The news of August 24th that Senator John McCain would be ceasing his treatment for brain cancer has brought a slew of tributes to the long-serving Arizona politician, presidential candidate, and naval aviator.
But in the conspiracy theory world, it’s brought an outpouring of what could only be described as joy at the imminent death of the Senator who QAnon has described as “we don’t say his name.”
The far right’s beef with McCain is complicated, and based on a mix of fraudulent news stories, personal animosity, conspiracy theories, and misplaced patriotism.
McCain is also a frequent critic of Donald Trump, and in the guise that anyone who opposes Trump in any capacity must be utterly destroyed, QAnon has placed McCain at the center of one of the fabled pedophilia rings Trump is dismantling.
Believers have even insinuated that McCain is faking his brain cancer to “escape justice,” eventually faking his death and disappearing to…somewhere.
Among the thicket of conspiracy theories conservative McCain haters delight in pushing is that he caused the July 1967 fire on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal – a devastating accident that killed 134 sailors, wounded several hundred others, destroyed 21 planes, and put the massive ship out of action for almost a year.
McCain’s survival, and the frenetic circumstances behind the cause and development of the fire, have put him in the middle of a conspiracy theory that he caused it through recklessness, and was absolved of the blame thanks to his father, a high-ranking admiral.
But the sources for these claims are almost all second and third-hand blogs from people who weren’t there and clearly have an axe to grind against McCain.
Typical of these posts is one from conservative clogopshere site “The Burning Platform” that declares “McCAIN THE HERO NEARLY SUNK AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER & KILLED 134 SAILORS.” That post, in turn, is a cut and paste of a piece from anarcho-libertarian crank Lew Rockwell, blaming McCain for starting the fire by pulling “a smart ass punk attention getting trick by doing a “wet start” up of his jet.”
“When a pilot wants to be a wise ass or show off,” the Rockwell story continues, “this type of engine start creates a large startling flame and lots of surprise noise from the rear of a jet engine on start up–this was no accident.”
Essentially, as the conspiracy goes, McCain dumped a bunch of fuel into his engine’s afterburners to make a big flame, which caused rockets on an adjacent plane to launch, hitting other planes and causing the chain reaction of explosions.
This is not only not true, it’s physically impossible.
The Forrestal was off the coast of Vietnam, taking part in a large-scale bombing campaign against North Vietnamese. One of the pilots on board the Forrestal that day was Lt. John McCain, sitting in the cockpit of his A-4 Skyhawk, the Navy’s primary light attack aircraft.
The tonnage of ordinance that the Navy was dropping meant that old stocks of World War II and Korean War bombs had to be used – bombs that were unsafe and in some cases, rotting.
It also meant relying on dodgy weapons systems like the Zuni rocket, an unguided projectile prone to electrical failures.
So it wasn’t a shock when one of those Zuni rockets on the plane opposite McCain accidentally launched. The rocket didn’t detonate, but punched a hole in McCain’s fuel tank, spilling hundreds of gallons of jet fuel, which quickly caught on fire.
One of the decades-old bombs then dropped from the plane next to McCain, according to the Navy’s official report. It split open and detonated, raining burning jet fuel down on the flight deck. As many as a dozen bombs and rockets exploded and burning fuel cascaded into the lower decks.
The personnel aboard the Forrestal found themselves ill-prepared to fight the conflagration, and it took 14 hours to completely extinguish all of the fires.
No inquiry at the time pinned the blame on McCain, nor did any subsequent investigation. According to a FactCheck.org article from 2008, the “wet start” theory was one of a number of potential causes tossed out by the ship’s captain early in the investigation, and it was discarded quickly.
It was discarded because it’s factually impossible, as the A-4 had no afterburners to dump extra fuel into. Beyond that, McCain’s plane (No. 416 on this graphic from the Navy library) was opposite from the plane that accidentally fired the rocket, Plane No. 110.
Even if McCain had somehow gunned his engine, the flame would have been shooting out to sea and nowhere near the offending rocket. Not that an engine start can cause an electrical surge in a rocket some distance away, anyway. That’s just not physically possible.
McCain’s survival in the Forrestal fire was a matter of luck, and quick reaction in getting out of the cockpit and away from the bomb that went off.
He had nothing to do with the Navy relying on unsafe bombs, nor with the electrical issues in the Zuni rocket. He didn’t order the planes packed together and loaded with bombs and rockets and fuel, waiting for an accident to happen. He also didn’t cause the Navy to backtrack from its post World War II firefighting procedures, hard-won knowledge gained by learning from Japanese damage control failures.
No, McCain’s great crime to the far right was not towing the line of conservative orthodoxy.
He’ll leave behind a complicated legacy, full of both heroism and tragic missteps.
But it’s not one of a callous killer of his fellow sailors. That belongs solely to right wing smear merchants.
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