AMESBURY — In the summer of 1967, two local residents bore witness to one of the deadliest naval disasters in U.S. military history. Only one of them lived to tell the tale.
William Justin of Amesbury and Henry Cross, then of Medford, were stationed on the USS Forrestal during the Vietnam War. Justin worked on the flight deck with a crew that helped launch and recover the carrier’s fighter jets, and Cross served as a 2nd class jet engine mechanic.
Five days after the USS Forrestal arrived at Yankee Station, located in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, the carrier’s jets were fueled, armed and ready to go when a fire broke out and quickly spread across the huge aircraft carrier’s flight deck.
The Forrestal fire wound up being one of the deadliest naval disasters in U.S. history: 134 people — including Justin — were killed, 161 were injured and 21 aircraft were destroyed, costing the Navy $72 million. The tragedy ended up serving as the end of Cross’ military career.
Last week, Cross, who now lives in Merrimac, shared his story for the first time as the guest speaker for Amesbury VFW Post 2016’s “Support the Troops” Christmas Dinner, which is held annually to honor members of the military who are home for the holiday.
Cross said he’d been asked to be guest speaker after one of the VFW post members saw his Forrestal Navy hat last year and connected the dots. Nearly a dozen members of Justin’s family whom Cross had never previously met also attended the program, which was held on Friday at Holy Family Parish Hall.
In an interview prior to his presentation, Cross reflected on the events onboard the Forrestal and his time in the Navy.
Normally, Cross worked an overnight shift repairing the jets, so when the fire started around 11 a.m., he was just getting out of the shower to go to bed. Next thing he knew, the captain called all hands to their stations, and Cross immediately pulled himself together and rushed to his post, which was located one level below the flight deck on the port side of the ship.
As he was passing through the hanger bay, “I felt two or three distinct shudders or vibrations,” Cross said. “And on a ship of this size, to have that happen could only mean that some severe damage had occurred.”
Once Cross got to his duty station, there was nobody there, he said. “I guess they were all assigned other jobs,” he said.
Above deck, Justin was among the crew of trained firefighters attempting to put out the fire, which had started when an armed missile misfired and ruptured the exterior fuel tank of a nearby jet. The fire eventually detonated several 1,000-pound bombs, killing Justin along with all of the other firefighters in the vicinity.
Cross said he was eventually told to go down to the hanger deck to try to put out some fires that had broken out there. The flight deck where the main fire was raging was too dangerous at that point, he said, especially for someone like Cross who had no firefighting experience.
Investigators later determined that the fire had started when an armed Zuni rocket misfired from its fighter jet and punctured a hole in a nearby jet’s external fuel tank.
That jet was piloted by Lt. John McCain, who today is a senator from Arizona. McCain was able to escape from the plane with minor injuries right as the fuel spilling from his plane caught fire and quickly spread across the flight deck, ultimately setting off a nearby bomb and starting a chain reaction of explosions.
Cross said deviations from normal Navy protocols wound up causing the incident. Normally, the jets are supposed to have their missiles armed right before take-off on the runway, but to save time, they were all armed during start-up procedures on the rear of the ship. The missile misfired after the aircraft’s electrical power was switched from external power to the ship’s on-board generators, although no one could ever say why.
What was clear was that if the missile were armed on the runway like it was supposed to have been, it would have just shot off harmlessly into the ocean.
“They jumped the gun on the arming of these weapons,” Cross said. “The cause of it was just a glitch; it was a stray discharge of electricity to the missile, and if it wasn’t armed, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Following the fire, the ship was put out of commission for nearly a year for repairs. Cross was originally supposed to be transferred to another carrier.
But once he got to his new assignment, he was told there was a miscommunication and there wasn’t enough room for him, so he was sent home early. At that point, Cross had only a couple of months remaining on his four-year tour before he would have been discharged anyway.
After the war, Cross said he went on to work at Logan Airport in Boston for 34 years. He is a member of VFW Post 2016.