SAILORS TO THE END by Gregory A. Freeman


The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It
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A riveting true tale of heroism and tragedy at sea.

On the morning of June 29, 1967, the US aircraft carrier Forrestal was preparing to launch a routine air raid against America's North Vietnamese enemies. The heaving deck was packed with fueled warplanes and a motley combination of old and new ordnance: Belgian-made Zuni rockets, leaky thousand-ton bombs of WWII vintage, Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, and hundreds of other rockets and bombs. An instant after pilot John McCain (yes, that John McCain) gave the thumbs-up signal to his parachute rigger, he felt an enormous impact. A Zuni rocket had accidentally fired, gashing the side of McCain's plane and pouring hundreds of gallons of jet fuel onto the deck. Freelance journalist Freeman (Lay This Body Down, 1999) spares the reader no detail of the ensuing horror. First, fire engulfed the deck, then volatile WWII bombs “cooked off” in pools of jet fuel, triggering successive explosions from the munitions on the deck, blasting away sections of the ship, and wreaking bizarre damage on the bodies of the young men working there. Many died, while for those who survived to conquer the fire, just doing their jobs constituted unbelievable heroism. Freeman tells a few representative stories in detail. One kid stayed at his post at general quarters, alone, for five hours, because he'd been ordered to; three dying men, trapped in a steering compartment, uncomplainingly followed orders to transfer steering control before succumbing. In the end, 134 men died in the fire, and many survivors were left with haunting memories and crippling injuries. Incredibly, McCain survived with only minor wounds. Freeman blames the incident in large part on an electrical surge in the rockets and the use of old and faulty thousand-pound bombs, but leaves unclear whether the Navy's investigation of the fire, an unsatisfying combination of whitewash and scapegoating, taught it any enduring lessons.

A compassionate account of a dramatic incident in modern naval history, told with cinematic immediacy and narrative skill.

Pub Date: July 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-621267-7
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2002


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