Fifty years ago this past weekend, a rocket was accidentally launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier Forrestal, which was stationed with its battle group off the coast of North Vietnam. The rocket hit a fuel tank, scattering flaming fuel and setting off bombs and other explosions. Within minutes, flames had engulfed a large swath of the flight deck. By the time the fire was under control, 134 sailors were dead and 161 injured, including John McCain, who was hit by shrapnel as he leapt from the cockpit of his burning A-4.
The Forrestal fire is a reminder of the significant, but today largely overlooked, role that the Navy played in the Vietnam War. More than 1.8 million sailors served in Southeast Asia during the war; of those, 1,631 were killed and 4,178 were wounded. The Navy was there at the war’s beginning — the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 — and at its very end in 1975, when American ships received helicopters carrying embassy staff and refugees fleeing the fall of Saigon.
The Navy did everything. Enormous aircraft carriers offshore sent out thousands of bombers and fighters on missions over South and North Vietnam, and into Cambodia and Laos. Destroyers pounded the coast; cruisers, with bigger guns, penetrated far inland. Other, faster ships interdicted smugglers. Amphibious assault ships ferried Marines to landing zones. Search and rescue helicopters saved hundreds of downed airmen.
Maybe the Navy’s most important role was its least glamorous — keeping the entire American operation supplied. As one veteran wrote to me, “If the troops on the ground ate, their foods were brought in by the Navy. If they had tanks, trucks, jeeps or other rolling stock, that was brought in by the Navy. If they fired artillery rounds, dropped bombs or fired M16 rounds, you can trust me that their mothers did not send that stuff in by airmail. All medical supplies came in by ship; many troops came in by ship; pencils, papers, office equipment and about anything else those men in the field had came in by ship and generally, those ships were Navy. They had to have fuel for their vehicles. How in the hell did that get there?”