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NEWS | March 7, 2012

Shipmates Forever: Vietnam vet tells his story, mentors young Airmen

By Airman 1st Class Tom Brading Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

It's the summer of 1967 and deadly race riots are breaking out across the United States, The Beatles are revolutionizing music and young men from every U.S. state are being drafted to fight a war thousands of miles away from home.

Meanwhile, at Yankee Station, 130 miles off the coast of Vietnam, proudly fighting the war was business as usual for Chief Petty Officer Samuel Kirton, assigned to the engine room of the Aircraft Carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59). Kirton's job was making sure fresh water and electricity was sent throughout the carrier.

It was July 27, 1967 and just another day of launching air strikes into North Vietnam for the Sailors aboard the Forrestal, when around 10:50 a.m. (local time), an electrical malfunction discharged an Mk-32 "Zuni" rocket from under the wing of an F-4 Phantom II on the flight-deck. After the initial rocket explosion, a chain-reaction of explosions followed.

The events that unfolded in the hours after the blast engrained themselves deeply into Kirton's mind for the rest of his life.

"All I remember is running as fast as I could to the engine room after the general alarm started going off," said Kirton, thinking back on his experience aboard the carrier. "Sailors all around me were trying to get to their battle stations and even though we all knew something bad was happening, none of us knew how bad it was."

As Kirton raced to prepare for battle, the fire was being battled above his head on the flight deck. Hospital corpsmen and other Sailors, many without firefighting equipment or experience, desperately tried fighting the flames and tending to the injured on the flight-deck. As they bravely helped their shipmates, in the back of their minds, they knew it was only a matter of time before more bombs exploded from the fire.

Sailors of the Forrestal bravely sacrificed themselves in order to help injured shipmates. Without hesitation, they reacted to the situation by running toward to the flames and accepted the likelihood of dying as they tried to save their ship and shipmates.

Darkness consumed the engine room where Kirton was stationed during General Quarters and communication to the rest of the ship was out. He spent his afternoon sweating below decks, desperately trying to locate his Sailors. He could hear multiple explosions and objects falling topside, yet, he had very little knowledge of the cause of the chaos around him.

"Sailors were throwing ammunition overboard," said Kirton. "It was safer to get rid of explosives than letting them cook off. One hundred thirty-pound men were lifting 250-pound explosives and throwing them overboard. It's amazing what people are capable of when their back is against the wall."

The fire took the lives of more than 130 Sailors, injured more than 160 and the damages exceeded more than $72 million including the damages to aircraft. The equivalent to $474 million today.

Causalities of the carrier fire were the worst since World War II.

"I traveled the world with those men," said Kirton. "We saw Brazil, parts of Africa, Asia and dozens of other countries together. Some of the best moments of my life, I shared with the Sailors on the Forrestal. It doesn't matter what war you engage in or what branch you serve in, when you lose someone in battle, it's becomes your duty to always remember them."

After the dust settled from the chaos, the somber reality of the devastating fire presented itself to Kirton.

"The smell is still haunting," said Kirton. "It was a burnt singe from the fire. We had to unzip every body bag to check for dental records. More than a hundred bodies were lying on the flight deck and each one made the burning smell more overwhelming. However, those men were heroes that died preserving the freedoms of our country."

In the years ensuing, the reality of the disaster didn't just change Kirton, it also changed the way the U.S. Navy operated. They began training all Sailors in firefighting. Today, a large portion of basic training for Sailors is dedicated to firefighting and prevention tactics.

In addition, The Farrier Fire Fighting School Learning Site in Norfolk, Va. is named for Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate Gerald W. Farrier, The Sailor who died in the initial explosion as he attempted to extinguish the fire with a single potassium bicarbonate  extinguisher.

"Those men on the Forrestal were like my brothers," said Kirton. "Our friendships may have only been for a short time, however, shipmates are forever. I'll always honor them."

Kirton dedicated more than 20 years to the U.S. Navy and went on to become a master chief petty officer (E-9). Today, he spends his military retirement keeping up with his old shipmates, working on heating, venting and air conditioning units at JB Charleston - Air Base and living up to his promise of his fallen comrades and the sacrifices they made.

This July marks the 45th anniversary of the Forrestal fire and even though the world around him has changed, every July 27, Kirton's mind goes back to the fire and the 134 names etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Kirton has spent more than 40 years traveling the country and meeting with other survivors of the fire, including the Forrestal's most famous survivor, Sen. John McCain, for one reason; to remember. He attends reunions with other survivors and every couple years he visits the gravestone of 18 Forrestal shipmates' at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

However, remembering the sacrifice his shipmates made in the Gulf of Tonkin that day is only the beginning. Kirton also volunteers his time to educate and mentor young Airmen from JB Charleston - Air Base.

"It's important to bring the young Airmen with me to the memorials," said Kirton, who has organized Airmen from JB Charleston to attend multiple events, including a Pearl Harbor Memorial at Patriots Point and Naval Maritime Museum in Charleston. "They are today's leaders and it's an honor for me to pass my experience along to them."

Kirton is confident the young men and women he works with at JB Charleston are carrying the military torch brightly into the future while remembering the rich history that brought them, as members of a larger joint military, to where they are today.