June 19, 2013
Investigating John McCain’s Tragedy at Sea
Posted on Oct 7, 2008
John McCain’s personal account of his life has shaped a powerful political narrative that accords him deference on the full range of policy issues. His first effort at shaping that narrative received a remarkable boost when the May 14, 1973, edition of U.S. News & World Report gave him space for what is perhaps the longest article the magazine had ever run, a 12,000-word piece composed entirely of his unedited and often rambling account of his prisoner-of-war experience. Ever since, McCain has added compelling details at key points in his political career. When his stories are placed beside documented evidence from other sources, significant contradictions often emerge. One such case involves McCain’s experience in the devastating fire and explosions that killed 134 sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal during the Vietnam War three months before he was shot down over North Vietnam. McCain has made claims about this accident that differ dramatically from parts of the official Navy report and accounts of reliable eyewitnesses.
In considering the 1967 catastrophe, it is important to note that the official report concluded that no individual bore responsibility for the fire or its spread. There are a number of conflicting accounts of the Forrestal accident, but here is the story as based on the strongest sources. The fire started at 10:51 a.m. Saturday, July 29, 1967, as 30-year-old Lt. Cmdr. John McCain sat on the port side of the Forrestal in his A-4 Skyhawk going through preflight checks. To his right was Lt. Cmdr. Fred White, also in an A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft. A Zuni rocket on another airplane accidentally fired and flew across the flight deck, passing through White’s auxiliary fuel tank and falling into the ocean. Fuel spilled onto the deck from White’s craft and ignited. McCain told his biographer, Robert Timberg, and repeats in his own book, “Faith of My Fathers,” that the rocket hit his own plane and knocked two bombs from it into the burning fuel as he scrambled out of his cockpit and raced to safety across the deck.1
There was, in fact, a single bomb—not two—that dropped to the deck. It exploded 90 seconds after the fire broke out, intensifying the blaze until it raged out of control. White and Thomas Ott, McCain’s parachute rigger, were among the first to be killed instantly or mortally injured, along with most of the firefighting crew. McCain’s plane captain, Robert Zwerlein, was one of those who suffered fatal wounds at this point.
A camera on the deck recorded images showing that the Zuni rocket struck White’s plane. The Navy report later attributed the dropped bomb to White’s plane, although the film footage does not seem to establish this definitively. However, McCain has said many times that the Zuni rocket caused the bomb (two bombs in McCain’s version) to fall from his own craft.
Some of those who were on the Forrestal and other persons familiar with the ordnance told me that because the rocket did not hit McCain’s craft, only actions by the pilot could have caused any bomb to fall from McCain’s Skyhawk. These sources—who spoke under the condition that they not be publicly identified—agree with each other that, if any bomb fell from the McCain airplane, it was because of actions that he took either in error or panic upon seeing the fire on the deck or in his hasty exit from the plane. Two switches in the cockpit of a Skyhawk need to be thrown to drop such a bomb, according to the sources.
McCain has never been asked to explain why he claims that the Zuni rocket struck his plane. If a bomb or bombs subsequently fell from McCain’s plane as he has said, it seems to strongly suggests pilot error, and if a bomb or bombs did not fall from his plane, it suggests rash disregard for important facts in his accounts of the accident.
There is plenty more about this story that raises questions about McCain’s truthfulness and judgment. In the first hours after the fire, he apparently did not claim to have been injured. New York Times reporter R.W. Apple, who helicoptered out to the ship the day after the tragedy and sought out McCain as the “son and grandson of two noted admirals,” never mentioned him being wounded, although he reported on him more than on any other crew member. This would be an odd omission on Apple’s part if McCain indeed had been wounded, given that service wounds are usually highlighted in such reports during wartime. McCain’s own father, after seeing his son several weeks later, sent a letter to relatives and friends about the fire saying, “Happily for all of us, he [John] came through without a scratch.”2
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