Aircraft Carrier Fires Off Vietnam

DC2 Ron


Dalton, I just finished reading your "Ramblings of an Old Veteran" story. I was a Second Class Damage Controlman and I served on the USS ORISKANY (CVA-34) from 1964 to 1968. I swear - I could have wrote that story myself - exact same experiences and same views. I even had a friend get killed in a car wreck (Dan Napier 1966). I don't know if you remember this or not - on October 26, 1966 we had a bad  explosion on the CVA-34. As a Damage Controlman, I was one of the first people to arrive on the scene. I was burned on the face, arm and back. 44 men died and many others were injured  I don't have the exact count.

We were also there when the USS FORRESTAL (CVA-59) blew up on July 29, 1967. They thought about sending some of us over there by helicopter to help fight the fires on the FORRESTAL  but decided against it. It was a different class ship and they decided it would be suicide for us to go over there. I am thankful for that - the burns from our earlier fires had not entirely healed.

Anyway - thanks for the memories.

REPLY FROM OLD SENIOR CHIEF 1946: I remember both of those fires. I salute you guys for handling it as well as you did - both those ships could have been lost. Fire is something all of us serving on the aircraft carriers feared. One thing is for sure - there is no place to go and you cannot run away from it. 

REPLY FROM OLD SENIOR CHIEF 1946: The Damage Control Assistant (DCA) on the CVA-19 was LT Young. He was a very old guy - must have been close to 40 years old at the time. He was balding, heavy set, very mean looking and poker faced. I used to think he looked like a grouchy old walrus. One day, while in port at the Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco,  we had a fire called away forward. We got reports of smoke all over the forward part of the ship and there was a big panic. Sailors were running around everywhere. We could not find the fire, only smoke and it was very dense in some places. Finally - Lt Young ordered a firefighting team to come to the forecastle (foc'sle). LT Young was standing there in this smoke filled compartment with a cigar in his mouth (I don't think it was lit). He pointed to a hatch nearby and said, "There is your fire boys! Go put it out." The hatch opened to the Bosun's Rope Locker. Sure enough, sparks from welding had got in there and some of the ropes were smoldering, creating a great deal of smoke but very little fire. It took a while to get the smoldering fire put out and overhauled but at least we found it. Sadly - we found several Oxygen Breathing Apparatus's (OBA's) laying around the ship that the sailors had snatched up on the run. They did not know how to light an OBA off and many of the OBA's we found later had inflated canisters in them. They were damaged beyond repair and could not be used after that. 

REPLY FROM OLD SENIOR CHIEF 1946: Years later, after Vietnam was all over,  I served on the USS CONSTELLATION (CVA-64). One day, not long after leaving port, we were steaming along in the Pacific when a fire was called away in the Number Two Elevator Machinery Room. I was part of the Flying Squad and went running in there. We found very heavy smoke there but no fire. The dark, heavy smoke was coming from a void space below the machinery room. To make a long story short, the Engineers were using that 4th deck void space as a storeroom for spare refueling hoses and other flammable materials (not authorized).  Two large steam lines ran through that space and, even with insulation, it was very hot in there. Below it was a large fuel tank. The manhole to the fuel tank had been opened recently and was obviously not dogged down properly. After that - we took on fuel and there was a little overflow into the 4th deck void space. Everything was fine until we lit off the catapult steam. It was a combination of blunders that could have caused the loss of many lives. The large steam pipes in the  4th deck void space heated up. The heat flashed the fuel vapors, which ignited some of the other combustibles stored in the void space.  We had a big problem on our hands - FIRE IN A FUEL TANK! At first, there was a big panic. Our DCA said let's just calm down and slow down. He talked to the CO and got permission to pump foam into the 4th deck void space to top it off and press it up, after securing steam to those pipes for the port side catapults and letting them cool down a while.  He told the CO that we needed to take things slow and easy. He explained that we could get the fire put out without having anyone hurt if we did it his way - if we charged in there to put the fire out too fast it would probably cause a major  explosion, which could kill hundreds of people. The CO listened and went along with the DCA. After we pressed the 4th deck void space up with foam  - we set up a safety perimeter on the second deck, with the fire hoses laid out - charged and manned up by two complete fire parties.  We were ready. We just waited. It was unnerving and some of the guys wanted to go in and get the fire put out. The DCA kept telling us, "We will wait until the time is right. Then we will move in with extreme caution. There is no need to get in a big hurry here." We kept that fire watch in place for about 24 hours. We then sent a six man team in there to open up the 4th deck void space and be prepared to enter it and overhaul the fire, after it was pumped down. That went well except for one flash and a small explosion as they started pumping the tank down.  They had to pull back and wait for another six hours. I was the On Scene Leader for the number two hose team on the second deck - the concussion from the explosion knocked me down, along with several others. We finally got the fire out and everything was restored to normal. There were only a few flash burns and other minor injuries. I give our DCA - LCDR Dan Frame - full credit for that.

REPLY FROM OLD SENIOR CHIEF 1946: The Navy continued to have fires on the aircraft carriers after the Vietnam War ended. By late 1977, the Admiral (Commander Naval Air Forces, Pacific Fleet) was very concerned about the lives lost and the material damages caused by fires on the aircraft carriers. He believed that the sailors were simply not properly trained. He wanted to do something about it. He implemented a new program to get all of the sailors serving on the aircraft carriers trained as quickly as possible. By his order, the person that would make it happen was his staff Damage Control Training Officer, Commander Dodge (not his real name). Commander Dodge came up with a plan of action. He requested every Pacific Fleet aircraft carrier to send two senior petty officers - pay grades E-6 through E-8 - to him for temporary assignment. The temporary assignment could be for two days or two years. During that time - he owned us.  I had just reported to the USS CONSTELLATION (CVA-64) and had not been assigned to a job yet. Since I was alive, E-6, met the other requirements and was definitely expendable, I was sent to the Admiral's headquarters at North Island NAS, to check in with Commander Dodge. That was the only time I felt like I was being shit-canned but it turned out to be for something good. We started out with twelve people but by the time we went aboard our first aircraft carrier (about 4 weeks) the number was down to 8. Commander Dodge was a real dynamo and he did not want anyone around that he did not like. He got rid of two people after the entry interview and the other two fell into disfavor with him sometime  during our training. We were named the Aircraft Carrier Crew Survivability and Firefighting Training Team - the sailors named us the Torture Squad. Commander Dodge had authority to take his team aboard any aircraft carrier that was in port, at any time outside of normal working hours, to conduct training. We did not have to notify the ship before we showed up - as long as it was cleared through the Admiral's Scheduling Desk before hand. All 9 of us would arrive at the ship's quarterdeck - Commander Dodge would ask to speak with the Command Duty Officer (CDO) . He would order the CDO to assemble all hands on board - not actually on watch -  on the hanger deck.  Then the games would begin! It was not your standard training session. We split the people up into nine groups, so there would normally be about 50 people in each group - a few more or less. We talked to them for about two minutes - then put them to work. It was hands on training and we kept them moving. We swapped groups as things progressed. We did all kinds of things - running them up and down the hanger deck while wearing OBA's, regaining control of wild fire hoses, transiting ladders on a damaged ship, the rescue of injured people  and the removal of casualties, escaping from below decks spaces with 0 visibility, and lots and lots of fire fighting drills. We made the training as realistic as we could, with smoke bombs and even small fires set in trash cans. We also used noisemaker grenades to simulate explosions. The Admiral's only stipulation was that we not kill anyone.  We didn't but we had a few people hurt pretty bad. That was acceptable. Commander Dodge always ran the show. We might stay on board for two hours or we might be there for seven hours - it all depended on the ship's crew and how they responded to us - or should I say, how they responded to Commander Dodge and whether or not they pissed him off. The Admiral made sure that every Pacific Fleet aircraft carrier made port calls to San Diego, to benefit from the training.  I was on that assignment for about five months and I visited every aircraft carrier in the Pacific Fleet at least once, some of them many times. It was a very interesting assignment. It was great for us - we did not have duty days and there was plenty of liberty time. We had to be where the Commander told us to be, when he told us to be there and we had to be ready to give 110 percent.  We were finally  disbanded and sent back to our ships, to continue our work there. I was sad when I had to leave that bunch. I felt like I was part of something big - that I was doing something important. I don't know whether it helped or not - I like to think that it did.

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