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Old 02-27-2018, 10:18 AM
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Arrow Retired Navy troubleshooter: Engineering played a big role in Oriskany, Forrestal fir

Retired Navy troubleshooter: Engineering played a big role in Oriskany, Forrestal fires
By JOEL MILLS | Lewiston Tribune, Idaho | Published: February 27, 2018
RE: https://www.stripes.com/lifestyle/mi...fires-1.514148

Photo link of the Forrestal at Subic Bay 1967 after the fire: https://www.stripes.com/polopoly_fs/..._900/image.jpg

LEWISTON, Idaho (Tribune News Service) When weapons wouldn't work, the U.S. Navy often turned to Robert Smith during his long military career.

Now a 91-year-old Clarkston resident, Smith recently detailed the roles he played not only in testing weapons systems in the Pacific, but in troubleshooting some of the Navy's most infamous and tragic malfunctions.

"Fires are always blamed on people," the talkative Smith said of the most dangerous and feared accidents aboard Naval vessels. "But I blame the engineers. They don't know what happens on (an aircraft) carrier. They should've blamed the fires on the Forrestal and the Oriskany and the Enterprise on the engineers."

Those three carriers all experienced catastrophic fires in the 1960s that killed or injured hundreds of sailors. And Smith worked on some of the investigations that changed equipment design to account for the realities of carrier operations.

The USS Oriskany fire off the coast of Vietnam in 1966 started when a sailor tossed an inadvertently ignited magnesium flare into a locker full of more flares. Several sailors and officers faced court-martial on 44 counts of manslaughter over the deaths from the fire, but they were acquitted after the Navy determined the flares could ignite when jarred.

Smith didn't participate in that investigation, but he said he recognized that a better design could have prevented the accident. He was aboard the USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1967, however, up until an hour before a rocket malfunction set off a fire and chain of explosions that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.

The official investigation concluded that a power surge during a switch from a jet's external to internal power ignited the rocket. But Smith believes a different culprit caused the malfunction when the current from a powerful nearby radar conveyed enough electromagnetic energy to ignite the rocket.

He said he recommended the fleet stop using the rockets if they were going to be loaded individually. If the rockets had been together in a pod, they would have been grounded and not susceptible to electromagnetic interference, he said.

Smith had a more prominent role in the investigation of the 1969 USS Enterprise fire off the coast of Pearl Harbor that killed 28 sailors and injured 314. He served on the fire board that investigated the incident, and believes he was the first lieutenant to serve on such a board.

Again, Smith said a bad design led to 28 deaths and 314 injuries when the hot exhaust from a "huffer" used to start jet engines set off a rocket mounted under a plane's wing.

"The problem was that engineers designed the equipment, and you had to figure out how to use it," he said.

Huffers were subsequently redesigned to blow exhaust upward instead of sideways, and the Navy improved its procedures for using the device.

Smith's work between 1966 and 1969 drew a citation from Thomas H. Moorer, the chief of Naval operations who would go on to serve as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Richard Nixon White House. Moorer wrote that Smith showed outstanding initiative, diligence and professional competence as the head of the Airborne Weapons Branch Technical Services Division in the Pacific.

"Through his technical skill and sound judgment in the area of airborne weapons, he has improved the reliability for the systems both aboard carriers and in Vietnam," Moorer wrote.

Smith has a sixth-grade education, but credits his mother, Ruby Lee, for instilling a love of reading and independent thinking while he grew up in a big family in Enterprise, Miss. He also grew up with a deep respect for the military that came from learning the stories of his ancestors who served their country, starting in the Revolutionary War.

As a 15-year-old, he lied about his age so he could get a Social Security card and get a job in the nearby Gulf Coast shipyards that were turning out warships at a breakneck pace during the early World War II years. In 1944, when he was 17, he convinced his father, Parmer Smith, to give him permission to join the Navy. But he was three pounds short of the minimum weight of 121 pounds.

The recruiter was impressed with his test scores, however, and sent him around the corner to a fruit stand to buy 6 pounds of bananas. Smith proceeded to find a bench in front of the local post office and ate.

"I sat on that bench and ate that 6 pounds of bananas," he said, noting that the binge put him at exactly 121 pounds.

Smith served for the rest of the war, and was even on a ship in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri. His Naval career carried him through the Korean War and most of the Vietnam War, and he entered the Naval Reserves in 1969.

He spent 10 more years working for Naval Air Systems Command, and then for a Washington, D.C., think tank. The jobs even occasionally took him to the White House. Through it all, his overriding goal was to improve the safety of the weapons on which Naval personnel rely.

Last fall, he and wife Elizabeth "Yvonne" Smith celebrated their 68th anniversary. He said humor is one key to longevity and happiness.

"All you have to do is laugh and enjoy life."

jmills@lmtribune.com

2018 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)
Visit the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho) at www.lmtribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

"IN GOD WE TRUST"
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