“Always keep the hose’s stream of water between the fire and you,” I recall my Navy fire instructor telling me so many years ago.
If you let the flames get around you, I learned, they’ll reach out and hit you like a boxer’s jab. That’s what happened to me when I was an 18-year-old sailor attending the U.S. Navy Fire Fighting School in San Diego.
I’ve been thinking about my training and experience in Navy firefighting as I follow the story of the July 12th fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard while the ship was in San Diego Bay undergoing repair. A sailor was arrested and charged with arson and the ship was decommissioned due to the extensive damage from the fire.
In 1970 I was among a group of sailors from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk that attended the Navy firefighting school. After the deadly fire that killed 134 sailors and injured many more on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in 1967, all carrier sailors were ordered to attend firefighting schools.
After all, one can't call the fire department while at sea. We were the fire department.
At the school, we sat through flight deck footage of the Forrestal fire and watched bombs, missiles and jet fuel ignite, and we saw sailors die from the fire and explosions. I recall the gruesome images to this day.
I liked that officers, chiefs and other senior enlisted people trained alongside junior teenage seamen like me at the firefighting school. All of us were assigned a part of the long hose and told that we had a certain number of seconds to put it together before the instructor turned on the water. The first two attempts failed, and we all were soaked and knocked down by the great force of the water. Laughing together, we were successful on the third attempt. We were wet but happy to have worked as a team.
I recall the day when we were crowded into a square cement structure that simulated a ship’s compartment.
held the nozzle of the long hose, and I began to wave the hose in short left to
right movements. As I waved the hose too sharply to the left, I allowed the
fire to slip past me on my right. The flicker of flame seemed almost human —
perhaps even supernaturally evil — as it lashed out like a whip and struck my
The pain and shock of getting burned and seeing my arm on fire caused me to drop the hose’s nozzle and jump back. Fortunately, the instructor grabbed the discarded nozzle quickly and he ordered me out of the burning structure. To my further embarrassment, the heavy smoke and the hood of my poncho impaired my vision and I hit my head on the oval hatchway as I was exiting the structure. The other instructors rushed to me, as they believed I was seriously injured.
As it turned out, my burns were superficial and the head injury was only a bump, but my pride received some serious blows that day. I returned to the fire and completed the course without further incidents.
After graduating from firefighting school, I went on to serve on a Damage Control Team aboard the Kitty Hawk and fought some real fires, but thankfully those fires were nothing along the lines of the horrendous and deadly fire on the USS Forrestal.
I learned to respect the power and fury of fire at the Navy’s firefighting school and I came to truly respect firefighters in the Navy, in civilian fire departments, and those fighting the great forest fires.
Note: You can read my other sea stories, vignettes, short stories and humor pieces about my time in the U.S. Navy via the below link:
Photos: The top U.S. Navy photo is of the Navy’s firefighting school in San Diego, circa 2007.
The above photo is of a Damage Control Team from the USS Kitty Hawk’s 1970-1971 WESTPAC cruise book.
Below is a photo of the USS Bonhomme Richard on fire, and a photo of the USS Kitty Hawk in 1970: