Chesterton Tribune



On the 50th anniversary of the Forrestal disaster Tom Lee honors his brother Bill

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Aviation Boatswain’s Mate William Lee: Bill Lee of Chesterton was one of 134 sailors who died half a century ago tomorrow, on July 29, 1967, in the USS Forrestal disaster. His medals: at the top, The Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism; and bottom from left to right, the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.



Think of the decisions we make in life as forks in a road we’re only dimly aware of traveling.

Decisions made in the heat of the moment or with due deliberation. Decisions made for good or frivolous or no reason at all. Decisions whose consequences come to us at midnight, long after the dust has settled, to make us wonder what might have been.

Other decisions are made for us--we often have no idea they’re being made at all--by bean counters and bureaucrats behind closed doors, by politicians whose loyalties are to party and policy, not to people.

These decisions are also forks in the road. For some they’re just the end of the road.

This is the story of two decisions made half a century ago.

William Lee and the USS Forrestal

On July 29, 1967, 134 sailors died on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin, when eight 1,000-pound bombs which had no business being on board--bombs which everyone who’d seen and handled knew to be defective--exploded catastrophically on Forrestal’s flight deck.

One of the dead was a Chesterton boy, Aviation Boatswain’s Mate William Lee (CHS 1965). Lee had been performing his primary duties, assisting in the catapult launch of A-4 Skyhawk fighter/bombers, when a fluke fire ignited on the flight deck. Lee was the first to grab a hose, the first to step into the breach, and probably the first to die, when the first of the defective bombs cooked off in the heat of the fire and detonated, raining shrapnel on him, killing him instantly.

Lee was 19. He left behind a widow and a newborn, his parents, and one other: his identical twin and Forrestal shipmate, Tom.

Bill, as always, was serving the aft catapults that day, Tom the forward cats, and in the normal course of things--under U.S. Navy policy--the twins wouldn’t even have been assigned to the same ship. Not since the five Sullivan Brothers all went down on the light cruiser USS Juneau, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Pacific on Nov. 13, 1942. “Bill and I were always close,” Tom says. “We wanted to serve together. We had to sign a form so that we could get on the same ship.”

The last time Tom saw his brother alive was early on the morning of July 29. “I didn’t see him every day, sometimes we’d go a week,” Tom recalls. “But I saw him that morning in his apartment before we had to go launch. We talked about our families, him and his wife, Kathy, me and Diane, what we were going to do when we got out of the service, what we were going to do when we got to the next port, just the normal stuff sailors talk about.”

The next time Tom saw Bill was in the morgue.

The First Decision

The first decision was made at the highest levels of the Defense Department, no name specifically attaches to it, but it was executed through the HQ of the Commander In Chief, Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC): to replace Forrestal’s supply of the 1,000-pound Mark 83 bomb--drastically depleted by a relentless naval bombing campaign on North Vietnam--with a shipment of ordnance which included 16 1,000-pound AN/M65A1 bombs. Those 16 were obsolete, at least some of them had been produced as early as 1953, and all of them had been stored in substandard conditions in an open-air dump at Subic Bay Naval Base, exposed to tropical heat and humidity.

That wasn’t the least of it, though. The AN/M65A1 bombs had thinner skins and were chemically less stable than the Mark 83s, the latter of which were rated capable of withstanding the direct heat of a jet-fuel fire for a full 10 minutes without cooking off.

Subics Bay’s ordnance officer wanted nothing to do with the AN/M65A1s, recognized them for what they were--clear and present dangers--and absolutely refused to authorize their onloading to the resupply ship USS Diamond Head. CINCPAC was unimpressed by the officer’s concerns and teleprinted to Subic Bay an explicit written countermand ordering the bombs put on board and releasing him from responsibility.

Forrestal’s ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the AN/M65A1s either, on taking delivery of them from Diamond Head on July 28. The bombs were befouled and rusted and quite clearly leaking, and the suggestion was seriously made to dump them immediately overboard. That suggestion went up the chain of command to Forrestal’s commander, Capt. John Beling, who asked Diamond Head to exchange the AN/M65A1s with Mark 82s. Beling was told none of the latter was available and in the end he accepted the AN/M65A1s, because to refuse them would have jeopardized the upcoming bombing mission.

The catastrophe was set in motion at 10:50 a.m. the next day--50 years ago tomorrow--when an electrical malfunction caused an underwing rocket on an F-4B Phantom being prepared for launch to fire. That rocket flew across the flight deck, hit the fuel tank on a Skyhawk, and ignited a fire which instantly began spreading across the deck and involve other aircraft, including the Skyhawk then occupied by Lt. Com. John McCain. McCain was able to escape to safety. Not all of his fellow pilots were.

Ninety-six seconds after the fire had begun, the first AN/M65A1 detonated. Seven more followed in quick succession--as did a newer model 500-pound bomb in a sympathetic explosion--in blasts which breached the flight deck in multiple places and allowed burning jet fuel to cascade into the Forrestal’s interior decks and living quarters. In addition to the 134 dead, 161 were injured, in the U.S. Navy’s worst carrier fire since World War II.

For the record: all of Forrestal’s remaining Mark 82 bombs performed as rated, none cooked off.

The Second Decision

The second decision was made by Tom Lee himself: to tell a lie, just a simple white lie, the sort any sailor might tell to get out of KP duty. It was this: while still in basic training, Tom listed typing as one of his skills. He couldn’t, not a word, but it went on his official record anyway.

“I lied,” Tom says. “I figured if I said I could type they’d put me in supply.”

They did. Tom was duly made a clerk on the Forrestal. The job lasted only a short time, --only as long as it took a petty officer to recognize his uselessness on an Underwood--and the mistake was subsequently rectified by assigning Tom to the forward catapults.

Bill, in the meantime, had arrived on Forrestal later than Tom did--Kathy had just given birth--and he’d been assigned to the aft cats.

And Tom still wonders about that fork in the road. “If I hadn’t screwed up in boot camp and lied about being able to type, if they hadn’t put me in supply, I probably would’ve ended up on the aft cats too. Bill and I might have been assigned to the same catapult.”

But it was from the forward cats instead that Tom watched the Forrestal burn. “I knew where Bill was. I knew he was one of the first ones there attacking the fire on the fire hose, trying to put it out and save the pilots. And that’s when the bombs started to go off.”

Tom has heard stories of the eerie--almost telepathic--closeness some identical twins are supposed to share. And he frankly admits that he and Bill had no such connection. Except on that day. “I knew Bill was dead.”

“Everyone not essential to firefighting had to go to the hangar bay,” Tom says. “We were preparing to abandon ship. They started handing out life vests. If one of those bombs had gone down one level lower, it would have hit the munitions bunkers and blown up the ship.”

“I was running around looking for Bill in the hangar bay,” Tom remembers. “I found his chief but he didn’t know where Bill was. I went everywhere. I went to sick bay. When they began bringing bodies into the hangar bay, they wouldn’t let me look for him. I didn’t know until 10 o’clock that night. His division officer told me.”

There was one other thing the Navy couldn’t get right. “They told my parents Bill was dead,” Tom says. “And they told them that I was missing in action. My folks didn’t know for three weeks I was alive. My mom took it real bad, real real bad.”

Tom’s Letter to Bill

On being discharged in 1969, Tom returned to Chesterton and to the job he’d had--the job he’d had with Bill--before enlisting: as a laborer on the EJ&E. “I started out as a painter, then I was a carpenter, then carpenter foreman, then pipefitter, and I retired as a pipefitter foreman.” Bill, Tom figures, almost certainly would have joined him on The J. “Bill was a lot smarter than I was. He would’ve ended up a supervisor, where I was a foreman.”

Today Tom’s in Washington, D.C., where tomorrow, with his former shipmates, he’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the Forrestal disaster, honoring the 134 who perished because a man behind a desk in an office on the other side of the world made a decision. To this day Tom blames Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. “He was the one pushing the heavy bombing. It was his decision to use the old ordnance. And he never took the blame for it.”

In the course of tomorrow’s events, Tom will visit the Vietnam War Memorial and there he’ll leave a letter for his brother in which, as best he can, he’ll try to make sense of the decisions men make, of the ones made for them, and of the forks in the road.

“I don’t know why Bill died and I didn’t,” Tom says. “I really don’t. My life turned out great, a fantastic wife, three great kids, four great grandchildren. How much luckier can a man get? And I think I did good in my life. I did everything I could. I tried to make my life valuable. I don’t think I wasted it. But it’s going to be hard for me to explain to him. I feel bad it was Bill, not me. He was a damn nice guy. He would’ve done anything for anybody.”



Posted 7/28/2017





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