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Several websites have dredged up erroneous details of a deadly naval accident to smear U.S. Sen. John McCain’s service record after his vote against a GOP health care bill.
Calling McCain "a traitor and disgrace to the American People," an Aug. 6, 2017, post on WorldNewsCircle.com attacks the Arizona Republican for his role in a 1967 fire on the USS Forrestal during the Vietnam War.
Appearing after McCain derailed GOP efforts on July 28 to pass a bill in the Senate repealing the Affordable Care Act, the article blames the then-U.S. Navy pilot for the blaze.
"McCain train wreck career met an all time low when he was singlehandedly responsible for starting a fire on USS Forrestal Aircraft Carrier," the post read. "The accident claimed the lives of 134 sailors and left permanently disabled another 161 who were dismissed from active duty."
The essay said McCain "decided to practice a reckless maneuver that day called a wet start," in which a pilot sends extra fuel to a jet’s thrusters to create a showy flame on takeoff. The post said that wet start ignited an adjacent plane’s missiles, which fired and hit "multiple planes filled with explosives all through the carrier’s deck."
This charge has been leveled against McCain before, as the event did come up during his 2008 presidential campaign. But official reports and other accounts don’t support the assertion that he was responsible.
McCain was aboard the Forrestal as a lieutenant commander piloting an A-4 Skyhawk for the U.S. Navy on July 29, 1967, the day of the fire. The Forrestal had recently been resupplied with munitions, including 1,000-pound bombs from the Korean War, stored on the deck, because modern bombs were in short supply. McCain’s jet was parked on the deck, tail pointed outward before takeoff, as the ship sailed in the Gulf of Tonkin.
McCain didn’t "wet start" his jet, but rather an F-4 Phantom about 100 feet away at the opposite end of the deck accidentally fired a rocket because of an electrical surge.
The details vary depending on the account, but the rocket hit either McCain’s plane or the plane of fellow Skyhawk pilot Lt. Cdr. Fred White.
Our friends at FactCheck.org found that McCain’s own statements immediately after the disaster showed him admitting his memory of the event was muddled.
McCain remembered the rocket hitting his own plane in Chapter 14 of his 1999 book Faith of My Fathers: "In the next instant, a Zuni missile struck the belly fuel tank of my plane, tearing it open, igniting two hundred gallons of fuel that spilled onto the deck, and knocking two of my bombs to the deck."
But the official U.S. Navy report of the accident said the rocket hit White’s plane, rupturing the fuel tank and igniting the jet fuel.
A fragment also punctured the fuel tank of another Skyhawk next to White, spilling more fuel and igniting it. The rocket itself fell into the ocean without detonating, but a bomb from one of the aircraft exploded as crew members rushed to put out the flames. (Subsequent reports have noted modern bombs would not have "cooked off" the way the Korean War-era munitions did, contributing to the disaster.)
Gregory Freeman, author of the 2002 book Sailors to the End, has sided with McCain’s account, but conceded on his website that it was entirely possible the rocket hit both Skyhawks.
Narrated video of the event showing the explosion is available on YouTube:
McCain managed to escape his cockpit through the flames, suffering burns and shrapnel wounds in his legs and chest. He described the conflagration in his book:
"All around me was mayhem. Planes were burning. More bombs cooked off. Body parts, pieces of the ship, and scraps of planes were dropping onto the deck. Pilots strapped in their seats ejected into the firestorm. Men trapped by flames jumped overboard. More Zuni missiles streaked across the deck. Explosions tore craters in the flight deck, and burning fuel fell through the opening into the hangar bay, spreading the fire below."
McCain wrote that he helped dump some bombs over the side of the ship before heading to the ready room and then sick bay to treat his wounds. He acknowledged the crew managed to control the flight deck fire by that afternoon, but below-deck fires lasted for another 24 hours.
"The fires were consuming the Forrestal. I thought she might sink," he wrote. "But the crew’s heroics kept her afloat. Men sacrificed their lives for one another and for their ship. Many of them were only 18 or 19 years old."
The Forrestal was drydocked and refit, staying in service until being decommissioned in 1993. The fire, considered the worst combat-related naval disaster since World War II, led to changes in crew training and flight deck procedures.
McCain transferred to the USS Oriskany, the aircraft carrier from which he took off on Oct. 27, 1967, the day he was shot down over North Vietnam and taken prisoner.
Bloggers said McCain "was singlehandedly responsible for starting a fire on (the) USS Forrestal aircraft carrier."
Though specific details vary, no official or thoroughly researched account of the Forrestal fire blames McCain or any other particular pilot. A rocket from a jet other than McCain’s misfired due to an electrical surge, hitting a plane from across the flight deck and starting the blaze. Several other factors contributed to the conflagration burning out of control and killing 134 sailors and pilots.
We rate this claim Pants on Fire!
WorldNewsCircle.com, "McCain’s Death Bed Secret Just Came Out Find Out Who He Killed After Skeleton Resurfaces," Aug. 6, 2017
YouTube, "USS Forrestal Mishap July 29, 1967," Nov. 25, 2006
Los Angeles Times, "McCain's mishaps in the cockpit," Oct. 6, 2008
Washington Post, "McCain fudges his Navy record," Oct. 6, 2008
TruthDig.com, "Investigating John McCain’s Tragedy at Sea," Oct. 7, 2008
U.S. Navy, "Navy Awards Contract for ex-Forrestal Scrapping," Oct. 22, 2013
Philly.com, "USS Forrestal, giant carrier docked in Philly, scrapped for 1 cent," Oct. 23, 2013
NPR, "McCain Votes No, Dealing Potential Death Blow To Republican Health Care Efforts," July 27, 2017
Arizona Republic, "Sen. John McCain barely escaped death 50 years ago in the USS Forrestal disaster," July 28, 2017
Maritime-Executive.com, "Remembering the Fire on USS Forrestal," July 28, 2017
U.S. Sen. John McCain, "Faith of My Fathers, Chapter 14," accessed Aug. 7, 2017
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