Navy vet remembers USS Forrestal on anniversary of fire

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WAYLAND, Mich. — Nearly 50 years ago was what many consider the worst carrier ship fire since World War II. The USS Forrestal burst into flames after a rocket discharged on the flight deck triggering other bombs to explode.

The fire would ultimately kill 134 sailors. Among the survivors was Sen. John McCain.

Ward Hander is a Navy veteran from West Michigan and was a boatswain's mate on the USS Forrestal. He missed the fire by 14 days, now dealing with survivor's remorse. On this day, his goal is to make sure the lives lost are not forgotten.

"The guys are looking for bodies," Ward explains, looking at a famous picture of the damage in Life magazine. "There's body bags all stacked up there."

Hander continues to show pictures of the wreckage and the aftermath of the fire on the USS Forrestal.

"It exploded and blew six decks down," said Hander.

On July 29, 1967, a plane on the carrier ship did not have its armament pins replaced to cut off a circuit to the bombs on the plane. Hander explains this was all in an effort to save time.

“They wanted to hurry up their time in line to get on the catapult so they talked the superiors into letting them pull the armament pins, the red ribbons that hang off the jet all over, those are the armament pins and there’s an electric circuit that when that pin is pulled, that allows you to arm a rocket or a bomb, it allows you to release them" said Hander.

"Somebody keyed their mic and that sent a piece of stray voltage and triggered a Zuni rocket. It shot off and skipped off the flight deck and went right through a young man's shoulder and hit John McCain's jet right in his full external fuel tank."

Hander says it took a minute and 38 seconds for one of the thousand pound bombs aboard McCain's jet to detonate while the fire burned underneath.

"Ejection seats were going off 100 feet into the air and missiles fired when the other lines would catch on fire," said Hander.

Inexperienced firefighters would try to use water to put out the fire, which only caused the fire to spread, but brave men on board did what they could to save the thousands of people on the USS Forrestal.

"There were guys that weighed 150 pounds that were throwing 250 pound bombs over the side," said Hander. "The heroes on that ship were just untold. So many people did so much to save guys."

Hander would miss the fire by just two weeks. He was a firefighter on board the ship, as well, and would've likely been right in the thick of it.

"I missed it by about 14 days and I was a firefighter," said Hander. "I was experienced and fought a lot of fires. All of the firefighters on our ship were wiped out. I felt really guilty because I wasn't there. I could've done something. I felt so helpless when I got home and it happened. I had just gotten home too. There was nothing I could do. It was just a terrible feeling."

Hander heard the news on a radio sitting in a barber shop in Kentwood.

"I shot up out of the chair and people there thought I was crazy," said Hander. "I blew out of the chair like I had been shot in the foot, you know? But I told him that was my ship, I had just left it."

On this day 49 years later, Hander wants to make sure the lives lost are not forgotten.

"I just want it to be known that those guys who went through that were 18, 19 and 20 years old," said Hander. "They were just young men. They are on the Vietnam Wall, block 29-E from Adkins to Zwerlein, there's 134 of them."

In addition to the 134 men who died, another 161 men were injured.

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