The fire started when a rocket fired accidentally across the flight deck from one bomb-laden aircraft to another, spilling jet fuel over the deck.
Soon several 1,000 pound bombs were engulfed in flames and began "cooking off," explosions that blew huge holes in the deck and created a firestorm below decks as fuel poured in and spread the fire.
When the fire was finally extinguished, the USS Forrestal (CVA-59), the nation's first supercarrier, was a crippled warship. Worse, 134 men were dead.
This happened off the coast of Vietnam in 1967 and could have easily killed pilot John McCain, the future senator and presidential candidate. It was one of the worst naval disasters since World War II.
Author Gregory A. Freeman tells this story in his 2002 book, Sailors to the End. It's a moving story if not a happy one, packed with the gripping details of heroism under extraordinarily dangerous and uncertain conditions.
We think we have some understanding of this story, having served on the Forrestal some years after the disastrous fire. Reading Freeman's account brought back the memories of those days, when we watched in awe as the Forrestal launched and recovered aircraft with precision all day and night, in good weather and bad.
We knew the carrier was dangerous then, but until we read about the 1967 fire, we had no idea how dangerous it really was.
Freeman should also be commended for his identification of the safety and supply problems that led to this tragedy. In its zeal to deliver bigger bombs on North Vietnam, the Johnson Administration made crucial decisions that cost 134 sailors their lives.
This is a lesson worth remembering.
Note: For more on Freeman and his books, including Sailors, click here.