Johnny Wet-Start, We Hardly Knew Ye: Part I: the Forrestal Incident

Forgive the allusion to JFK. It was written by admirers after his untimely death and in a positive light. My use of it is in contradistinction to Sen John S McCain (R-AZ). In other words, we’re sorry we didn’t get to know Kennedy better but we were never really given the chance to know McCain. And for a reason.

Long a “conservative” stalwart, McCain –like Kennedy–had an impressive pedigree. Both served in the United States Navy. Both were involved in military catastrophes and both nearly lost their lives. But there, the similarities end.

Lt John F Kennedy was the skipper of a PT boat as is well known. Lt Cmdr John S McCain III, the son and grandson (and namesake) of illustrious admirals was known as a daredevil –by his own admission. He graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis and –like Kennedy–was known as a slacker and playboy but (this time unlike Kennedy), he needlessly endangered the lives of his fellow crewmen.

He did so by engaging in a take-off procedure called a “wet start”. Basically, Navy pilots who did this would unnecessarily flood their engines, dumping fuel into the afterburner before starting their engines. This had the dramatic effect of shooting out a large flame from the tail of the aircraft. It was an unnecessary procedure which was often deadly to the ground crews and/or the next pilot in line. According to many of his detractors, McCain was known to regularly engage in this dangerous procedure and thus became known pejoratively as “Johnny Wet-Start”.*

During the spring and summer of 1967, McCain was stationed on the USS Forrestal (CVA-59). During this time, his father (Admiral John S McCain II) was promoted to Chief of Naval Operations in the European Theater (CINCUSNAVEUR) where he played a major role in getting the crew of the USS Liberty to stand down while they were being strafed by Israeli aircraft during the Six Day War (more on this in Part III).

His self-described “daredevil clowning” had already caused a minor international incident while he was stationed in Spain, where he cut down several power lines and caused thousands of people to be without electricity. By the time of the Forrestal incident, McCain had already ditched two Skyhawks. He ascribed both incidents to “engine failure” but the Navy found that the first incident was due to “pilot error”. In all, he would lose four aircraft: the third aircraft was destroyed by the fire on the Forrestal and the fourth when he was shot down over North Vietnam.

According to Capt John K Beling (the commanding officer of the Forrestal), on July 29, 1967 at approximately 1050, “…a thick tongue of flame lashed backward from the parked jet, igniting a [Zuni] missile on one of the dozen or so planes parked near the fantail, their engines turning over in readiness for a strike launching scheduled for 11:00am. ‘The rocket shot across the deck’ Capt Beling said, ‘and by a quirk of fate smashed into a fuel tank under a plane on the port side’.” Beling blamed the fiasco on a “wet-start…from one of the planes near the island”.**

The conflagration was horrific. In all 134 crewmen were killed and 161 injured. Total damages were $72 million. The ship was crippled and nearby hospital ships were overwhelmed by the carnage. It was the worst air-craft carrier disaster in history, worse than the disaster which engulfed the USS Rupertus (DD-8511) in World War II.

The question was: which pilot performed this wet-start that caused the catastrophe? The plane struck by the missile was McCain’s A-4 Skyhawk. According to to R W “Johnny” Appel, writing for The New York Times (July 31, 1967), it was somehow McCain who set this process in motion, triggering the flame which caused the jet piloted by Lt Cmdr Fred D White to accidentally fire the Zuni missile.

Although this was Appel’s assessment (as well as Capt Beling’s who was an eyewitness) subsequent evidence turned up that apparently showed that McCain’s Skyhawk had its tail pointed to the side of the Forrestal and thus could not have been responsible for flame-out which struck White’s plane. This matter is unfortunately is still unsettled. All we do know for sure is that after an official inquiry, McCain was hurriedly transferred off the Forrestal and assigned elsewhere. This may have been done because of credible threats to his life from the crew.

Beling for his part was relieved of his command during the inquiry and given a desk position under Admiral Thomas Moorer. The official inquiry absolved Beling of any responsibility in the matter but he was never given a sea command again.

Next: Part II –Songbird Johnny.

*According to official sources, the A-4E Skyhawk that McCain regularly flew was not capable of undergoing a wet-start. This however has been disproven by others who said that the Pratt & Whitney engines of the Skyhawks were indeed capable of performing this fete.

**In Navy parlance, the “island” is the tower on the deck where the bridge is located.


  1. Peter Ray Millman says

    Well, in any event, he’s been in office waay too long, a situation that will be obviated when he soon succumbs to his very aggressive brain cancer.

  2. Did we go back in a timewarp to 2008? If George Michalopulos is going to try and swift boat McCain, he should probably do so with something other than an ancient, throughly debunked theory.

    George Michalopulos wrote
    subsequent evidence turned up that apparently showed that McCain’s Skyhawk had its tail pointed to the side of the Forrestal and thus could not have been responsible for flame-out which struck White’s plane. This matter is unfortunately is still unsettled.

    It is not unsettled, there is literally video of the flight deck during the accident on YouTube.
    (content warning: video includes the explosions which killed sailors)

    George Michalopulos wrote
    According to to R W “Johnny” Appel, writing for The New York Times (July 31, 1967)

    Yes, this story did exist, except of course it turned out to be wrong, and the description of the story leaves out that Capt Beling wasn’t actually able to sort out the conflicting stories in the aftermath. Sorting things out took an extensive investigation, and the root cause found for the misfire was an electrical mishap:

    The investigation revealed that the rocket (fired) because a freak surge of electricity jumped through the plane’s system at the moment the pilot switched from the outside electrical generator to the plane’s internal power system.

    That quote is from Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It.

    Don’t tell me George Michalopulos failed to read this book in doing his background research for his essay! Perish the thought!

    So, to recap:
    * Video of the flight deck during the accident puts McCain’s plane with exhaust pointed out over the ocean away from the flight deck
    * The accident investigation found that the misfire happened due to an electrical glitch, not a “wet start” from another plane.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Not necessarily so. The original ignition for the mishap could have happened from leaked fuel from an earlier wet-start. As is now known, the recently acquired ordnance aboard the carrier was extremely volatile and subject to explosion. Several of the sailors had complained earlier, voicing their fears about handling them.

  3. Ah, McCain’s airplane was parked with its arse facing sea. The cause of the fire by all official accounts was a short in a plane in ancient ordinance caused by bad decision making on ordinance handling.

    You can wikipedia this matter for a more accurate story.

    However, if given McCain did a wet start into a pile of leaking ordinance; in the Navy; the guy who brought leaking weapons onboard is still the one to blame. Even more so if McCain was never reprimanded for wet starts.

    But for semantics, why would McCain’s exhaust ever have been pointed towards leaking ordinance? Are you suggesting he backed up to a pile of degrading weapons and lit them up?

    The new version of truth in America.

    When it suits you.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Are you calling out The New York Times? Or Capt Beling who provided the first-hand account to its correspondent? For what it’s worth, I pointed out that according to one source, his Skyhawk’s tail was pointing out to the sea. I also pointed out that in the general chaos that that may not have been the case.

      I also pointed out that the Navy’s account of his first ditching was markedly different from Lt Cmdr McCain’s account. Which one was lying then?

      As for the ordnance which was brought aboard the Forrestal (just days before), Beling did not want it because it was extremely volatile. Unfortunately, the Forrestal was facing a deadline for an upcoming bombing run in just a few days (it was stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin) so he had a terrible choice to make: either accept the ordnance or disobey orders (and not do the bombing run).

      • Nate Trost says

        George Michalopulos wrote
        Capt Beling who provided the first-hand account to its correspondent?

        Incorrect. It was not a first-hand account as in Beling directly relaying what he had personally witnessed. This is very clear in the original 1967 NYTimes article, which I just pulled from their archives and read in its entirety.

        George Michalopulos wrote
        I also pointed out that in the general chaos that that may not have been the case.

        You are missing a sentence after this one, something along the lines of “And then I, George Michalopulos, was directed to video of the incident that showed that was in fact the case. I feel stupid since it would have taken me 30 seconds to find this video on YouTube.”

        George Michalopulos wrote
        As for the ordnance which was brought aboard the Forrestal (just days before), Beling did not want it because it was extremely volatile.

        Which was a contributing factor to the severity of the disaster, but has absolutely zero to do with the false theory that McCain caused the Forrestal incident.

        • The irony of a liberal pacifist defending the conservative hawk McCain against another ‘conservative’ or ”libertarian’ is rather amusing.

          Last I heard if you are the child of an admiral, a cover up is okay and will still afford you the party nomination for President until you give Trump a payback for calling an Amercian pow a loser. Quirky dirk-did this happen?

          Oh, yeah, people voted for the guy, so now must


          George. Really?


          Just a few years ago guys were singing praises of McCain for his lunatic vp pick. GM, were you? Come clean. You loved Sarah.

          McCain should get the medal of freedom for that thumbs down.

          Wrong guy gives it out.

          Funny the right wingers allowed Trump to bash a vet. Still haven’t wrapped my head around that.

          I guess they are fickle.

  4. Interesting. The fact they quickly “whisked him away” off the Forrestal just by itself is telling. His hotdogging or showboating in Spain ditching a couple Skyhawks not coincidence, too much trouble follows this guy around and he still is up to his old tricks, an old dog never forgets his old tricks and is trying to “wet-start” Trump’s presidency and his administration. Just hope that if his “wet-start” fails him he doesn’t douse the engine with gas and use a match as a reckless technique. A good headline would be McCain steps down and retires and doesn’t vote on anything anymore. Have Arizona Sheriff Arpaio take his seat during the interim.

  5. Flow the contrails. Oh, and McCain is a freemason. He might also be a secret Rothschild. I saw it on InfoWars!

  6. Pdn Brian Patrick Mitchell says

    Something’s mixed up in the mention of the destroyer Rupertus (DD-851). It didn’t enter service until after WWII, and it assisted in fighting the Forrestal fire. So what other carrier disaster did you mean? The Oriskany fire in 1966, which killed 44 men?

  7. Estonian Slovak says

    The irony of lefties praising Bush Jr.,since he started bashing Trump really floors me. The same people who compared Bush to Hitler now singing his praises!

    • cynthia curran says

      Very true, Bush did say something that is not brought up much he is also critical of the rise of antifa. Antifa has connections with the communist revolutionary party which is behind most of the more hardcore protest against Trump. Bush said that people forgot the cold war and central planning failures which is also aiming at Antifa. Antifa Red Guard in Austin Texas thinks uncle Joe was cool. An article by them in praise of comrade Stalin.

      • George Michalopulos says

        Cynthia, for whatever it’s worth, I’m spitting mad at Dubya. Obama regularly called him everything but the offspring of a bestial relationship between his mother and a chimp and he didn’t say “Boo!” for eight frigging years. And now because we have an anti-globalist as president he’s become a veritable chatty Kathy.

        • Nate Trost says

          George Michalopulos wrote
          Obama regularly called him everything but the offspring of a bestial relationship between his mother and a chimp

          Citations needed.

          • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

            Nate, you’ve got a LONG wait ahead of you. Obama never ever called Bush ANYTHING. George just makes things up, which we all recognize.

            • George Michalopulos says

              It’s called hyperbole Your Grace. Like when somebody says “she was So mad she had a cow.”

              Obama broke a long standing custom honored by most presidents that they never mention their predecessors.

              Not a week went by that Obama didn’t accuse Bush about something.

              • Falsehood, not hyperbole. And the moved goalposts still require citations. Every week for eight years?

                • George Michalopulos says

                  No Nate, hyperbole. Ever read the New Testament? What did Jesus call the Syrian woman who bugged him to heal her daughter? Answer: a pig. What did Jesus call the Pharisees? Sons of the Devil. What did He call Peter when He said “get thee behind me Satan!”

                  It’s hyperbole. Although I have no hatred for The Bamster, I do have more than a little contempt for him. That’s OK I guess because he called people like me “bitter clingers”. And then Hillary called us “a basket of deplorables” who were “beyond redemption”. Ouch.

                  • George Michalopulos wrote
                    Although I have no hatred for The Bamster, I do have more than a little contempt for him.

                    You are confusing ‘hyperbole’ with ‘making up things about someone I don’t like’.

                    If you feel contempt for Obama, you should be all the more careful that what you claim about him is accurate. But you don’t. And it’s clear you don’t care if anything you say about Obama is actually truthful. Is there another explanation for this other than a lack of personal integrity on your part? Which makes it rather ludicrous that you put yourself alongside Jesus Christ with your ridiculous hyperbole defense.

                    You know, I missed the part of the Bible where Jesus called Herod’s wife a man. You never did apologize to Michelle Obama for that, did you? Or was that ‘hyperbole’ George Michalopulos style as well?

                    And, citations still needed!

                    • George Michalopulos says

                      Not gonna play the game Nate. Obama did incalculable damage to this country. There’s no crime in pointing it out. And yes, even though Bush 43 deserves much blame for his actions, he never once mentioned his predecessor. He played by gentlemen’s rules. Maybe he was a fool for doing so, I dunno. Regardless, the contrast between Obama and every one of his predecessors going all the way back to Truman is a stark one. That can’t be denied.

                      As for Michelle Obama, I wasn’t the first to call her a man, Obama was. When he accidentally called her “Michael”. And then there’s more than a few photographs –and video–out there which show (how shall I put this delicately?) a [ahem] bulge in her groin. Perhaps this is the product of photoshop. I dunno.

                    • George Michalopulos wrote
                      Not gonna play the game Nate.

                      If the game is: backing up your claims of what Obama said with quotes, transcripts or video, then I agree, you aren’t playing it.

                      Instead, the crowd gets to listen to the Benny Hill music over the PA as you wheel the goalposts off the field and out of the stadium, your voice echoing in the tunnel as it fades into the distance “Obama suuuuuuuuuuuucks!”

                      George Michalopulos wrote
                      As for Michelle Obama

                      Yeah, I’m just going to let you keep digging your hole there.

                    • George Michalopulos says

                      Nate, *yawn!* Trouble is you lost. The left lost. They’ve rigged the game for so long with their defining deviancy down that when a Republican jiu-jitsu master used their tactics against them, they’re now crying foul. Not gonna work. Trump is many things but a coward is not one of them. Unlike the typical aristocratic country-blubber, Trump punches back twice as hard. Good on him.

              • George, any evidence for your assertions here? I think Nate has valid claims here.

                • Peter Ray Millman says

                  Personally, my favorite President was John F. Kennedy. I absolutely loved the man. When he was a congressman, he spoke at my father’s school, and my aunt met Jack and Jackie at Memorial Hall in Plymouth.
                  On a personal note, I have been to Rose Kennedy’s house three times, Senator Ted Kennedy’s house on Squaw Island next to the Hyannis Country Club three times( once I was followed in by a uniformed Secret Service agent) three times, and Sargent Shriver’s house once. Now to prove I was at the Senator’s house, I will reveal a little detail that was never reported in the media. Here it is: when Ted was running for president against Carter, on his kitchen wall he had a car bumper sticker that said We Want Cranberries- Not Peanuts. I remember how surprised I was that someone would have a bumper sticker on his kitchen wall.