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Parkersburg native recalls tragic aircraft carrier fire

Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins  Parkersburg resident Doug Deem shows a photo of the explosion aboard the USS Enterprise in 1969 in a cruise book he received after serving six months aboard the ship.
Parkersburg News and Sentinel photo by Evan Bevins
Parkersburg resident Doug Deem shows a photo of the explosion aboard the USS Enterprise in 1969 in a cruise book he received after serving six months aboard the ship.

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — The day after multiple explosions rocked the USS Enterprise in 1969, Seaman Doug Deem stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier, watching as the bodies of 27 sailors were taken ashore at Pearl Harbor.

The Parkersburg native wasn’t sure of their identities, nor were his in-laws, who were stationed in Hawaii, where his father-in-law also served in the Navy.

“I could see my mother-in-law standing there on the pier, bawling her eyes out,” Deem recalled this week.

Given the solemn nature of the proceedings, Deem couldn’t call out to signal his wife’s parents, several stories below that he was alive and well. He’d been at the opposite end of the vessel when an aircraft starter unit overheated a missile mounted on a fighter jet, setting off a chain reaction. It was a surreal feeling.

“It was almost like you were really killed and you were up in Heaven, looking down,” Deem said.

Two years earlier, Deem had chosen to enlist in the Navy, rather than be drafted into the Marines, because he thought it was the safer option.

But safe is a relative term when serving aboard an aircraft carrier with 40-50 jets, fuel and multiple types of ordinance, up to and including atomic bombs.

“Death was really all around,” he said. “It could happen any time. … Sometimes when you take a break, you’re sitting on a (stack) of 250-pound bombs as a place to rest.”

In his four years in the Navy, Deem served on three aircraft carriers. During that time, people were killed in plane crashes on the carrier, fires broke out and some men went overboard, either accidentally or taking their own lives.

But there was nothing like the catastrophe of Jan. 14, 1969.

The Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, had stopped at Pearl Harbor, en route from San Francisco to Vietnam. Deem had just gotten off his watch and was headed for his berthing compartment in the front part of the ship. The Enterprise crew was engaged in “sea trials,” which included drills for the duties they would be performing in Vietnam.

Knowing a drill was coming, Deem wasn’t alarmed when the ship shook that morning. Sometimes concussion grenades were dropped over the side to simulate combat conditions.

“It was just a slight jolt at first,” he said.

A voice came over the public address system, commanding sailors to man their battle stations, as it would in an ordinary drill.

“Then all of a sudden his voice changed … ‘This is not a drill. This is not a drill,'” Deem said.

Deem headed for the flight deck, but was cut off as large doors closed in the hangar bay to prevent the spread of fire. He took his place for firefighting duty alongside sailors he didn’t know. None of them were sure exactly what was happening.

“We could hear these very, very, very loud explosions,” Deem said. “There were 250- and 500-pound bombs that were going off, just a couple stories above your head.”

Eventually, other sailors started carrying people down from the flight deck, many of them badly burned.

“You couldn’t tell if you knew them or not,” Deem said. “But they were all somebodies.”

Later, Deem would find that the detonated bombs had blown holes in the deck, allowing burning jet fuel to pour down below.

“If you weren’t killed in the concussion, then you were burned alive,” he said.

Later that day, Deem reported to his squadron’s ready room, near where the fire had been, to help with cleanup.

“I leaned down to pick up this helmet that was laying on the floor, and the ear (cover) was full of blood and the guy’s ear was” still inside, he said.

Deem’s father-in-law, John Planey, was a member of a Naval reconnaissance squadron. He took photographs of the destruction on the flight deck from above, but it wasn’t until the next day he and his wife learned their son-in-law was not among the casualties.

The Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor the next morning and spent six weeks there being patched up, Deem said. Then, it continued on to Vietnam.

That was one of three “cruises” on which Deem served during his four years in the Navy, passing through Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Brazil and around the southern tip of Africa.

“I circumnavigated the world at least twice,” he said.

“I’m glad I did it,” Deem said of his Naval service. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. … Being in the military was better than any college degree. It really helped you grow up.”

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