Mar 15, 2014
Investigating John McCain’s Tragedy at Sea
Posted on Oct 7, 2008
A week after the fire, McCain made a statement in which he said that when he was on the hangar deck he noticed that he had a wound on his knee and small shrapnel cuts in his thigh and shoulder. He was not treated in sick bay, however, and he tells a story in “Faith of My Fathers” that seems to be at variance with the facts. He writes that he went to sick bay to have his wounds treated but when he got there, a “kid” who was “anonymous to me because the fire had burned off all of his identifying features” asked him if another pilot in the squadron was OK. When McCain replied that he was, the “kid” said “Thank God” and died before McCain’s eyes. McCain said that experience left him “unable to keep my composure,” and that is why he left sick bay without being treated.
Lt. j.g. Dave Dollarhide witnessed that encounter because he was in sick bay, having broken his hip escaping from his plane, which had been immediately to the left of McCain’s when the blaze started. Dollarhide knew McCain and also the “kid,” a young man whom McCain knew well because he was his own plane captain, Robert Zwerlein, who was terribly burned when the first bomb exploded on the ship. Notwithstanding McCain’s dramatic account of witnessing someone die before his eyes, Zwerlein did not die then but instead was evacuated to the hospital ship USS Repose, where he expired three days later. On the basis of Dollarhide’s account, if McCain left sick bay without being treated it was not because someone died before his eyes.3
McCain’s actions after the fire show a determination to exit the ship as quickly as possible. When New York Times reporter Apple finished gathering his notes on the fire, McCain boarded a helicopter with him and flew to Saigon. Given that fires still burned on the ship and some of his fellow airmen were gravely wounded and dying, McCain’s assertion that he left the carrier for “some welcome R&R” in Saigon has a surreal air. Apple, now dead, said nothing in his news reports about inviting McCain to leave the ship, although he did report talking to him in Saigon later that day. McCain does not mention receiving permission to leave the still-burning ship. Merv Rowland, a commander and chief engineering officer of the Forrestal at the time of the fire, told me that he had not known that McCain left the ship within 30 hours of the fire and that he found this “extraordinary.” Rowland added that only the severely wounded were allowed to leave the ship and that no one, as far as he knew, would have been given permission to fly to Saigon for R&R. McCain’s quick flight off the Forrestal meant that he missed the memorial service for his dead comrades held the following day in the South China Sea.
Not long after McCain left, the Forrestal set off without him on its somber voyage to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where it would undergo initial repairs. He rejoined the ship a week later when it was docked at Subic Bay. There he gave an official statement and asked for a transfer to the aircraft carrier Oriskany.
The record suggests that after McCain left the burning Forrestal for the greater ease of Saigon, he saw his Navy career as being in jeopardy. Soon, he went to London, where his father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., was stationed as commander in chief of the United States Naval Forces in Europe. Sen. McCain has written little about the fire, and his book does not mention any conversations with his father about bombs dropping from his plane on the Forrestal or his leaving the ship. However, it is difficult to imagine that he did not discuss the tragedy and his own personal difficulties because, by McCain’s own account, his father had intervened on his behalf before. After seeing the admiral in London, McCain went to the French Riviera, where he spent his nights gambling at the Palm Beach Casino.6
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