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USS Oriskany fire
[[File:{{{image_name}}}|240x240px|Smoke visible from the burning USS Oriskany in the Gulf of Tonkin, 26 October 1966]]
Smoke visible from the burning USS Oriskany in the Gulf of Tonkin, 26 October 1966
Time About 7:28 a.m. local time
Date 26 October 1966
Location Gulf of Tonkin
44 dead[1]
156 injured[1]

The 1966 USS Oriskany Fire was a major fire that broke out aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Oriskany on the morning of 26 October 1966. The fire broke out after a lit flare was locked in a flare locker. The fire killed 44 people, mostly air crew, and injured 156 more. It was the first of three major fires to befall American carriers during the Vietnam War.

Background[edit | edit source]

Oriskany departed San Diego for her second Vietnam deployment, and third wartime deployment, on 26 May 1966. The carrier arrived on station off the coast of Vietnam a few weeks later, and commenced operations in support of operations in Vietnam.

The Fire[edit | edit source]

At approximately 0728 hours, as Oriskany was preparing to begin flight operations, an alarm was sounded for a fire in compartment A-107-M, a flare locker just off the forward hangar deck; a magnesium flare had inadvertently ignited, and the sailor handling the flare threw it into the locker.[2] General quarters was sounded, and firefighting teams began to attempt to cool the area near the burning locker; because the burning flares were made from magnesium, fighting the fire directly was impossible, and the fire had rapidly burned through the bulkhead separating the flare locker from the hangar. Other sailors in the area worked to move aircraft, many of which were bomb and fuel laden, from the hangar to the flight deck to prevent them from catching fire. On deck six, in a pump room servicing the forward elevator, the sailor on duty attempted to close the large air vents servicing the compartment, which were starting to blow smoke in; unable to do so, he used wet rags to protect himself.[2] Closer to the fire, sailors began attempting to evacuate "officers country", a series of staterooms occupied largely by pilots assigned to Oriskany's air wing.

Within five minutes, an explosion occurred in the flare locker, the result of multiple flares igniting at once.[2] Aircraft in the hangar bay caught fire, and nearby sailors attempting to cool the area were burned. Down in officers' country, several men were killed when a fireball shot down the passageway, burning their lungs. Other personnel suffocated to death in the passageways. On the flight deck, firefighting crews worked feverishly to cool the steel deck, while other flight deck personnel began pushing ordinance off the flight deck. Down in the hangar, the aircraft that caught fire were pushed over the side, along with ordinance that was staged on the hangar from an earlier replenishment.

A pilot trapped in his stateroom was able to find a wrench to open the porthole. With items in his room catching fire, the pilot continually wrapped himself in wet sheets or blankets, and kept his head out the porthole; as the sheets or blankets began to smolder, the pilot would wet the items down again, wrap himself up, and return to the porthole.[2] Unable to escape due to the fire outside his room, the pilot kept this up for some time. Finally, an enlisted sailor discovered his plight and was able to supply him with a firehose, a battle lantern, and an Oxygen Breathing Apparatus; for the duration of the fire, the pilot used the hose to fight the fire and cool his stateroom, and keep the fire from spreading again into the room.[2] Nearby, the executive officer of the air wing's Crusader squadron, finding himself in a similar situation, stripped naked and forced his way through his porthole. He was able to obtain a firefighting suit, and later helped the ship's fire marshal in organizing firefighting parties.

In the elevator pumproom, the fireman on duty attempted to request assistance from his supervisor. Frustrated over the lack of progress, the sailor tried to find out if there was something keeping help from reaching him, and discovered that a large amount of water from the firefighting efforts had settled over the hatch. He opened the hatch in an attempt to save himself, partially flooding the compartment in the process. Trapped by water and smoke, the fireman continued to try to keep himself safe until his supervisor and the ship's ordinance officer, a qualified Navy diver who happened to find scuba gear, entered the compartment and rescued him.[2] Ironically, the scuba gear belonged to the trapped sailor.[3]

Near the pump room, several officers and enlisted men took refuge in a void extending from below the hangar to a deck below the pumproom. One officer had been badly burned, and a second was knocked unconscious after nearly falling off a ladder inside the void. After breaking the padlocks off of storage spaces inside the void to release the usable air inside those spaces, the officers and men began to wait the fire out in the void. Eventually, though, they decide to try to make their way to safety. One of the enlisted men leaves the void to seek out an OBA, and is able to find a pair of stretcher bearers to help carry out the injured officers. Working through some initial difficulties, the officers and men eventually make their way to safety.[2]

At approximately 1030 hours, the ship's fire marshal, who had been leading firefighting operations on the hangar deck, informed Damage Control Central that the fire was under control. The last of the smaller fires was extinguished around five hours later. Unable to remain on station, Oriskany set course for the Naval station at Subic Bay in the Philippines. During the fire, some of the injured were flown from Oriskany to USS Constellation (CV-64).[3]

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

Forty-three men died in the fire; one died shortly afterwards. On 28 October, a memorial service was held aboard Oriskany for those killed in the fire. After offloading her fallen and undergoing repairs in Subic Bay, the ship returned to San Diego for more formal repairs.[3] The ship returned to service the following year, undergoing training before returning to Yankee Station. Several sailors were court-martialed for their actions immediately prior to the fire, however all were acquitted. A Navy investigation determined that magnesium flares, such as those involved in the fire, could ignite when jarred in certain cases; this is believed to be what caused the flare to initially ignite.

The fire aboard Oriskany would be the first of three major fires aboard American carriers in the latter half of the 1960's. A fire aboard USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967 killed 134 sailors and injured 161, and a fire aboard USS Enterprise on January 15, 1969, killed 28 sailors and injured 314.

Fatalities[edit | edit source]

The officers and enlisted men who died aboard Oriskany are:[4]

Ship's Company

Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
Dewey L. Alexander LTJG 39 Houston, TX
Ramon A. Copple LTJG 35 Shreveport, LA
Richard E. Donahue CDR 37 Centerville, IA
Robert L. Dyke JOSN 22 Alamo, CA
Frank M. Gardner LT 43 Cranston, RI
William J. Garrity Jr. LCDR 40 Havre, MT
James K. Gray SN 22 Happy, TX
Jack H. Harris CDR 40 Schofield, WI
Greg E. Hart AA 17 Seattle, WA
James B. Hudis LTJG 25 Brookfield, WI
Harry W. Juntilla (1) CDR 42 Minneapolis, MN
James A. Kelly Jr. LTJG 25 Phoenixville, PA
James A. Lee SN 20 Globe, AZ
Walter F. Merrick LCDR 46 Bangor, ME
Donald W. Shanks BM3 25 Crescent City, CA
Franklin M. Tunick LTJG 25 Linden, NJ
William Walling FN 20 Blue Island, IL

(1)Died October 31, 1966

Carrier Air Wing 16 Staff

Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
Rodney B. Carter CDR 40 Porterville, CA
Lloyd P. Hyde LT 28 Atlanta, GA


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
William R. Clements LTJG 26 Hayward, CA


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
George K. Farris CDR 35 Portland, IN
John F. Francis LT 33 Weston, ON
James A. Smith LCDR 31 Kansas City, MO


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
Omar R. Ford LCDR 32 Cambridge, NE



Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
David A. Liste AZAN 26 Lake Charles, LA
John J. Nussbaumer CDR 38 Vancouver, WA


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
Clarence D. Miller LT 30 Frostburg, MD
Clement J. Morisette LCDR 33 Othello, WA
Thomas E. Spitzer LTJG 25 Baldwin, ND
Ronald E. Tardio ENS 23 Cochabamba, BO


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
James L. Brewer LTJG 24 Memphis, TN
William A. Johnson LTJG 25 Charlotte, NC
Daniel L. Strong LCDR 29 Big Bear City, CA
Clyde R. Welch CDR 38 Somerville, TX


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
Cody A. Balisteri LTJG 25 Sheffield Lake, OH
Norman S. Levy LCDR 31 Forest Hills, NY
William G. McWilliams III LTJG 24 Norfolk, VA


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
Charles W. Boggs ENS 23 Minneapolis, MN


Name Rank/Rate Age Hometown
Josslyn F. Blakely, Jr. LT 26 Montevallo, AL
Julian D. Hammond LT 32 Meridian, MS
Daniel O. Kern ENS 23 Whitesboro, NY
Gerald W. Siebe LTJG 25 Mascoutah, IL
James R. Welsh LTJG 27 Stroudsburg, PA

References[edit | edit source]

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