600 x 800
October 26, 1966
"Fire, fire, fire
in frame 42
This is no drill!
This is no drill."
U.S.S... Oriskany CVA-34
On station off North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, the 42,000
ton U.S. carrier Oriskany was in mortal danger from the second a magnesium flare
somehow exploded on her hangar deck. The fire spread to other flares and then to
combat-ready aircraft, and in its path lay rockets and bombs of all sizes. "If
the bombs had gone off," said an officer afterward, ''we would have lost the
Amid choking clouds of acrid white smoke, which swirled down through the forward
third of the ship and suffocated those trapped there, brave crewmen reached the
bombs and heaved them over the side. But in less than three hours, 43 officers
and men died. And some of those who survived had harrowing tales to tell of
endurance, luck and heroism.
Far down in the complex innards of Oriskany there is a compartment called Damage
Control Central, and in this room is a panel covered with scores of small amber
lights, each one of them connected to a heat sensor somewhere in the ship. At 21
minutes after 7 on this morning just as the aircraft carrier is getting ready to
launch her first strike of the day --the light blinks on beneath a label
reading: A107M. Simultaneously a bell begins to ring. The sailor on duty
immediately picks up the telephone, dials 222 and tells the bridge, "I have a
fire alarm indication for Alpha 107 Mike."
On the bridge the bosun's mate clangs Oriskany's shining, chrome plated fire
bell and his voice rings out in loudspeakers throughout the ship. "Fire, fire,
fire in frame 42 This is no drill! This is no drill"
Aboard any aircraft carrier on extended operations fire alarms are commonplace
and nothing for most people to panic about. But the Damage Control Officer
worries about all of them. "Every time I hear that alarm I die a little," Lt.
Commander Mel Berg says. Seconds after hearing this alarm he has made it from
the wardroom, where he has just finished breakfast, across the ship to Control
Central- When he walks in, the man on duty says, "Sir, we have a fire in Alpha
107 Mike, and Berg knows immediately that this one will be bad. "Alpha" means
only that the fire is in the forward part of the ship; "107" indicates that it
is on the starboard side of the hangar deck, beneath the great flight deck. But
''Mike" means magazine.
Deep in Oriskany's ample belly in Elevator Pump room No. 1 at the sixth level.
about as far down as a man can get at that particular point 19 year old Fireman
Claude Harper hears the alarm and the call to general quarters that follows it.
But since the pump room servicing the giant hydraulic elevator that lifts
planes from the hangar up onto the flight deck is his general quarters station,
Harper makes no attempt to leave, not even when thick, acrid smoke begins
blowing into the room through the three 14 inch air vents. He moves to close
them, but they are jammed-tight.
Harper happens to be a bug on physical culture. He can lie on his back and raise
a 170-pound barbell three times on a single breath. But now, for all his
well-trained muscles, he. cannot get the vents shut. The smoke keeps billowing
in on him, each lung full like a breath of acid, and Harper begins coughing like
a consumptive. He grabs fistfuls of rags and stuffs them into the vents, but the
powerful draft simply blasts them back into his face.
Gray-haired Lt. (j.g.) Bob Williamson, the ship's fire marshal, sprints down the
deck. Williamson has been around fighting fires a long time-17 years as an
enlisted man before he was commissioned last year-and as soon as he gets forward
in Hangar Bay 1 he knows what Berg already knows This one is going to hurt.
Somehow a magnesium parachute flare has gone off in the forward flare locker
where several hundred other flares are ranged in racks beside it, ready to go at
Already the fire some 5,400° F hot - has burned clear through a steel bulkhead
and out where the aircraft are parked. Men on the hangar deck have broken out a
pair of hoses and, standing just behind the nozzle men, Williamson guides them
forward into the flame. Water will not put out the burning magnesium - virtually
nothing will - but his only chance now is to use plenty of water to cool things
down and try to keep anything else from catching fire.
For a few minutes Williamson and his men press ahead. Then a huge fireball
explodes from the locker as most of the rest of the flares Ignite in a chain
reaction. The fireball races down the long hangar bay at ceiling height, over
the heads of Williamson and his men. They are knocked flat but, astonishingly,
no one is hurt. Unperturbed, Williamson picks himself up and moves forward again
with the hoses. As more flares keep exploding, great gouts and balloons of fire
burst from the locker and suddenly bits of white - hot magnesium are coming down
on Williamson like rain, setting his gray hair afire. Aircraft parked in the bay
begin to burn, The fire is barely five minutes old.
The internal geography of a great aircraft carrier is incoherent - a
three-dimensional maze of compartments, hatches, ladders, storerooms,
passageways and cul-de-sacs. Even under ordinary circumstances it takes a man a
long time to learn his way around, and on this Wednesday morning smoke from the
burning magnesium in Alpha 107 Mike, sucked through the ship by the ventilating
system, strikes men blind, chokes them, sends them aimlessly stumbling through
the labyrinth of the forward section, groping helplessly in the darkness. Some,
unable to see where they are, suffocate within feet of hatches that would lead
them to safety. Fireballs shoot down the forward passageways. Those men who are
caught in them die instantly, their lungs burned out.
Quartermaster Second Class David Willis, 22, finds an ordinary electrical
extension cord, tells the 10 young sailors with him in his compartment to grab
hold at intervals and then leads them through the twisting passages until they
come to a turning they all recognize. There they drop the extension cord and
tumble out onto the deck. Willis finds an O.B.A. -oxygen breathing apparatus-
and charges back inside to see if he can help anyone else. He soon gets lost
himself as the passages clog with smoke. Then his oxygen gives out. Cool as ice,
Willis sits down on the spot, thinks things over carefully, finally searches out
the extension cord where it had been dropped. He knows now where he is and once
again makes his way out to safety.
Skyraider pilots Commander Gordon Smith and Lt. Commander Jim Harmon, who had
escaped to the deck from their quarters, return again and again to the perilous
corridors, getting down on their hands and knees to see under the smoke, groping
about on bunks until they touch bodies of men who are perhaps dead, perhaps
alive - they cannot tell which - and hauling them up to light and air. They stay
down until their O.B.A.s give out and then somehow make it back to safety. On
deck they take a few gulps of straight oxygen from a bottle. Each time one of
them feels about to give out, the other says, "Well, ready to go again?' And off
they go, back down into the smoke and fire.
Lt. Commander Marvin Reynolds, clad only in skivies and a T-shirt, choking and
half-blinded from the smoke in his personal quarters, somehow finds a wrench
that will open his porthole. He starts to work frantically. "Now just take it
easy," he tells himself. "If you let this wrench slip and lose it in the smoke,
you've bought the farm." Eventually he wrestles the port open and sticks his
head out. But no sooner has he taken a couple of breaths than his T-shirt and
skivies catch on fire. So does everything else in the room, including the
fishnets and plastic flowers with which he's tried to make the place homey.
Reynolds grabs a blanket, soaks it in the wash basin, wraps it around his body
and ducks back to the porthole. Five minutes later the blanket is smoldering.
For a while there is this crazy thing between Reynolds and the fire. Fire keeps
blasting into the room through the louvers in the door, but Reynolds, who has
been risking his neck against MiGs and flak every day of his life, is damned if
he's going to die this way. He keeps dashing to the wash basin, wetting down
sheets and blankets, wrapping himself up in them and sticking his head out the
porthole to breathe till he starts catching fire again. Then he sprints back to
the wash basin.
At last during one of the periods when he has his head out the porthole he looks
up and there, on the catwalk above him, is big old Bosun's Mate Noel Hartford.
"What are you doing?" Hartford asks. "Well, right now I'm burning up,'' Reynolds
replies. "Hold on," says Hartford and goes off to see what he can find that
might be of help.
Meanwhile Commander Richard Bellinger, skipper of the carrier's Crusader
squadron, is having a problem down in his quarters. Bellinger's recent life has
been full of problems, as a matter of fact. A few months ago he was shot down by
a MiG and had to be rescued from the water. Then, a few weeks ago, he got into a
fight with a MiG-21, faster than his own ship. Bellinger evened his personal
score by putting a Sidewinder up the MiG's tailpipe. He likes to talk about
himself and his men as "the last of the gunfighters." Now the problem is what to
do about the fire.
He has his porthole open and can breathe a little, but the passageway outside
his door is full of flames and his room is soon going to be incinerated, no
doubt about that. So Bellinger does the only thing he can do. He takes off all
his clothes and starts squeezing his 205 pounds through the porthole. There is a
covered walkway outside so there is no danger of his going overboard. But the
porthole is small and Bellinger is not. Reaching out, he grabs a heavy cable and
pulls and pulls and pulls against it. His chest gets through and his belly - and
then he is stuck. He makes one more mighty effort and pops out of the porthole
like a cork out of a bottle safe, and naked as a jaybird.
Five minutes after the outbreak of the fire, a knot of men gathers in the
choking passages of Officers' Country on the second deck just below the
exploding flares in Alpha 107 Mike. The senior officer is Commander Charles A.
Lindbergh (Cal) Swanson, the Exec for Gunfighter Bellinger's squadron Most of
the other men are junior officers. They are joined right away by two enlisted
men Bosun's Mates Third Class David Cox and Jerry Robinson.
These two are normally in charge of shipboard repairs, but for the last few
minutes they have been bursting into officers' rooms and trying to get people
out. Cox finds an O.B.A. locker, pulls out the masks and starts to show people
how to use them. Mean while Robinson turns around and sees an apparition moving
toward him through the gloom-an officer stumbling down the passageway, caroming
from one bulkhead to another like some kind of human billiard ball. Blood is
running from a deep gash in his head. A moment later he sees Robinson, stops,
then turns and careens back down the passageway.
The man is obviously in deep shock and Robinson, reacting quickly, runs after
him and grabs him by the arm. When he does, the officer's skin simply sloughs
off in Robinson's hand, and Robinson realizes that the man is horribly burned.
"Sailor, I'm dying," the officer says.
A few yards down the passageway Cox climbs up a ladder, opens a hatch leading to
the hangar deck and sees a fireball go booming past over his head. When he
climbs back down, Cox tells Commander Swanson, "The only place can go now is
From the passageway there is a hatch leading down into what the men on the ship
call a "void' but which is really a cramped rectangular trunk that drops
straight down from the second deck to the seventh. A ladder runs down one side
and small platforms jut out at each level of the ship. At each level there is a
storeroom used for occasional supplies.
For Cal Swanson it is a nasty decision. If the ship is in danger of sinking,
trapping himself and his men at the bottom of a blind shaft could be disastrous
But if they stay where they are much longer, men will begin to drop from
asphyxiation Swanson gives the order to go down into the void and seal the hatch
Soon there are 13 of them in there, including the poor burned devil whom they
somehow lowered down, all corked up tight in their well. The men distribute
themselves on the platforms at different levels in order to equalize the demands
on air. Somewhere Cox and Robinson have found a heavy wrench and now they are
working their way systematically down the void, knocking off the padlocks on the
storerooms and opening the doors to make the extra air inside the storerooms
But the brass locks are solid and it takes almost 10 minutes of steady hammering
to break each one, so it requires about an hour to reach the seventh and
bottom-level. There Robinson finds an old telephone set. It is badly corroded,
but he plugs it in, pushes the talk button and asks, "Can anyone hear me? Can
anyone hear me?" No one can.
Methodically Robinson starts to take the phone apart and clean it. Just as he
gets the pieces all spread out in front of him, the light bulbs in the void go
out. It is a minute or so after 8:30.
In No. 1 Pump room young Claude Harper is getting nervous. For an hour and 10
minutes he has kept from suffocating by soaking rags in water and covering his
face with them, but the smoke at his station is getting worse and worse. He
picks up a phone and, coughing and shouting over the static, finally gets hold
of his superior, Machinist's Mate First Class J. H. Tupper. ''Get me an O.B.A.
down here," Harper says, and Tupper promises to try. Harper lies down flat with
a wet rag over his face. A minute later his lights go out, too.
Up on the hangar deck Williamson faces a scene out of Dante. Two helicopters and
four fueled, combat-ready Skyhawks are on fire. Williamson has forgotten his
burned scalp and is everywhere at once, getting his hoses where they will do the
most good. MiG-killer Bellinger, having found a fireman's suit to cover his
nakedness, is organizing O.B.A.s and fire-fighting equipment.
On another part of the deck Lt (j.g.) Bob Davis is on hand, too Davis is well
known on Oriskany as a great believer in life insurance. He has $60,000 worth of
it, which is a lot on a junior officer's salary Right now he is thankful for
every penny. Davis is a qualified Navy diver but on Oriskany his job is ordnance
disposal. At the moment he is standing in the middle of enough explosives to
blow Oriskany clear out of the water, all of it ready to go at any minute. A
tanker plane loaded with aviation fuel is parked near the fire. Fifty
five-gallon drums of flammable paint are down in the elevator pits, 500 gallons
of liquid oxygen are in the fire area, and bombs are everywhere. Crewmen swarm
over the deck shoving planes on elevators to get them up out of the hangar. Two
men pick up a 500-pound bomb between them, stagger to the side toss it over and
go back for another. A man stands calmly playing a hose on a 1,000- pounder so
hot it turns the water into steam Next to a flaming chopper one pint-sized young
sailor wrestles a 2 1/2 inch fire hose so heavily charged with pressure that it
lifts him right up off the deck.
Boats Hartford, meanwhile, has found what he was looking for. He has a fire hose
and is out on the catwalk again, trying to swing it down into the outstretched
hand of poor Marv Reynolds who is still breathing out of his porthole while the
room behind him keeps catching on fire. The hose whips back and forth, back and
forth, until Reynolds finally snags it and pulls it inside his porthole with
him. From then until it is all over, Reynolds and that fire in his room are on
something like even terms.
Down in the void Cal Swanson is trying to stanch the flow of blood from the
badly burned officer's head with the handkerchief he'd been using to breathe
through. His original group has been increased by some other survivors, one of
whom while descending slips off the ladder, jack-knifes, and winds up wedged
unconscious between the ladder and the bulkhead. Now there are two injured men
The burned officer is intermittently conscious. ''Don't anybody touch me,'' he
moans, and then, "Don't worry, Cal, I believe God is watching."
At about 9 o'clock down in Pump room No. 1 Claude Harper, choking and coughing
worse than before, gets Tupper on the telephone again. "I don't know what you
guys are doing," he shouts, "but if you'll just get me an O.B.A. down here I'll
be all right." Harper adds a few adjectives that he wouldn't normally use. Once
again Tupper says that he's trying.
It makes no sense to Claude Harper, no sense at all. Why haven't they got him
out of there? He gets to his feet, wet rags across his face, makes his way by
the light of his cigarette lighter to a ladder and climbs up to the hatch, which
has been shut and dogged down as part of the general quarters drill. The hatch
seems to be leaking water. Now Harper starts to undo the scuttle, the smaller
opening in the middle of the hatch; and when he forces it open, water cascades
through, almost knocking him from the ladder. A solid waterfall keeps coming
down on him through the scuttle, but if there's anybody around by now who has
learned about breath control, it is Claude Harper.
The young sailor simply starts climbing straight up into the torrent. He forces
his head up through the scuttle, then his shoulders and chest. He thrusts his
arm up above his head. All he can feel up there is more water, as high as he can
reach. Carefully he backs down the waterfall and closes the scuttle. Now Claude
Harper knows what Tupper had not had the heart to tell him tons of water from
the fire hoses five decks above have drained down and sealed him in.
In the hot, smoky dark at the very bottom of the void Robinson and Cox are lying
quietly, waiting, thinking, talking only a little. Robinson thinks about Murphy.
North Carolina, his little home town back in the Smoky Mountains where he used
to go out early on crisp October mornings with his .22 and pick the graytails
and the fox squirrels neatly out of the high branches of the oaks, and where, on
the last 4th of July before he joined the Navy, he rode with a great train of
500 mounted men and 96 covered wagons over the pass from Tellico Plains, Tenn.
into North Carolina and they camped in the woods near Murphy and stayed up all
night making music and square dancing. "I think we're going to die down here,"
Cox says in the darkness. "I'm going to fight it out till the last minute,"
Robinson says. "Anyway," Cox says after a while, "I'm glad the two of us are
Throughout the morning bits of information from all over the ship pour in to
Damage Control Central. In the cramped room 24 men work in an eerie, disciplined
silence, for Mel Berg insists on quiet. The room is as yet unaffected by smoke.
At a long table young phone talkers take calls on special telephones, scribble
symbols on small chits, wordlessly hand them to the plotters who mark the-data
on their charts of the ship. The plotters then hand the chits to Berg himself
Berg reads and passes the papers to the status-board keeper, who, standing
behind a big sheet of Plexiglas, posts the data in mirror writing.
The fire has been expanding, cropping up here and there all over the forward
part of the ship, and Berg is chafing. He'd like to be up there fighting it
instead of buried away down here merely keeping track of things, moving men and
equipment from place to place.
After a while water begins seeping into the room through the escape scuttle
above. The young phone talkers look at it apprehensively as it runs down the
bulkhead. They are a long way down in the ship. Then reports come in that a man
is overboard. Are people abandoning ship? "What the hell's going on up there?''
one of the talkers bursts out. Berg wheels on him: "Hey, hey, settle down,
The void has become oppressively close and Commander Swanson has the tingly
feeling he knows comes from lack of oxygen. He's got to get his men out of here.
Young Cox opens the hatch and goes out with an O.B.A. He does not get far, but
when he comes back he's got two men from a rescue party. The first problem is
going to be getting the wounded officer -a big man- up the ladder and out the
hatch. "You've got to help," Swanson tells the burned man. "O.K., Cal, I'll do
it," he says, but he gets only one foot on the ladder and passes out. Swanson
and the rescue men go about the grim, almost impossible business of lifting the
man, clutching him by the clothes when his skin keeps coming off. Once through
the hatch they lash him into a basket litter. A short way along the passageway
they hit a sharp turn, and it takes them a few minutes to negotiate it with the
Then Swanson goes back down the void and tells the other men to follow. He grabs
the lieutenant who'd knocked himself out in falling from the ladder. "I don't
think I can make it,' the man gasps. "Goddammit, you've got to make it!" Swanson
roars at him. Grabbing the lieutenant with one big arm, Swanson leads him
through the hatch, shouting at the others to follow. Choking, Swanson and the
lieutenant stumble through the smoke and dark until, finally, there is dim gray
light ahead, and a moment later they stagger out into the light, into the air
clean, honest-to-God air.
Elated, Swanson turns around -to realize that there is nobody behind him-
nobody. The men who were supposed to be following are still back in the void
somewhere. So Swanson grabs two stretcher-bearers and an O.B.A. and starts back
He finds the men still in the void where they have retreated after losing track
of Swanson. One of them has passed out. Swanson can see that they'll all start
dropping soon. He organizes them quickly but somehow the two stretcher-bearers
he has brought back leave the void first, carrying the unconscious man, and when
Swanson starts off with his human chain, he finds that the litter is jammed up
again at the same bad corner. The smoke is even worse now. and a lieutenant
right behind Swanson starts getting faint. Holding the lieutenant up and helping
the stretcher-bearers at the same time, Swanson finally negotiates the corner
and makes it out onto the deck for the second time. And once again he looks
around and finds that, except for the lieutenant he's been helping, there is no
one behind him
For the third time Swanson goes back. This time he gets his human chain moving
in the passageway. At the sharp corner he runs smack into two rescue men
carrying a dead body. "Get out of the way!'' Swanson yells through his mask; "I
got people here who can walk! At 10 a.m. Swanson once again stumbles out into
the light, looks around, and there -thank God- there they are behind him, young
Robinson bringing up the rear with the flashlight.
The telephone rings in the pump room. The sound reaches Claude Harper's fogged
brain. He fumbles for the instrument, finally gets it to his ear. "Take it easy,
take it easy," Harper says. "They're on their way." Harper says nothing. He
cannot speak now. He tries to put the phone back on its cradle but it's no use.
He doesn't have the strength to reach it. He slumps down again, lies there in
the darkness and tries to keep his mind busy. "Everything's going to be all
right," he tells himself again and again. But everything is not all right. He
has been in there with the smoke for hours. And after a while Harper does not
At 10:30 a.m. Fire Marshal Bob Williamson passes the word to his phone talker,
who passes it over the telephone to the talker in Damage Control Central, who
writes it down on a chit of paper and passes it to the plotter, who hands it to
Mel Berg: The fire is under control.
Half an hour later, Bomb Disposal Man Bob Davis runs into Lt. (j.g.) Jim Nunn
and Machinist's Mate Tupper. Tupper has frantically been trying to get help for
his man Harper who has been trapped for hours down in No. 1 Pump room beneath God
knows how many 'dooded compartments. Tupper has rustled up some scuba gear. and
now he, Davis, Nunn and another sailor start down. Still three decks above
Harper, they find five feet of water and face a difficult decision. If they let
all the water drain down, they might drown the man they are trying to save. But
there is no real choice. If they do not try, Harper will certainly die of
suffocation He may already be dead. Carefully Nunn, Tupper and Davis Work their
way down through the third and fourth levels to the fifth. On the fifth level,
in the vertical trunk above the hatch that leads to Harper, there is 10 or 12
feet of water. Now it's Davis' turn. In his Scuba gear the well-insured Davis
climbs slowly down the ladder into the dark water. He can see nothing His battle
lantern is worthless.
Bottom. Davis feels around carefully, finds the hatch in the murk. With his
knife he bangs on it several times, waits for an answer from the pump room
-nothing. He starts cracking the dogs that fasten the hatch and suddenly air
bubbles stream from the edges. Davis dogs the hatch down again quickly, climbs
back up the ladder. "There's air inside he tells Tupper. What he wants to know
is whether the pump room is big enough to accept all the water in the vertical
trunk above it without drowning the man. Tupper assures him that it is -unless
the pump room is almost filled with water now so Davis kicks back down into the
dark again and starts undoing the hatch. In a few moments, down in No. 1
Pump room, something penetrates the fog of Harper's mind, something at last. A
voice saying "He's alive, he's alive!'- and then a hand.
SAN DIEGO, Cal. - (AP) -
The fire-scarred attack carrier Oriskany and her men returned from war
Bands played and an estimated 2,000 wives, children and friends greeted the
42,000-ton carrier as it docked under gray skies.
Forty-four men, including 25 pilots, were victims of the tragic Oct. 26 fire,
evidence of which still lingers on scorched walls of the hangar bay and living
Two sailors aboard the USS Oriskany were restoring aircraft flares off-loaded
from aircraft returning from a mission over Vietnam on October 26, 1966. One of
the sailors dropped a flare. The arming mechanism had not been reset to "safe"
and somehow the safety lanyard was pulled. Another sailor (whom I went to grade
school with) picked up the actuated flare, threw it into a locker, and closed
There were 2.75 inch rocket warheads in the locker!
The flare ignited in the locker, and the heat caused a warhead to detonate,
spreading the fire. Subsequent warhead detonations soon followed. Finally, a
liquid oxygen tank exploded, killing 44 sailors and injuring 156. Two
helicopters and four aircraft were severely damaged.
The last time I saw him was at NAS Lemoore. Him and the Chief Ordnance Officer
had been charged with 44 counts of manslaughter. I don't know the out come of