Published Friday, Nov. 4, 1966
Agony of the Oriskany
Amid gentle swells 50 miles off the coast of North Viet Nam, the
aircraft carrier U.S.S. Oriskany swung north ward into the wind.
Four A-4E Skyhawk jet bombers soared gracefully off the flight deck.
At 7:38 a.m., four more were being readied in a hangar bay far
below, when a shouting sailor burst from a 15-ft.-square locker near
by. Behind him was an ominously hissing stack of 700 Mark-24
magnesium parachute flares. He barely had time to dog down the hatch
on the locker and race for a phone when the flares began to explode.
Fire bells clanged; klaxons sounded the call to general quarters.
Loudspeakers shrilled: "This is no drill! This is no drill!"
Helpless Horror. Superbly trained fire crews dragged hoses
toward the burning locker. Other crewmen fought desperately to roll
four planes to the far end of the hangar deck: three of them were
already laden with bombs; the fourth, a tanker, carried 900 gal. of
JB5 jet fuel. The fire fighters watched in helpless horror as the
steel bulkheads of the flare locker started ballooning under the
7,000 degree heat inside. The steel hatch blasted open with a great gout
of flame that engulfed the hangar and sent fire balls rocketing down
every passageway, igniting two helicopters. Five sailors were burned
The automatic sprinkler system opened up, spraying curtains of water
into the lower-deck compartments. But the magnesium-fed fire
continued to burn, turning sections of the flight deck above into a
sizzling skillet. Choking clouds of dense, dirty-grey smoke poured
through seven decks of the Oriskany's forward sections. Two more
blasts sent flames belching along the flight deck, where red-shirted
ordnance experts worked feverishly to jettison 500-lb., 1,000-lb.and
2,000-lb. bombs they dumped dozens overboard into the sea.
The fire caught hundreds of the Oriskany's 3,400-man crew below
deck. Worst hit was "officers' country" in the forecastle, where
many men had not yet climbed out of their bunks. As the choking
fumes billowed into their compartments, they tried to escape, only
to be forced back by the deadly smoke and heat in the passageways.
Lieut. Commander Marvin Reynolds opened his porthole and managed to
alert some hands on the top deck; they handed down a hose and an
oxygen mask. Then Reynolds spent three hours spraying water around
his oven-hot compartment. Commander Richard M. Bellinger, a 205-lb.
jet pilot who was awarded the Silver Star last month, ripped out an
air conditioner, wriggled naked through the tiny opening to a
burning catwalk and escape. Others were not so lucky.
Flag-Draped Coffins. Again and again, volunteers donned
oxygen equipment to go below into the stupefying heat in search of
trapped shipmates. Some had to don scuba gear and swim through inky
water that rose over their heads in the darkened passageways. They
hauled to safety many men who were horribly injured, unconscious or
so broken by shock that they could not comprehend where they were.
Not until after 3 p.m., more than seven hours after the flares first
began their still unexplained sputtering, was the last small
smoldering fire extinguished.
That night, looking as if she had taken a direct hit in battle, the
42,000-ton Oriskany limped across the South China Sea, bound for
Subic Bay in the Philippines. Shortly after she docked there, honor
guards from her crew carried away a seemingly endless line of
flag-draped coffins. Thus, only two weeks before she was due to
finish her second tour of duty off Viet Nam, the Oriskany suffered
in one day the Navy's worst disaster of the Viet Nam War: 35
officers (24 of them combat-conditioned pilots) and eight enlisted
men had died, all but six of suffocation. In two years at war, the
carrier had previously lost eleven pilots.
It was more valor than luck that kept the Oriskany from going to the
bottom of the Gulf of Tonkin. "There were just too many acts of
heroism to count," said Skipper John Iarrobino. "There were
literally hundreds. If there hadn't been, God only knows what the
toll and the damage might have been." Almost everyone aboard
performed with distinction, but the kids, the teen-aged sailors of
the Oriskany, got particular acclaim for keeping her afloat. Said
one seasoned chief: "Those crazy rock-'n'-roll jitterbuggers, they
saved this ship today. Getting into that fire and pushing those
bombs over the side and volunteering for rescue parties, those kids
were everywhere doing everything."