Jan 15

Angels of the Oriskany – Fire!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019 12:01 AM


Smoke pours from Oriskany's Hangar Bay #1, 26 October 1966 (NNHC)

Smoke pours from USS Oriskany‘s Hangar Bay #1 on 26 October 1966 (NHHC)

I sent my father’s cousin Dale Barck a postcard during a port call to Hong Kong in 1997, he replied sending me letters filled with sea stories from his days in the Navy, including the fateful events of his deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) in 1966. Following the rescue of the August Moon’s crew in September, the adventure continued.

Just before 0730 on 26 October 1966, the USS Oriskany was back on Yankee Station. Three overnight launches were cancelled due to poor weather. Dale wrote, “It was my turn to take the early launch. I was turned up in the little H-2, when I saw a pink-white cloud coming up on the starboard side, followed by [Commander Bellinger, the Silver Star awardee] running down the flight deck stark naked — he had squeezed out of a porthole!

Bombs are jettisoned from the hangar deck of USS Oriskany during the fire 26 October 1966 (NHHC)

Bombs are jettisoned from the hangar deck of USS Oriskany during the fire on 26 October 1966 (NHHC)

Dale realized the ship was in trouble, but what few knew at that moment was just how serious the fire was. In fact, the bridge reported “this is a drill” out of habit when originally announcing the fire. Two sailors loading a stack of Mk-24 magnesium parachute flares into the flare locker accidentally ignited one flare, then in their panic, threw it into the flare locker and shut the hatch. Soon all 700 magnesium flares in the space ignited in a chain reaction, and the fire was raging at 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. As Dale wrote,

The Air Boss said, ‘shut down, the launch is cancelled’ — I didn’t answer but signaled the crew to remove tie downs, and took off immediately, as I sensed this was a real mess, and sure enough, immediately started picking men up from the wake, as they walked or jumped [overboard] from the hangar deck in the dense smoke. I got 4 or 5 men, and took them to one of the [destroyers], as it looked like the Oriskany might not make it. Since there was almost no wind, it was tough, as I didn’t want to dump fuel since I couldn’t be refueled [on the Oriskany].” He continued, ”We flew all morning, hauling firefighting gear and hose from the [USS] Constellation who had come to assist.”

Crewmen fighting the fire on the USS Oriskany on 26 October 1966 (NHHC)

Crewmen fighting the fire on the USS Oriskany (NHHC)

Meanwhile, on board the Oriskany, the men of the ship and the air wing worked heroically to battle the flames. The flare locker was located on the starboard side of the ship just forward of the hangar deck, near the Number 1 Elevator well. On the USS Oriskany, the Number 1 Elevator was a center-deck one which brought aircraft up to the flight deck right between the two bow catapults. The Fleet Angels’ other two helicopters were parked nearby on the hangar deck, and both were destroyed in the fire. The helicopter pilots’ staterooms were located in close proximity to the Number 1 Elevator well so that they could quickly get to the helicopters in case of an emergency. In fact, most of the air wing officers’ staterooms were located in the bow area, and at the time the fire broke out, many aviators were still in the rack, catching up on sleep after their overnight launches were cancelled.

Burial at sea during funeral ceremonies held on the Oriskany's deck following the fire on 26 October 1966 (NHHC)

Burial at sea during funeral ceremonies held on the USS Oriskany’s deck following the fire (NHHC)

Later, when the fire was brought under control, Dale, his co-pilot, and crew chief were finally able to return to the Oriskany and shut down. As Dale wrote, they landed “to find only one helo pilot to meet us; the other five had all died in the fire, as it swept through the bow area.” Five of the eight officers of HC-1 were killed in the blaze: Assistant Officer-in-Charge Lieutenant Julian D. Hammond, Jr., Lieutenant Josslyn Blakely, Jr., Lieutenant (junior grade) Gerald Siebe, Lieutenant (junior grade) James Welsh, and Ensign Daniel Kern — Dale’s copilot during the August Moon rescue. Lieutenant Blakely was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Navy’s highest non-combat award for heroism, for his role in saving the men of the August Moon. Dale noted with irony that in all, 44 men died in the fire on board USS Oriskany … the exact same number of lives they saved just six weeks before during the rescue of the crew of the August Moon.

The bodies of men who lost their lives in the fire are off-loaded from the Oriskany (NHHC)

The bodies of men who lost their lives in the fire are off-loaded from the USS Oriskany (NHHC)

USS Oriskany underwent repairs and deployed again to Vietnam in June 1967. The fire on board USS Oriskany, as well as subsequent fires on two other aircraft carriers, USS Forrestal in 1967 and USS Enterprise in 1969, led the Navy to improve training and procedures for firefighting and ordnance handling.

The letters Dale sent me while I was on deployment contained a warning that will still resonate with sailors today,

“So I hope you know an escape route from your room, and from your ready room, and respond in a hurry if a fire is announced, drill or no drill!”.

LCDR Dale Barck on USS Oriskany 1966 (Courtesy of the Author)

LCDR Dale Barck on USS Oriskany 1966 (Courtesy of the Author)

To read about the August Moon rescue check out the link below.