Former sailor remembers blaze, explosions aboard aircraft carrier during Vietnam War
Milt Crutchley holds a hunk of a molten fighter plane and points out a snap forever embedded within its metal folds.
That snap could have been part of someone's uniform, Crutchley said, sitting in his Jefferson living room. He wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the U.S.S. Forrestal, a Naval aircraft carrier. It was first ship upon which Crutchley served as a 20-year-old fire control technician. The melted chunk is a reminder of a horrific fire aboard the aircraft carrier in 1967 that killed 134 and wounded scores of others.
Crutchley, 66, graduated from Frederick High School in 1964. He enlisted in the Navy that year, following in the footsteps of several family members who had served in the various branches of the military. An older cousin was his role model for joining the Navy. He'd “heard too many stories about foxholes” from his father, who served in WWII with the Army, Crutchley said.
“I figured a ship might be a little nicer environment,” Crutchley said. “It was pretty uneventful until the 29th of July, 1967.”
Crutchley was serving with a crew of about 5,000 other people that July morning, five days after the ship arrived in the the Gulf of Tonkin in north Vietnam. As pilots prepared for the morning's second air strike, a malfunction on one of the planes launched a rocket. That caused another jet waiting to take off — piloted by future Arizona Sen. John McCain — to catch fire. A load of bombs from World War II was sitting on the deck, Crutchley said.
“It was less than 90 seconds until the first bomb exploded,” Crutchley said. He was below deck in the radar control room when the blaze started. He left the room to see what was happening, planning to climb atop a gun mount on the side of the ship. He returned after orders went out to man battle stations.
“If I had been on top of the gun mount, those initial blasts, something would have taken my head off,” Crutchley said. The blasts threw him around “like a rag doll” as smoke filled the room. Crutchley remained below deck for about two hours until he was able to find his way out.
“If we stayed where we were, we were going to die because of smoke inhalation,” Crutchley said.
The fire destroyed parts of the ship's flight deck and several levels below it but the U.S.S. Forrestal stayed afloat and was able to make it back to Norfolk, Va., in September 1967.
Crutchley left active duty in 1967 and joined the Navy reserves, serving part of those years testing ships in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He married his wife, Bettie Joe, in 1968 and worked for AT&T and other telecommunications companies before retiring a few years ago. Crutchley now remains active with his grandchildren and as an elder at the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ, in Frederick.
Rev. Barbara Kershner Daniel, of UCC, said Crutchley has not been afraid to tackle tough issues as an elder. As a youth adviser, he's been helpful in teaching children to learn skills, from showing them carpentry work to cooking.
“He's just a lot of fun to be around,” she said.
Crutchley retired from the reserves Oct. 1 1993, just a few weeks after the Forrestal was decommissioned.
“Figured we'd go out together,” Crutchley said.
Courtney Mabeus on Twitter: @courtmabeus.