The United States Navy disclosed yesterday (October 27, 1967) that an air-to-surface rocket accidentally ignited on the attack carrier Coral Sea off North Vietnam this week, injuring nine seamen. Three of the men were critically burned. All nine were flown to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The incident occurred Wednesday night while crewmen were assembling the Zuni rocket, used by Navy aircraft raids in Vietnam. The motor ignited and shot the rocket forward about 20 feet into a steel bulkhead. A spokesman at the Navy fleet headquarters here said the rocket did not explode.
Four of the men subsequently died of their injuries:
The forward mess area on deck two is just above the ship's magazines and has an ordinance elevator directly to the hanger and flight decks. That fateful night just after an AOE UNREP operation loading jet fuel and ammunition aboard, the area bustled with men and explosive material to be stored. Although the rocket traversed only a short distance and did not explode, it ignited a conflagration that engulfed the area with intense fire.
First hand accounts from crewmen aboard that fateful night.
1st Class Petty Officer Dennis Howard — "I was onboard when this incident occurred. I was in the first class lounge when the motor was ignited and the rocket lodged in the bulkhead. The first class lounge (couldn't call it a Mess) was located on the forward mess deck area starboard side, this area had been taken over for ordnance assembly. I spoke to one of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians who disposed of this rocket afterwards. A working party (not all Aviation Ordnanceman as this was a low-tech job) handled rocket pods returned from strike aircraft after missions. The job was to visually insure no rockets remained in 4-rocket pod container, then with a battery pack, RESTEP the firing switch. The crew apparently failed to inspect prior to RESTEP and a rocket remained in the pod. Cycling the switch fired the rocket which did not travel far enough to arm (rocket warhead had an impeller and had to travel a minimum distance to arm). Rocket warhead did not explode, it was safely extracted and disposed of by EOD Team onboard. "
Engineman 3rd Class Petty Officer D.P. Dougherty A4 Division — "I was aboard Coral Sea during the Oct. 25, 1967 Zuni rocket mishap. When GQ sounded I went to my battle station inside the first class mess manning fog foam machine 3. The compartment was full of smoke and ankle-deep water and despite many calls on the sound powered phone to REP2 for an O.B.A., no one came (nor did my fellow machine operator) and as the smoke cleared after quite a while I saw the nose of the Zuni sticking through the bulkhead and I experienced a feeling like I was "passing a brick". After a while the hatch opened and the X.O. (I don't remember his name but the C.O.'s name was Capt. Shawcross) and a chief came in and the chief said, "What the hell are you doing in here"? And I said, "Waiting for an O.B.A., chief". They looked at the Zuni, then came back to me, and the X.O. asked my name and said, "You will get a medal that will help your career, but I think my career is over." The chief gave him a murderous look, and said "Come on, kid". We went and helped bring up hot rounds from a magazine. I will never forget that G.Q. or my brave shipmates, nor the cold words of the X.O."
Lloyd Becker — "I was aboard the Coral Sea on Oct 25 1967 when the rocket launched, my GQ was two decks below the forward mess decks right under the resulting fire. The fire was intense and the forward magazines were flooded which were next to us. The fire teams that put out the fire should have been commended because this deck was used for assembling weapons and was of course full, so the danger of ordance cooking off was a real possibility. After the fire was put out the warhead had to be cut out and be disposed of, as I recall after we were notified the fire was out it took about four hours for this to take place."
Jonathan King — "The Zuni rocket accident in October 1967 involved a lot more than merely the forward mess decks fire. The ship went to GQ because the rocket somehow managed to short out the ventilation systems to the main boiler room, the Zuni rocket magazines on either side began to heat up, etc., etc. A damage control chief later told me it was a close call. I have told the story for years to various NROTC classes...
The ship also went to GQ when the ventilation systems for the boiler rooms mysteriously shut down. (Later, it was discovered that the Zuni and/or Zuni fire had short-circuited some electrical stuff, etc.) Meanwhile, Zuni rocket magazine next to the boiler rooms began to heat up. "Naturally," one sprinkling system was down for repair and the other barely dribbled out water. A damage control chief later told me he figured the Zuni's came within several degrees of cooking off. That would have been a real disaster!
Several crewmen were subsequently awarded medals for going back into the boiler room to shut down the furnaces. Meanwhile, other folks were throwing all the Zunis overboard and anything that looked like it might explode on the hanger deck. In fact, someone threw a box overboard containing a "silver rotary radar joint" for our E-2A which cost upwards of $500,000. The plane guard later found it floating the Gulf and returned it to us.
The ship secured from General Quarters about four hours later. "
John Kaufman — "My perspective of the Night of the Zuni began with a bad case of the crud. We had been working 12 on and 12 off. At 2000 hours, exactly, I dragged my sorely ass to the rack! I was the only one in our compartment and left the lights on since it was not yet mandatory lights out.
About 0500 I began to be awakened by the sounds of readiness reports being announced over the 1MC system. The lights were still on in the compartment, and no one had been in their bunk! Totally weird! I'm thinking, Did I die, and is this hell?
Just then, one of the other shipmates sneaked into the compartment to get something out of his locker. He about crapped when I called him by name asking what the hell was going on.
Making my way topside, I went into the sheet metal shop at the rear of hangar deck and called forward to my shop where Bert and I worked. In the confusion, my first class, Tom Deutch, had mistakenly mustered me as present. What a night from hell!!!"
Bert McNamee — "I was a ship's company sailor assigned to the E-2 avionics shop above on the Main Deck just forward of the Deck 2 Forward Mess/Ordinance Assembly Area where the incident occurred. That night I was not working in the avionics shop but just finished my UNREP working party and returned aft to my berthing compartment. The guys in the shop later told me they were locked down with condition ZEBRA and not allowed to leave the compartment until after the fire was out and GQ was secured.
There was no immediate emergency situation at my GQ station (02 Level near the fantail) so we were relieved and assigned a working party. I spent the night in hanger bay two tossing the MK82, 250-pound and 500-pound iron bombs and other ordnance we just loaded in the UNREP along with fuel tanks and anything else that could burn or explode over the side as instructed. The 250s were not so bad for two 18-year old sailors to lift, but boy those 500-pounders sure made us sweat!"
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