show the flag" and take on board dignitaries and the general public. For military observers she staged underway demonstrations to illustrate her capacity to bring air power to and from the sea in military operations on any scale. She returned to Norfolk July 22 1957 for exercises off the North Carolina coast in preparation for her first NATO operation, Operation Strikeback in the North Sea. This deployment, between September 3, and October 22, found her visiting Southampton, England, as well as drilling in the highly important task of coordinating United States naval power with that of other NATO nations.

The next year found Forrestal participating in a series of major fleet exercises as well as taking part in experimental flight operations. During the Lebanon Crisis of summer 1958, the carrier was again called upon to operate in the eastern Atlantic to back up naval operations in the Mediterranean. She sailed from Norfolk July 11 to embark an air group at Mayport 2 days later, then patrolled the Atlantic until returning to Norfolk July 17.

On her second tour of duty in the Mediterranean, from September 2, 1958 to March 12, 1959, Forrestal again combined a program of training, patrol, and participation in major exercises with ceremonial, hospitality and public visiting. Her guest list during this cruise was headed by United States Secretary of Defense N. H. McElroy. Returning to Norfolk, she continued the never-ending task of training new aviators, constantly maintaining her readiness for instant reaction to any demand for her services brought on by international events. Visitors during the year included King Hussein of Jordan.

Forrestal again went to the 6th Fleet between January 28, 1960 and August 31, visiting the ports typical of a Mediterranean deployment as well as Split, then in Yugoslavia. Again she was open for visitors at many ports, as well as taking part in the patrol and training schedule of the 6th Fleet. Upon her return to the United States, she resumed her schedule of east coast and Caribbean operations for the remainder of the year.

Forrestal deployed to the Mediterranean again on August 3, 1962 to March 2, 1963 as flagship for Commander Carrier Division Four.


Forrestal made history in November 1963 when on the 8th, 21st and 22nd, Lt. James H. Flatley III and his crew members, Lt. Cmdr. "Smokey" Stovall and Aviation Machinist's Mate (Jets) 1st Class Ed Brennan, made 21 full-stop landings and takeoffs in a C-130 Hercules aboard the ship. The tests were conducted 500 miles (900 km) out in the North Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts. In so doing, Forrestal and the C-130 set a record for the largest and heaviest airplane landing on a Navy aircraft carrier. The Navy was trying to determine whether the big Hercules could serve as a "Super-COD", or "Carrier Onboard Delivery" aircraft. The problem was there was no aircraft which could provide resupply to a carrier in mid ocean. The Hercules was stable and reliable, and had a long cruising range and high payload.

The tests were more than successful. At 85,000 pounds, the KC-130F came to a complete stop within 267 feet (81 m), and at the maximum load, the plane used only 745 feet (227 m) for take-off. The Navy concluded that with the C-130 Hercules, it would be possible to lift 25,000 pounds of cargo 2,500 statute miles (4,000 km) and land it on a carrier. However, the idea was considered too risky for routine COD operations. The aircraft was also too large to fit on the carrier's elevators or in its hangars, severely hampering operations. The C-2 Greyhound program was developed and the first of these planes became operational in 1965. For his effort, the Navy awarded Lt. Flatley the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Hercules used, BuNo 149798, was retired to the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola, Florida, in May, 2003.


In July 1967, Forrestal departed Norfolk for duty in waters off Vietnam. In the Gulf of Tonkin on July 29, Forrestal had been launching aircraft from her flight deck. For four days, the planes of Attack Carrier Air Wing 17 flew about 150 missions against targets in North Vietnam from the ship.

Because of a shortage of thousand-pound bombs, old Composition B bombs had been loaded from the ammunition ship USS Diamond Head, instead of safer H6, capable of withstanding high heat or exploding with low order. About 10:50 (local time), while preparations for a second strike were being made (fueling and arming planes), a Zuni rocket was accidentally fired from an F-4 Phantom II by an electrical power surge during the switch from external power to internal power. The flight deck crew were not informed that the hangar deck crew had removed the TER pins which prevent the rocket from firing, and had plugged the pigtails into the rockets. It flew across the flight deck, striking a wing-mounted external fuel tank on an A-4 Skyhawk piloted by Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, which was waiting to launch. The warhead's safety mechanism prevented it from detonating, but the impact tore the tank off the wing and ignited the resulting spray of pressurized fuel, causing an instantaneous conflagration. With his aircraft surrounded by flames, McCain escaped by climbing out of the cockpit, walking down the nose and jumping off the refueling probe.

One minute and thirty-four seconds after the impact and initial fire, and with the on-deck firefighting teams actively battling the blaze, a "Comp. B" bomb cooked off from the heat of the flames and exploded underneath McCain's plane; the force destroyed the aircraft (along with its remaining fuel and armament), blew a smoking crater in the deck, and sprayed the deck and crew with shrapnel and burning jet fuel. The two bomb-laden A-4s in line ahead of McCain's were riddled with shrapnel from the explosion and engulfed in the flaming JP-5 jet fuel still spreading over the deck, causing more bombs to detonate and more fuel to spill.

Nine major explosions on the flight deck occurred; eight of those were caused by the "Comp. B" bombs and the ninth occurred between an old bomb and a newer H6 bomb. The explosions tore large holes in the armored flight deck, leading flaming jet fuel to drain into the interior of the ship, including the living quarters directly underneath the flight deck, causing massive fires in the stern (rear) section. The fire left 132 Forrestal crewmen dead (including the entire on-deck firefighting contingent), 62 more injured, and two missing and presumed dead. Many planes and armament were jettisoned to prevent them from catching fire/exploding. The ship returned to Norfolk for extensive repairs. During the post-fire refit, the ship's 5-inch guns were removed.

Even today the Navy commonly refers to the fire aboard the Forrestal, and the lessons learned, when teaching damage control and ammunition safety. All new Navy recruits are required to view a training video titled A Carrier Burns, produced from footage of the fire and damage control efforts, both successful and unsuccessful. On the one hand there were damage control teams spraying foam on the deck to contain the flames, which was the correct procedure, while on the other hand crewmen on the other side of the deck sprayed seawater, washing away the foam and worsening the situation: burning fuel is not easily extinguished and can in fact be spread by water. The first bomb blast killed nearly all of the specially trained firefighters on the ship, leaving the remaining crew to improvise.

Nowadays, it is said that every Navy Sailor is a firefighter first. A large portion of basic training is dedicated to firefighting and prevention tactics. Though there were many firefighting tools available on the Forrestal, including emergency respirators, the general crew were not trained in their use and so were unable to use them correctly.

In response, a "wash down" system was incorporated into all carriers, which floods the flight deck with foam or water. Many other fire safety improvements stemmed from this incident. Following this fire, the ship developed the nicknames of "Forrest Fire" and "Zippo" (or USS Zippo). A complete account of the 1967 Forrestal fire can be found in the book Sailors to the End by Gregory A. Freeman. This incident also led the U.S. Navy to implement safety reviews for weapons systems going on board ships (whether for use or for shipping). Today, this evaluation still exists as the Weapon System Explosives Safety Review Board.

On July 10, 1972, while moored at Pier 12, Norfolk, the Forrestal was once again the scene of a catastrophic fire in an O-3 level computer room (just under the flight deck) which was set by a crewmember. A hole was cut in the flight deck in order to reach the fire from above and hundreds of gallons of water were pumped into the space. This ruined all of the computer equipment and the ship took on an exaggerated list, prompting concern that she might capsize. The ship returned to the yards at Portsmouth and three months later was at last able to relieve the USS Kennedy, which had to serve an extended Mediterranean deployment while the Forrestal was being repaired. Electrician's Mate Robert Horan, who was aboard at the time, recalls in a memoir "[The fire did] over seven million dollars in damage. The news videos…show[ed] the flight deck glowing red. We went back to Portsmouth for repairs and I believe we got most of the CIC and electronics equipment that was supposed to go onboard the Nimitz, then under construction."


Forrestal was deployed to Mediterranean waters four times between 1968 and 1973. She also sped to Tunisia for rescue operations in the flooded Medjerda River Valley near Tunis.

The ship logged three more Mediterranean deployments between 1973 and 1975. On July 22, 1974, as a result of ongoing conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriot forces on Cyprus, the U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Roger Davies requested the evacuation of U.S. citizens from that island nation. In a joint Navy-Marine Corps effort, HMM-162 from the 6th Fleet amphibious assault ship Inchon (LPH-12) evacuated 466 people, 384 of them U.S. citizens, in only five hours. Forrestal provided air cover for that operation.

In October 1968, a routine night launch of an E2A from VAW-123 led the way (as usual) for all launches aboard Forrestal. The crew members were LCDR Paul Martin Wright (Operations Officer), LCDR James Leo Delaney (Maintenance Officer), LTJG Howard Booth Rutledge (Personnel Officer), LTJG Frank J. Frederick (Asst. Maintenance Officer), and AT1 David E. Carpenter (Avionics Dept). The flight was routine. All aircraft recovered as usual until the VAW-123 E-2A, which was the last plane to recover. The aircraft boltered and went off the angled deck and into the water, nose first. When it hit the water, the aircraft flipped over onto its back, breaking its radar dome off and sank within minutes. The dome floated and was recovered. Immediately, helicopters moved into the area for search and rescue operations. AT1 David E. Carpenter and LTJG Frank J. Frederick were rescued without serious injury. Lost at sea were LCDR Wright, LCDR Delaney, and LTJG Rutledge.


On June 30, 1975, Forrestal was reclassified a "Multi-purpose Aircraft Carrier", CV-59. Also in 1975 Forrestal was selected to be host ship for the International Naval Review in New York City on the nation's Bicentennial. On July 4, 1976, on Forrestal's flight deck, President Gerald Ford rang in the Bicentennial and reviewed over 40 tall ships from countries around the world.

Shortly after the review, Forrestal participated in a special shock test. It involved the detonation of high explosives near the hull to determine if a capital ship could withstand the strain of close quarter combat and still remain operational.

In September 1977, following a nine month overhaul, Forrestal departed Norfolk and shifted her homeport to Mayport. The carrier left Mayport on Friday, January 13, 1978 for a three-week at-sea period in the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Range of the Roosevelt Roads Operating Area to complete the third phase of Type Commander's Training (TYT-3), and to undergo the Operational Readiness Evaluation (ORE). Tragedy struck Forrestal on the evening of January 15, as an A-7 Corsair II from VA-81 crashed on the flight deck, killing two deck crewmen and injuring 10 others. The pilot was operating without communication gear due to an onboard malfunction, and as he was making his approach, he saw that the "ball" was lit, a signal that indicates it is permissible to land. The pilot ejected safely after seeing that the deck was covered with parked and moving aircraft, by which time it was impossible to pull up. He was recovered, suffering only minor injuries. The plane crashed as the pilot attempted to land while the aft portion of the flight deck was crowded with aircraft and when a plane was being "respotted" (moved) to another portion of the ship's deck. The Corsair struck a parked A-7 and an EA-6B before careering across the deck in a ball of flames. A small fire on the aft portion of the deck, caused by fuel spilled during the crash, was extinguished within seconds. At the time of the accident Forrestal was operating about 49 miles (90 km) off St. Augustine, Florida. A memorial service for the dead was held on board on January 19. The ship returned to Mayport February 3.

Forrestal left Mayport for the Mediterranean on April 4, 1978. At 22:00 on April 8, just minutes after the ship had finished a general quarters drill, the crew was called to G.Q. again, but this time it was not a drill; a fire had broken out in the Number Three Main Machinery Room. Freshly-painted lagging in Three Main engine room had been set smoldering by hot steam lines. Watch-standers within the space activated an extinguishing system and had the fire out within seconds.

Forrestal recorded her 227,000th arrested landing on April 22, 1978 while in the Mediterranean. Pilot Lt. j.g. Erick Hitchcock and Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Lt. j.g. Al Barnet of VF-74 were the crew of the F 4 Phantom II that marked the milestone trap.

From May 19, to May 29, 1978, Forrestal participated in Operation Dawn Patrol, the first of three NATO exercises the ship would be involved in during the deployment. Dawn Patrol involved air and ground forces and over 80 ships from six NATO countries. Forrestal’s role during the exercise included protecting a Turkish amphibious task group and working with Nimitz (CVN-68) and the French carrier Foch to defend against simulated "enemy" ships and aircraft.

During this sea period two separate air crashes on successive days left one pilot dead and another injured. On June 24, 1978, Lt. Cmdr. T. P. Anderson, Operations Officer for Carrier Air Wing Seventeen, was killed when his A-7E Corsair II crashed into the sea during a practice bombing mission. On June 25 a pilot from VA-83, also flying an A-7E, ejected shortly after takeoff, suffering minor injuries. A rescue crew aboard an SH-3D Sea King helicopter from HS-3 recovered the pilot and returned to the ship within eight minutes after the crash. Both accidents occurred as the ship was operating in the Ionian Sea, east of Sicily.

From September 4 to September 19, 1978, Forrestal participated in the massive NATO exercise Northern Wedding, which included over 40,000 men, 22 submarines, and 800 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft from nine NATO countries. Northern Wedding, which took place every four years, practiced NATO's ability to reinforce and resupply Europe in times of tension or war. During the exercise Forrestal and the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal headed separate task groups, steaming in a two-carrier formation to gain sea control and deploying their aircraft in support of mock amphibious landings in the Shetland Islands and Jutland, Denmark.

From September 28, to October 10, Forrestal participated in Display Determination, the third and final NATO exercise of the deployment. The operation, involving ships, aircraft, and personnel from eight NATO countries, was designed to practice rapid reinforcement and resupply of the southern European region in times of tension or war. Forrestal arrived in Rota, Spain on October 11, for the last overseas port stop of the deployment.

On October 13 , 1978, the ship put to sea to conduct a one-day exercise with a task group of deploying U.S. ships headed by the aircraft carrier Saratoga (CV-60). Air Wing Seventeen's planes conducted mock attacks on the task group to allow the ships to practice anti-air warfare. Forrestal returned to Rota late in the evening on the 13th.

Before dawn on October 15,, Forrestal departed Rota and outchopped from the Sixth Fleet, having been relieved by Saratoga. On the homeward transit, Forrestal took an extreme northerly course as part of a special operation code-named Windbreak. Commander Second Fleet, Vice Adm. Wesley L. McDonald, embarked in Forrestal for the exercise. Windbreak was designed to introduce U.S. sailors and equipment to relatively unfamiliar waters and conditions, and to gauge Soviet interest in U.S. ships in transit to and from the Mediterranean. During the exercise, Forrestal traveled as far north as 62 degrees latitude, 150 miles (280 km) south of Iceland, encountering seas to 34 feet (10 m), winds in excess of 70 knots (130 km/h), and a wind chill factor that drove the temperature as far down as 0 degrees. Also participating in Windbreak were the guided missile cruiser [[[USS Harry E. Yarnell|Harry E. Yarnell]] (CG-17) and the destroyer Arthur W. Radford (DD-968).

Forrestal returned to Mayport on October 26, 1978. On November 13, Forrestal commenced a four-month period of upkeep and repair known as an Extended Selected Restricted Availability (ESRA), to be conducted as the ship was moored alongside the carrier pier in Mayport. Forrestal ended 1978 as she had started it, moored to the carrier pier in Mayport.

After completing two more Mediterranean cruises, she celebrated her silver anniversary in October 1980.


On March 2, 1981, Forrestal began her 16th Mediterranean deployment and second quarter century of naval service. During the Syria/Israel missile crisis, Forrestal maintained a high state of readiness for 53 consecutive days at sea. In a Gulf of Sidra exercise, two Libyan aircraft were shot down after firing upon F-14s from Nimitz over international waters. Forrestal aircraft made more than 60% of all the intercepts of Libyan planes. After departing the Mediterranean she operated above the Arctic Circle as part of NATO Ocean Venture '81.

After a repair period, Forrestal deployed for her 17th Mediterranean cruise on June 8, 1982, and operated in the eastern Mediterranean in support of the Lebanon Contingency Force of 800 U.S. Marines in Beirut. On September 12, 1982, after transiting the Suez Canal for the first time in her 28-year history, she entered the Indian Ocean. This marked the first time that Forrestal had operated with 7th Fleet since the 1967 Vietnam cruise.

Forrestal completed the five and one-half month deployment with a nighttime arrival at Mayport on November 16, and immediately began preparing for the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP). The ship shifted homeport to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 18, 1983, and embarked on the 28-month, $550 million SLEP, designed to extend the life of U.S. aircraft carriers another 15 to 20 years.

During Forrestal’s SLEP the ship was completely emptied and most major equipment was removed for rework or replacement. Forrestal’s successful SLEP period was completed on time when the ship left Philadelphia on May 20, 1985. After completing a four-day transit to her homeport of Mayport, Forrestal immediately began a workup cycle in preparation for her first deployment in over four years.

Forrestal departed Mayport on June 2, 1986, on her 18th deployment. During this cruise, Forrestal aircraft frequently operated in the international airspace of the Tripoli Flight region, the international air traffic control sector of Libya. Forrestal also participated in Operation Sea Wind a joint U.S.-Egyptian training exercise and Display Determination, which featured low-level coordinated strikes and air combat maneuvering training over Turkey.

In 1987, Forrestal went through yet another period of pre-deployment workups. This included refresher training, carrier qualifications, and a six-week deployment to the North Atlantic to participate in Ocean Safari '87. In this exercise, Forrestal operated with NATO forces in the fjords of Norway.

Forrestal and the Big Easy

The ship and crew performed so well in Ocean Safari '87 that the Forrestal's commanding officer, Captain John A. Pieno Jr., recommended that the ship be granted a special liberty call in the United States as a reward. Special liberty calls serve to reward Navy personnel with a trip to other parts of the U.S. and provides Americans who would normally never see warships and planes an up close look at life in the United States Navy. Captain Pieno being a native of New Orleans, Louisiana decided that New Orleans, during her Mardi Gras celebration, would be the perfect location to show off his pride and joy. During her trip to New Orleans Forrestal broke another record by becoming the largest ship to sail on the Mississippi River. Also during her four days in the Big Easy she accommodated tours for over 40,000 visitors. The tour included viewings and descriptions of all her aircraft, damage control demonstrations, and the crowd's favorite, a ride on one of her four aircraft elevators.


Forrestal departed on her 19th major deployment on April 25, 1988. She steamed directly to the North Arabian Sea via the Suez Canal in support of America's Earnest Will operations in the region. She spent 108 consecutive days at sea before her first liberty port. During the five and one-half month deployment, Forrestal operated in three ocean areas and spent only 15 days in port. She returned on October 7, 1988, and received the Meritorious Unit Commendation for her superior operational performance during the deployment.

After a brief stand down period followed by local operations, Forrestal participated in New York City's Fleet Week in May 1989, and then commenced preparations for her next deployment.

Forrestal’s departure for her 20th major deployment was delayed when a fire caused major damage to a primary command and control trunk space. Through the efforts of the ship's crew and civilian contractors, Forrestal was able to depart for her deployment on November 6, 1989, completing the necessary repairs well ahead of projections.

The final two months of 1989 proved exciting. Beyond the "routine" exercises and training initiatives, Forrestal’s crew became part of history, as they provided support to President George H. W. Bush during his Malta Summit. The support included a three-hour Presidential visit to the ship. Also in 1989, she won the Marjorie Sterrett Battleship Fund Award for the Atlantic Fleet.

Forrestal participated in numerous exercises during this deployment including Harmonie Sud, Tunisian Amphibious and National Week. She returned to Mayport on April 12, 1990, ending a deployment which had included eight port visits in five different countries.

The year 1991 was a year of anticipation and change for Forrestal and its crew, as she spent the first five months maintaining combat readiness as the east coast ready carrier. Maintaining a hectic and challenging period of at-sea operations, Forrestal’s anticipated deployment in support of Operation Desert Storm was not to be, and orders to deploy were canceled twice during the conflict.

The call to deploy finally came and Forrestal commenced the 21st and final operational deployment on May 30, 1991.

No less challenging than the months of maintaining readiness for combat, Forrestal’s deployment was repeatedly referred to as "transitional." During the ensuing seven months, Forrestal was called upon to provide air power presence and airborne intelligence support for Operation Provide Comfort, and to initiate, test and evaluate a wide range of innovative Sixth Fleet battle group tactics and new carrier roles.

The year ended with Forrestal making advanced preparations for a change of homeport to Pensacola, Florida, and the transition into a new role as the Navy's training carrier, replacing Lexington. Redesignated AVT-59, Forrestal arrived in Philadelphia September 14, 1992 to begin a 14-month, $157 million complex overhaul prior to assuming the duties as training carrier. In early 1993, however, the Navy decided to decommission Forrestal and leave the Navy without a dedicated training carrier.

Decommissioning and fate

Forrestal was decommissioned September 11, 1993 at Pier 6E in Philadelphia, and was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register the same day. After being stricken, ex-Forrestal was heavily stripped to support the rest of the carrier fleet. In 1999, the USS Forrestal Museum Inc. began a campaign to obtain the ship from the Navy via donation, for use as a museum, to be located in Baltimore, but this plan was not successful. The Navy removed the ship from donation hold in 2004 and redesignated it for disposal. According to the NVR, her final status is "donated for use as fishing reef." In 2007, the ship is currently being environmentally prepared for sinking as an artificial reef. Due to elements of theForresta design having led directly to current aircraft carrier design, the ship will be donated to a State and sunk in a deep water reef, for fishery propagation, so that it is inaccessible to divers. The date for the sinking has not yet been announced.

See also

Further reading

  • Freeman, Gregory A. Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It. New York: William Morrow, 2002. ISBN 0-06-621267-7, ISBN 0-06-093690-8.

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