Rear Adm. John K. Beling, 91

Commanded ship during fire at sea

Adm. Beling is credited with saving the USS Forrestal when a deadly fire broke out on the aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1967.
Adm. Beling is credited with saving the USS Forrestal when a deadly fire broke out on the aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1967. (U.s. Navy)
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By Timothy R. Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Retired Rear Adm. John K. Beling, who was commander of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal when it was engulfed by a fire at sea in 1967 that left 134 sailors dead, died Nov. 5 at Reston Hospital Center of pneumonia. He was 91.

In the summer of 1967, the Forrestal steamed to the Gulf of Tonkin to support air raids on North Vietnam. Late on the morning of July 29, the crew was preparing for the day's second round of air sorties on North Vietnam.

Seven minutes before the first aircraft was to leave the deck, an electrical malfunction misfired a rocket from a taxied F-4 Phantom. The rocket, shooting across the flight deck, struck a jet piloted by Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, the future U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate.

The rocket pierced the 200-pound fuel tank of McCain's plane, and fuel from his jet gushed onto the Forrestal's deck. Hot propellant from the errant rocket ignited the spilled fuel, causing an inferno.

Within 94 seconds, the fire detonated the first of nine 1,000-pound bombs, blowing a gaping hole in the flight deck. McCain was able to survive by opening his cockpit and climbing down the nose of his aircraft, which was destroyed.

Then-Capt. Beling was resting in his cabin when the fire erupted. He ran the 20 feet to the bridge. As 40-knot winds fanned the flames, Capt. Beling ordered the ship to slow to try to lessen the gusts. He directed incoming helicopters to land on the front of the flight deck to evacuate the injured. At one point, he considered abandoning ship.

"Capt. Beling saved that ship," Ronnie Crowder, a seaman aboard the Forrestal, told the Jackson Sun newspaper in Tennessee in 2004. "He came out in a T-shirt and directed operations. He would direct them to push a plane over. He was completely in control of what was going on."

The fire lasted 10 hours. Most of the victims were in the carrier's hangar, just below the flight deck.

As the fire abated that night, Capt. Beling addressed his crew by microphone and slowly recited a prayer.

"We thank you for the courage of those who gave their lives in saving their shipmates today. . . . Heavenly Father, help us to rebuild and to reman our ship, so that our brothers who died today may not have made a fruitless sacrifice."

Severely listing, with the flight deck cratered and charred, the Forrestal steamed into Subic Bay, a sprawling Navy base in the Philippines. The carrier was repaired and put back into service before being retired in 1993.

Adm. Beling "never wavered when we had that tragic fire," said Ken Killmeyer, a seaman on the ship and historian of a Forrestal veterans' group.

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