FACT CHECK: Did John McCain Start The USS Forrestal Fire That Killed 134 People?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Political cartoonist Ben Garrison published a post that alleges that the late Sen. John McCain started a fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 that killed 134 people. It said that McCain “wet-started” his plane, over-fueling the jet engine in order to create a dramatic plume of fire on ignition, and that the flame set off a bomb, which started the fire.

Many laypeople on Twitter recounted a similar story.

“McCain actually did an illegal ‘wet start’ which caused flames to shoot out the back of his jet and start a fire that caused the A/C behind him to catch fire and the resulting conflagration started bombs blowing up,” one user tweeted Tuesday.

“Dont forget McCain thought it would be Cool to Wet Start his plane on deck with bombs loaded which in turn killed several of his fellow soldiers,” another user tweeted Sunday.

Verdict: False

The official Navy report about the Forrestal incident found that a misfired rocket hit another plane and started the fire.

Fact Check:

The post, “Ten Reasons Not to Mourn John McCain,” appeared on Garrison’s website alongside a political cartoon about McCain after he died Saturday.

“On July 29, 1967, the spoiled brat McCain pulled a prank and wet-started his jet while aboard the USS Forrestal,” it said. “The huge flame created touched off a bomb on the plane behind him which led to more bombs going off from other parked planes, which then led to the deaths of 134 sailors. McCain did nothing to help during the fire.”

The post was shared over 1,000 times on Facebook and spread by commenters on blogs and on Twitter.

Forrestal was an aircraft carrier stationed off the coast of Vietnam that experienced a catastrophic fire on July 29, 1967. McCain, then a lieutenant commander, was assigned to the carrier and flew an A-4E Skyhawk jet. The fire raged for more than 24 hours, claiming the lives of 134 sailors and airmen and injuring 161 more.

Findings from the U.S. Navy’s official investigation of the incident contradict Garrison’s account of how the fire started.

An electrical malfunction caused a Zuni rocket to fire from one of the planes on board, the investigation found. The rocket hit a plane on the other side of the flight deck, ruptured its fuel tank and ignited the fire. Fuel poured out of the plane, caught fire, and the flames engulfed other planes and caused bombs to explode.

McCain said in his 1999 memoir “Faith of My Fathers” that it was his plane that was hit by the Zuni rocket, though the official investigation said that it hit the plane next to him. Gregory A. Freeman, author of the book “Sailors to the End” about the USS Forrestal fire, said that it is possible that the rocket hit either or both planes.

McCain’s memoir and sworn testimony less than two weeks after the disaster also dispute Garrison’s assertion that McCain did nothing to help during the fire. He said that he helped push bomb carts overboard to prevent them from exploding.

The report blamed the disaster largely on poor safety procedures, poor rocket launcher design and obsolete weapons. Many bombs on the carrier were from World War II, some in crates labeled 1935, and were more susceptible to being “cooked off” and exploding in the fire.

It also blamed management communication and leadership issues, though the report said that “no improper acts of commission or omission by personnel embarked in FORRESTAL directly contributed to the inadvertent firing of the ZUNI rocket.” The incident led to many changes in Navy safety standards and protocols.

The conspiracy theory that McCain is responsible for the USS Forrestal disaster has floated around the internet for over a decade. It gained traction when he ran for president in 2008. Other versions of the theory say that McCain startled a pilot with a wet start, which caused the pilot to accidentally fire the rocket that started the fire, or that the wet start itself overheated the rocket and caused it to launch.

Garrison pointed The Daily Caller News Foundation to a New York Times article by reporter R. W. Apple Jr., published two days after the disaster, that appears to be the basis of the wet start theory. Forrestal’s commanding officer, John K. Beling, told the Times that an “extreme wet start” could be one explanation for the start of the fire.

“This malfunction … occurs about once a week on attack carriers,” the article said. “A thick tongue of flame lashed backward from the parked jet, igniting a missile on one of the dozen or so planes parked near the fantail.”

Beling noted that he had not been able to sort out conflicting reports, though, and the Navy investigation later dismissed the wet start theory.

The position of McCain’s plane also means that a stream of fire from a wet start would not have reached another plane. The nose of McCain’s plane faced toward the center of the carrier, meaning that the jet flames would have gone over the edge of the carrier.

FactCheck.org called the wet start claim a “preposterous notion” because the A-4 Skyhawk did not have an afterburner, which would create the effect. Pilots told FactCheck.org that it is possible to wet start an engine without an afterburner, though.

“The war monger McCain may not have been the cause of the Forrestal fire. I’m not omniscient, but I suspect he contributed to the Forrestal fire in some manner because his behavior immediately afterword was very suspicious,” Garrison told TheDCNF in an email. “McCain jumped on a helicopter with the Times reporter and said he needed ‘R&R’ in Saigon.”

McCain did say in his memoir that he spent a few days in Saigon with Apple following the disaster.

“This is all my OPINION of what happened and I’m entitled to my free speech,” Garrison said.

Three months after the USS Forrestal disaster, in October 1967, McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese and spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter