Cover image for Fire on the hangar deck : ordeal of the Oriskany
Title:
Fire on the hangar deck : ordeal of the Oriskany
Author:
Foster, Wynn F.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Annapolis, Md. : Naval Institute Press, [2001]

©2001
Physical Description:
xviii, 175 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781557502902
Format :
Book

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Status
Central Library DS558 .F67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

Ever since man first ventured to sea, fire has been his worst enemy. No less so on the modern aircraft carrier where high explosives, volatile fuels, and flaming engines are often mixed with sailors working long hours under arduous conditions. In 1966, this hazardous situation led to a catastrophe costing the lives of 44 men, injuring hundreds more, and doing millions of dollars of damage. USS Oriskany, a twenty-one-year-old Essex-class carrier, was conducting combat flight operations in the Gulf of Tonkin when a night illumination flare ignited on her hangar deck and instantly transformed her into a flaming holocaust. Wynn Foster, an attack pilot who flew missions from Oriskany until just before the tragedy, has recreated the tragic story of this terrible fire. He draws on firsthand knowledge of the ship, extensive research, and in-depth interviews with survivors.

The result is a gripping account that vividly describes efforts to combat a situation that was out of control from the beginning. It is a story of disappointing errors, impressive professionalism, dark tragedy, breathtaking heroism, and lessons to be learned. In the ongoing tradition of the Naval Institute's open forum, Foster explores the preventable causes of the fire and assesses the Navy's handling of the aftermath. He reinforces current concerns about high-tempo operations conducted with dwindling resources and warns of the consequences of the mismatch that occurs when warfare is coupled with a peacetime economy. His book offers an eye-opening view of the challenges faced by military units whose daily routine is filled with lurking danger and an exciting, inspiring tale of man meeting disaster head-on.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One PERSPECTIVE: THE WAR By the American calendar, the Vietnam War spanned a period of over eight years, from late 1964 until early 1973. However, internecine warfare in that area of Southeast Asia had been going on in one form or another for centuries.     Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the French dominated the Indochina area of Southeast Asia until the start of World War II; then from 1940 on, the area was under Japanese control for five years. The French returned to Indochina in 1945, but seriously weakened both diplomatically and militarily, they soon found themselves embroiled in a nationalist insurgent movement. The principal opposition, the Vietminh, was led by the Communist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh.     By 1946 French attempts to contain and control the Vietminh forces in the three Indochina provinces France governed--Annam, Cochin China, and Tonkin--had come to naught. The nationalist insurgency had escalated into full-scale guerrilla warfare.     In an attempt to ameliorate the situation, a non-Communist, nationalist government of Vietnam was established in early 1949 and given diplomatic recognition by France. In the following year the United States government, concerned about the diminishing French influence in Southeast Asia, entered the picture. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his advisors were convinced of the desirability of maintaining a Vietnamese government with pro-Western orientation, and Eisenhower authorized assignment of U.S. civilian and military advisors to the anti-Communist government of Vietnam. Undeterred by either French or U.S. efforts, the forces of Ho Chi Minh continued fighting.     In May 1954 the French armed forces suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Communist Vietnamese Army at the remote and hitherto undistinguished mountain village of Dien Bien Phu, located in the northwestern part of North Vietnam at the Laotian border. Guerrilla warfare and minor skirmishes against French presence continued, but, in effect, the Dien Bien Phu defeat abruptly and dramatically ended French influence in Southeast Asia.     On the day following the fall of Dien Bien Phu, representatives of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, Great Britain, France, the former Soviet Union, and the United States met in a prearranged conference at Geneva, Switzerland. The objective of the meeting was to work out a peaceful settlement for the future of volatile Southeast Asia. Two months later in July 1954, an agreement was reached that brought a temporary halt to open warfare and decreed that all foreign armed forces would depart from Southeast Asia. The agreement divided the former French Indochina at the seventeenth parallel of latitude, theoretically creating two states under separate governments. In the north was the People's Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), led by Ho Chi Minh. In the south was the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), under a nominally democratic government with Western-backed leadership. From the outset, however, the southern leadership was beset by internal squabbling and corruption. The Geneva agreement ostensibly set the stage for free elections in 1956, aimed at reunification of the country and deciding its future course. But the elections never came about.     The creation of South Vietnam was accompanied by commitment of millions of American dollars for military equipment and economic assistance and by platoons of military and civilian advisors to train South Vietnamese armed forces. Soon, however, the leadership of South Vietnam was openly hedging against the holding of unification elections. That hedging, along with the growing American military presence in South Vietnam, contrary to the withdrawal provision of the Geneva agreement, was interpreted by Ho Chi Minh as betrayal. He resumed covert warfare against South Vietnam by providing logistic support, guidance, and leadership to the Vietcong, the Communist insurgent movement in South Vietnam. Ho Chi Min endorsed reunification of Vietnam as envisioned in the Geneva agreement, but it was to be by force and on his terms.     Latter-day history revisionists have postulated that President Eisenhower's successor, President John F. Kennedy, intended to withdraw U.S. military forces from South Vietnam. However, such postulation is negated by Kennedy's public utterances. On 2 September 1963, for example, in a response to a question by CBS commentator Walter Cronkite, President Kennedy said, "I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a mistake" ( New York Times , 23 December 1997); and the fact that it was Kennedy who authorized a buildup of those forces in the early 1960s. In any case, the question became moot with Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963.     By 1964, even with increasing American support, the armed forces of South Vietnam were unable to cope with the Vietcong insurgency. By then the insurgency was being supplemented by units of the North Vietnam regular army. Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, authorized large buildups of American forces in South Vietnam, buildups that eventually reached a half-million troops. Johnson's decision, in effect, repeated an earlier cycle, with the United States becoming the de facto replacement of the French in the quagmire of a ground war in Southeast Asia.     In the spring of 1964 American military photoreconnaissance aircraft, alone at first but later with armed escorts, were authorized to fly secret intelligence-gathering missions over Laos and North Vietnam. The missions were to spy on North Vietnam's use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of trails and small roads that formed an intricate supply line for North Vietnam's support of insurgent forces in South Vietnam. The jungle trail wound its way from North Vietnam, across the Annam Mountains, through Laos, and into South Vietnam. Two U.S. Navy aircraft, flying from the carrier USS Kitty Hawk in June 1964, were shot down during intelligence-gathering missions. Both pilots were rescued, but one gained his freedom only after spending almost three months as a prisoner of the Pathet Lao, the Communist insurgent force in Laos.     Then, in a fateful seventy-two hours at the beginning of August 1964, came the controversial Gulf of Tonkin "incident." North Vietnamese PT (patrol torpedo) boats allegedly attacked the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy , which were steaming in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin between North Vietnam and the Chinese island of Hainan. Whether such attacks actually occurred has been historically debatable; but in any case, President Johnson used the incident as justification for retaliation. The president authorized U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam, and aircraft from the aircraft carriers Constellation and Ticonderoga bombed North Vietnamese PT-boat bases and petroleum storage facilities on 5 August 1964. The strikes were successful but resulted in the loss of two of the Constellation 's aviators. Lieutenant (jg) R. C. Sather of Attack Squadron (VA) 145, flying an A-1H Skyraider, was killed in action. The other, Lt. (jg) Everett Alvarez of VA 144, became the Navy's first North Vietnamese prisoner of war (POW).     Low-scale offensive air operations against targets in North Vietnam and Laos were continued in late 1964 and early 1965. In late March 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder was inaugurated with the objective of sustained air interdiction of North Vietnam's lines of communication and supply routes, and the air war over North Vietnam was on in earnest.     From March 1965 until the conclusion of the war in January 1973, offensive air strikes against North Vietnam were conducted almost continuously by U.S. Navy aircraft, operating under the commander of the Seventh Fleet, and U.S. Air Force tactical aircraft, operating under the commander of the Seventh Air Force. The only exceptions were temporary bombing pauses ordered by President Johnson and by Mother Nature's whims of monsoon weather.     During that period, at least two American aircraft carriers were continuously on duty at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, conducting strike operations against targets in North Vietnam. Excerpted from FIRE ON THE HANGAR DECK by Wynn F. Foster. Copyright © 2001 by Wynn F. Foster. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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