Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise Remembers 1969 Fire
While underway in the Atlantic Ocean Jan. 14, Sailors and Marines assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) paused to remember the catastrophic fire that took place on its flight deck in 1969.
Capt. William C. Hamilton Jr., commanding officer of Enterprise, addressed the crew over the ship’s intercom system while closed circuit TV aired a specially prepared memorial video.
“Today is, in all likelihood, the last anniversary of this tragic event that CVN 65 will observe while at sea, and so it seems fitting for us to remember this somber chapter in the Big E legacy,” said Hamilton during his address. “Each of us today is a part of the Enterprise legend and legacy, and we honor those of our shipmates who perished on this day 43 years ago through our hard work and faithful service.”
The impact the fire had on the Navy and the Enterprise is still being felt today, more than 43 years later.
“Hearing stories like this motivates me to work harder with my shipmates to ensure a tragedy like this will not occur again,” said Airman Taylor J. Attaway, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron ONE THREE SIX (VFA 136).
The story heard by Attaway on the anniversary of one of the most tragic events in Enterpise’s storied history is one those associated with the legendary ship will likely never forget.
Enterprise, while off the coast of Vietnam, was conducting routine flight deck operations the morning of Jan. 14, 1969 escorted by USS Benjamin Stoddert (DD 622) and USS Rogers (DD 876), when an explosion occurred.
The explosion erupted when a Mk-32 Zuni rocket attached to a parked F-4 Phantom was overheated by an aircraft start unit mounted to a tow tractor. The initial explosion spread to other armed aircraft causing fires and additional explosions across the flight deck.
Directly before the first explosion, the ship began a port turn to help launch aircraft. Seconds after the first blast, Capt. K.L. Lee, commanding officer of Enterprise at the time, ordered a continuance of the port turn heading the ship into the wind.
The initial explosion was at 8:19 a.m. and the fires weren’t under control until 9 a.m.
The fires were under control quickly, in comparison to previous carrier flight deck fires and were finally extinguished four hours later.
During the eight explosions, and following fires, 27 died and 314 were injured. The fire also destroyed 15 aircraft.
“Remembering this day reinforces the importance of damage control (DC),” said Lt. Gary L. Ramsey, a “shooter” from Enterprise’s Air Department. “It demonstrates how important it is for Sailors to be enthusiastic about training and DC exercises.”
Were it not for the heroic efforts and damage control abilities of the Enterprise crew that day, the damage could have been significantly worse.
“Those were Sailors were real heroes,” said Fire Controlman 1st Class Elanthesus Davis. “They did what they needed to do to save their shipmates and Enterprise herself. That’s something this crew has never needed to do, but we train and prepare to sweat and bleed for the ship just like those who came before us.”
Despite the bravery of the ship’s crew, Enterprise was still heavily damaged during the fire. There were three holes in the flight deck, one of which went through two decks. The resulting damage forced Enterprise to dock at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, primarily in order to repair the flight deck’s armored plating. The repairs were completed in April 1969 in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Enterprise proceeded as scheduled to its deployment to Vietnam and the Tonkin Gulf.
Today, Enterprise is more than 50 years old. The fire not only changed damage control and fire fighting for Enterprise, it improved techniques and training across the fleet. Many lessons learned are still employed by the Navy today.
Naval Today Staff , January 18, 2012; Image: navy