Editor’s Note: John McCain died at the age of 81 on Saturday after a year-long battle with brain cancer. Below is a piece originally published by Truthdig on Oct. 7, 2008, when the Arizona senator was running for president as a Republican candidate.
John McCain’s personal account of his life has shaped a powerful political narrative that accords him deference on the full range of policy issues. His first effort at shaping that narrative received a remarkable boost when the May 14, 1973, edition of U.S. News & World Report gave him space for what is perhaps the longest article the magazine had ever run, a 12,000-word piece composed entirely of his unedited and often rambling account of his prisoner-of-war experience. Ever since, McCain has added compelling details at key points in his political career. When his stories are placed beside documented evidence from other sources, significant contradictions often emerge. One such case involves McCain’s experience in the devastating fire and explosions that killed 134 sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal during the Vietnam War three months before he was shot down over North Vietnam. McCain has made claims about this accident that differ dramatically from parts of the official Navy report and accounts of reliable eyewitnesses.
In considering the 1967 catastrophe, it is important to note that the official report concluded that no individual bore responsibility for the fire or its spread. There are a number of conflicting accounts of the Forrestal accident, but here is the story as based on the strongest sources. The fire started at 10:51 a.m. Saturday, July 29, 1967, as 30-year-old Lt. Cmdr. John McCain sat on the port side of the Forrestal in his A-4 Skyhawk going through preflight checks. To his right was Lt. Cmdr. Fred White, also in an A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft. A Zuni rocket on another airplane accidentally fired and flew across the flight deck, passing through White’s auxiliary fuel tank and falling into the ocean. Fuel spilled onto the deck from White’s craft and ignited. McCain told his biographer, Robert Timberg, and repeats in his own book, “Faith of My Fathers,” that the rocket hit his own plane and knocked two bombs from it into the burning fuel as he scrambled out of his cockpit and raced to safety across the deck.1
There was, in fact, a single bomb — not two — that dropped to the deck. It exploded 90 seconds after the fire broke out, intensifying the blaze until it raged out of control. White and Thomas Ott, McCain’s parachute rigger, were among the first to be killed instantly or mortally injured, along with most of the firefighting crew. McCain’s plane captain, Robert Zwerlein, was one of those who suffered fatal wounds at this point.