AMESBURY — In the summer of 1967, two local residents bore witness to one of the deadliest naval disasters in U.S. military history. Only one of them lived to tell the tale.
William Justin of Amesbury and Henry Cross, then of Medford, were stationed on the USS Forrestal during the Vietnam War. Justin worked on the flight deck with a crew that helped launch and recover the carrier’s fighter jets, and Cross served as a 2nd class jet engine mechanic.
Five days after the USS Forrestal arrived at Yankee Station, located in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam, the carrier’s jets were fueled, armed and ready to go when a fire broke out and quickly spread across the huge aircraft carrier’s flight deck.
The Forrestal fire wound up being one of the deadliest naval disasters in U.S. history: 134 people — including Justin — were killed, 161 were injured and 21 aircraft were destroyed, costing the Navy $72 million. The tragedy ended up serving as the end of Cross’ military career.
Last week, Cross, who now lives in Merrimac, shared his story for the first time as the guest speaker for Amesbury VFW Post 2016’s “Support the Troops” Christmas Dinner, which is held annually to honor members of the military who are home for the holiday.
Cross said he’d been asked to be guest speaker after one of the VFW post members saw his Forrestal Navy hat last year and connected the dots. Nearly a dozen members of Justin’s family whom Cross had never previously met also attended the program, which was held on Friday at Holy Family Parish Hall.
In an interview prior to his presentation, Cross reflected on the events onboard the Forrestal and his time in the Navy.
Normally, Cross worked an overnight shift repairing the jets, so when the fire started around 11 a.m., he was just getting out of the shower to go to bed. Next thing he knew, the captain called all hands to their stations, and Cross immediately pulled himself together and rushed to his post, which was located one level below the flight deck on the port side of the ship.