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 on board the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) in 1966. Dale was a pilot in a detachment of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) One, nicknamed “the Pacific Fleet Angels,” serving on board the Oriskany. After the Angels' rescue of crewmen of the British merchant ship August Moon during heavy seas on 16 September, the adventure continued.
Just before 0730 on 26 October 1966, the Oriskany was back on Yankee Station off Vietnam. Three overnight launches were cancelled because of poor weather. Dale wrote: “It was my turn to take the early launch. I was turned up in the little H-2 [helicopter], when I saw a pink-white cloud coming up on the starboard side, followed by [Commander Richard Bellinger] running down the flight deck stark naked—he had squeezed out of a porthole!”
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 four or five 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 board the Oriskany]. . . . We flew all morning, hauling firefighting gear and hose from the [USS] Constellation [(CV-64)], who had come to assist.
Meanwhile, on board the Oriskany, the men of the ship and the air wing worked heroically to battle the flames. The flare locker was on the starboard side of the ship just forward of the hangar deck, near the No. 1 elevator well. On board the Oriskany, that 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 in close proximity to the No. 1 elevator well so that they quickly could 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.
Later, when the fire was brought under control, Dale, his copilot, 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 Oriskany detachment 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 the Oriskany—the exact same number of lives they saved just six weeks before during the rescue of the crew of the August Moon.
The Oriskany underwent repairs and deployed again to Vietnam in June 1967. The fire on board her, as well as subsequent fires on board two other aircraft carriers, the USS Forrestal (CV-59) in 1967 and USS Enterprise (CVN-65) 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!”