Time Magazine

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 alive.

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."