Fire and fatigue
The disaster on the Oriskany seemed attributable to human error while handling the flares. The Navy court-martialed five sailors, charging them with forty-four counts of manslaughter. Those indicated included the two apprentice airmen, as well as the chief of the ordnance section—blamed for having left the inexperienced sailors unsupervised. However, new considerations led to acquittals across the board. Apparently, a defect in the Mark 24 flares made some of them susceptible to igniting when jarred. The Oriskany’s skipper, Capt. John Iarrobino, later complained that the Navy had been hasty to blame his crew, arguing that true fault lay with the manufacturer of the flares.
Two deadly collisions involving U.S. Navy destroyers in June and August 2017 may have cost the lives of up to sixteen sailors, leading the Navy to declare a day-long operational pause to reflect upon its safety culture. That such similar accidents took place in such close proximity reflects stresses and failings common to the maritime fighting branch.
Indeed, the recent spate of collisions echoes a succession of even more catastrophic accidents aboard U.S. aircraft carriers between 1966 and 1968 that between them claimed the lives of more than two hundred sailors. These incidents were the result of a Navy taxed by the enormous demands of the Vietnam War. In their wake came major reforms addressing the inherent dangers of operating ships packed full of explosive munitions, fuel and jet planes. This three-part series will examine why each of the accidents occurred, how the crew responded and the lessons that were drawn from the tragedies.
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