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How life changed for three sailors after an explosion on the USS Enterprise

On the morning of Jan. 14, 1969, off the coast of Hawaii, an immense explosion forever changed the lives of the crew aboard the U.S. Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier CVN-65, the USS Enterprise.

“I remember, ‘K-BOOM!’ It just about threw me out of bed,” said Lynell Leasman, of Boyd. “I had worked the night shift so I had just gotten off and went back to my bunk in the back of the ship, kinda dead center, underneath the number three arresting cable.”

Like many of his crewmates who experienced the explosion, Leasman was disoriented, “I thought it was a drill at first, but it wasn’t. I grabbed some clothes, got dressed and ran into the corridor.”

The explosion awakened Woody Peet, of Dawson, “Having worked all night, I was just drifting off, and I heard this loud explosion. I was on the top bunk. At first, I thought it was a dream, but then I heard yelling. I put on my pants and shoes, no socks, and I ran.”

Peet encountered a mob of sailors in the corridor, some of whom were injured and bloodied. “I was disoriented,” said Peet, “I didn’t know where to go. I headed down a ladder and ended up getting blown down it because of an explosion above me.”

Dave Jerpseth, from Madison, was in a deep sleep when he heard the explosion, “I heard the noise and knew it was bad. I put on my clothes and ran. There was such a stampede of men in the corridor that I feared for my life. People would just run you over.”

Leasman, who served as a Plane Captain and jet mechanic, eventually made his way to his battle station, “I scooted up to our room to see what they wanted me to do. Should I stay with my plane? My plane was up on the hangar deck, so I went down there and stayed with the plane. I remember when the doors closed on the hangar deck; there was just me and two other guys in there, a room 400 feet long. I was scared. I could smell fuel.”

Woody Peet also made it to his station, “I finally wound up in my office where I worked. I think, by the grace of God, I was spared. But getting to the office, I saw, heard, and smelled some of the worse things I’ve ever seen and never want to encounter again. I wish that on no one.”

The Enterprise, called “Big E” by those who served on it, was conducting a final battle drill and operational readiness cruise about 70 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in preparation for deployment to Vietnam when the first explosion occurred.

An MD-3A aircraft-starting unit, commonly referred to as a “Huffer” was parked on the flight deck in such a way that its exhaust, which reached temperatures in excess of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, was directed toward a Zuni rocket that was mounted on an F-4J Phantom jet parked near the stern of the ship.  The intense heat from the Huffer exhaust caused the missile to cookoff, or prematurely detonate the 15 pounds of high explosive in the Zuni’s warhead. This explosion pierced the aircraft’s fuel cells, which caused the JP-5 fuel within to leak out and ignite.

This was followed by a chain reaction of explosions as more aircraft, fuel storage tanks, and a variety of bombs, munitions, and missiles exploded. Considering that each F-4 Phantom is designed to carry a 16,000-pound bomb load and nine tons of fuel, one can only imagine the chaos that ensued as 15 different aircraft succumbed to the flames in explosion after explosion.

Shrapnel flew across the massive flight deck, mowing down exposed sailors who were heroically trying to fight the raging fires.

The explosions were so powerful and the fires so intense that the 2 1/2 inch thick armor plating of the flight deck was penetrated in several places, allowing burning jet fuel to pour into the decks below.  Eighteen different explosions blew eight holes in the deck, the largest 18 by 22 feet in size.

After the fire was contained, Peet discovered that the area where he had been sleeping at the time of the first explosion was gone, destroyed by the explosions.

Unfortunately, the explosions themselves made fighting the resulting fires exceptionally difficult because of the damage done to firefighting equipment. The firefighting foam generating machines in the area of the fire were destroyed, as were many of the fire hoses. Nevertheless, the firefighting crew fought courageously to save their ship.

Says Jerpseth, “The most efficiently trained firefighters on board died first. The next guys come along and see the glowing wheels of an A-7 (Corsair II jet) burning and naturally douse it in water. Bad idea!” An untrained firefighter might not know that a magnesium fire cannot be put out with water and, in fact, becomes even more flammable.

Destroyer escorts, the USS Bainbridge and the USS Rogers came to the aid of the Big E. Having seen first hand the damage from a carrier fire when he witnessed the USS Oriskanny (CV-34) disaster of Oct. 26, 1966, the captain of the USS Rogers trained his crew for just such a contingency. Knowing that his ship couldn’t get close enough to the Enterprise to fight the fire, he had his sailors attach fire hoses to the destroyers’ gun barrels and brought his ship to within 60 feet of the Enterprise, exposing the ship and crew to flying shrapnel from Enterprise as they trained the hoses on the raging fire.  “This is the only thing that saved the Big E from sinking because three out of five fire stations had quit working,” Jerpseth said.

For their heroic deeds, the USS Rogers earned a Meritorious Unit Commendation.

The fire was brought under control within about four hours, which is quite a feat and testimony to the courage of the Enterprise crew. Unfortunately, in addition to the physical damage caused to the ship and aircraft, 28 men lost their lives with over 300 others injured.  Dave Jerpseth thinks that this loss of life could have been avoided if the Navy had been as concerned with the safety of its crew as it was with keeping flight time schedules. “Production took precedence over safety; schedules couldn’t be altered, people got in a hurry, and people died.” says Jerpseth. “The Navy really bungled it.”

“The carrier was top of the line. But it was designed in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, aircraft had gotten bigger, they carried more ordnance and more fuel. But the Navy didn’t increase their firefighting capabilities to handle the increased risk,” said Jerpseth. Jerpseth, who was 22 years old at the time of the fire, was an AMH E-5 plane captain, which means that he ensured that his aircraft was ready when the pilot needed it, and assisted the pilot in getting strapped in, as well as directing the start-up sequence from the deck.

The fire on the Big E forever changed Jerpseth’s life, “My first two thoughts were, life is too short and we’re gonna’ sink and die.” Leasman, Adj. E-4 plane captain and jet mechanic, was 21 years old at the time of the fire. He joined the Navy after graduating from vocational school. Knowing that he would be drafted and wanting to work as an aircraft mechanic, he went to the recruiting office in Montevideo to join the Air Force, but he was told they had met their quota. So he joined the Navy.

At first, he was stationed at Woodbury Island, Wash., and he often volunteered for new experiences there, “I volunteered for everything. Every chance I got, I’d go someplace just to see something.”

However, his experience on the Big E was not so pleasant, and he still suffers from it, “I have problems,” Leasman said, “If I go into a room, any room, I’m always looking for an exit. I won’t go to a movie theater. No way. I see things burning and no exits. Don’t like loud noises, either.”

Woody Peet shares similar experiences, “I still, when I’m in an airport and smell jet fuel, I get flashbacks of being on the Big E. You try to erase it from your mind, but you can’t.”

Peet grew up in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Both knowing that his older brother loved the land, and worrying that he would be drafted, Peet reasoned that if he joined up, it would save his brother from the draft, who he also knew would take good care of his parents. He chose the Navy because he thought he would see the world, and because they had a program where if you joined before your 18th birthday, you were guaranteed discharge the day before your 21st birthday. He had also heard that, “In the Navy, you got clean sheets and a Coke.”

Leasman recalls, “And every other Sunday night we had steak and lobster.”

Peet spent some time on the flight line before transferring to other duties below decks, “They put me up there. I almost got blown off and I said, ‘Enough!’ And they put me down in the laundry.” Peet, E-4, eventually worked in personnel and intelligence.

Until the fire, Peet enjoyed the Navy and his time on the Enterprise, “I had been under the Golden Gate [bridge] 13 times on two and a half cruises. I thought I knew my way around the ship. For entertainment, when I got off work, I would go get lost on the ship and learn my way around. It was fun.”

But he recalls all too clearly the disorientation he experienced as a 20 year old during the chaos of the fire.

As the men share their stories, one of them mentions that Peet was honored on two separate occasions while serving on the Enterprise, but Peet’s own sense of honor will not allow him to discuss this further.

All three of these men served their country with honor, and all three continue to suffer from their experience of the Enterprise fire. Jerpseth still struggles with the implications that result when an organization has a greater concern for productivity than human life. He finds the actions that led to the Big E fire disrespectful to those who are willing to give their lives to a great endeavor, both before and after the fire.

“We never even had a memorial service. It’s kind of like the Navy didn’t want to remember it,” says Jerpseth.

Peet recalls, “We sent a canned telegram to our families. We just checked a box. We couldn’t add anything. Just checked our name.” After finally getting to Hawaii for repairs, the men could call home, if they were able to find a telephone. “It took 24 to 36 hours to call home. We had to wait in line for hours just to use the phones in Hawaii,” said Leasman.

Silence seems to be a big part of the struggles of the men who served on the Enterprise. Despite working together for four years in the 1970s, neither Peet nor Jerpseth knew that the other had served on the Enterprise at the same time, both experiencing the fire.

“We never talk about it. It’s just a topic we never talked about. We never talked about the Big E or the explosion,” said Jerpseth.

It wasn’t until 2011 that Jerpseth and Peet learned that each of them had served on the Big E, and that both had experienced the fire.

There were also practical reasons for the three men not knowing the others were on the ship. “It was a big ship. Typically about 5,500 men were on board, but we had 6,000 men on this cruise. I say men not because I’m sexist, but because I mean men. There weren’t any women on board at that time. With that number of men some are working and some are sleeping. Some are down in the bowels of the ship, and some are 11 stories up, working. So you don’t get to meet everybody because they are doing their jobs,” Peet says.

It’s easy to see how it would be impossible to meet everyone on such a large vessel, but other reasons contributed to their continued silence, even years after leaving the Navy.  For one thing, the Vietnam conflict was unpopular.

“Whenever I flew on a commercial airline, the first thing I would do when I got to the airport was go into the restroom and change out of my uniform and into civilian clothes,” said Peet. He didn’t want anyone to know he was a sailor. And when he finally returned from his service, when people asked him where he had been, his standard reply was, “Out West. I told people I had been out West because I didn’t want to tell them I was in Vietnam. I just said, ‘Out West,’ which, technically wasn’t a lie, because I was just way out West.”

Almost as an afterthought, Peet adds, “I wasn’t glad to be there, but I did what I was asked to do.”

The war’s unpopularity isn’t the only reason for their silence. Their experience in the Big E fire has left each with post-traumatic stress disorder (commonly known as PTSD), which also, unfortunately, tends to carry a certain stigma with it. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying incident that is either experienced or witnessed. Those who have PTSD may have severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and other stressful thoughts that make more difficult one’s being able to cope in society.

Thinking back on the Big E fire, Jerpseth has no doubts, “My value system changed right then. Everything changed for me. When we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, I knew my life had changed forever. Once I realized that my life wasn’t worth anything to others, anytime I got into a situation where I thought that my life was at stake, I couldn’t handle it. I quit a lot of jobs since then, mostly due to safety concerns. It all stems from the fire on the Big E and what caused it to begin with.”

Peet adds, “We were just farm boys. We didn’t know what we were doing, and it’s hurt us for the rest of our lives.”

Jerpseth adds, “We were forced to be in this. We didn’t ask to go. They want your soul, your heart, and your head. When it feels like you’re going to be in another, similar experience, you get afraid and you react to get out of it, to avoid it, whatever it takes to protect yourself. We all have different coping mechanisms.”

Even though PTSD has been as much a part of our tradition as has the courage of our fighting forces, the consequences of PTSD have long been ignored in our society. Even though it is quite common in those who have served in the armed forces, it is still regarded as a taboo subject. These three men want to share their story in the hopes that they can help erase the societal taboos against dealing with PTSD so that people can get help with it.

On average, 22 veterans a day kill themselves; of these 22 daily deaths, the average age is 63 – Vietnam-era veterans.

“I am a student of the obituaries, looking for Vietnam vets,” says Jerpseth. People are dying, and they’re dying needlessly, and too young.

“I’ve gone to way too many funerals. I’ve seen too much hurt. That’s why I’m willing to go public. We’re carrying around way too much pain. Maybe younger vets will realize that they’re not alone and there is help,” says Jerpseth.

Jerpseth, Leasman and Peet agree that talking with other veterans helps those who suffer from PTSD.  “I’m at a point where I want to make a difference in someone else’s life. These young veterans don’t need to put up with this stuff,” said Jerpseth.

Today, veterans returning home from deployment overseas may find it difficult to adjust to what civilians consider normal. A veteran may go outside for a smoke break, only to be confronted with the idea that there may be snipers on the roofs of the buildings surrounding them. Or, trained not to stop on the highway for any reason while in harms way, when confronted with an object in the road back home, how do they react? “They need help,” says Jerpseth. “We all need help. Our veterans need to know help is available.”

The Navy did learn some lessons from the Big E fire. After the fire, longer exhaust hoses were provided for the Huffers; as well, Oshkosh-type firefighting trucks were placed on each aircraft carrier, to help in fighting fires.

After the fire was contained, the Enterprise underwent repairs in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.  After just 51 days, repairs were made, and the ship was able to continue on its regularly scheduled deployment.

Unfortunately, many lives aboard the ship weren’t afforded the same opportunity, and many men continue to suffer from the events that took place 45 years ago, unable to continue on in safety.

Jerpseth, Peet, and Leasman spent much of their lives learning how to insulate themselves from further hurt. They struggled through different jobs and other situations, trying to learn to cope.

Jerpseth went through quite a few different construction jobs before becoming an alcohol and drug counselor. He is now retired and enjoys spending time with his wife, Deonne. Together, they enjoy their 10 children.

Upon leaving the Navy, Lynell Leasman spent his entire life in La Qui Parle county, living in Boyd, where he did work as a city manager and also worked as an automobile mechanic.  Now retired, he continues to enjoy sharing life with his wife, Debbie, their three children, and nine grandchildren.

Peet lives in Dawson with his wife of 38 years, Diane, a retired second grade school teacher. They consider their lives blessed with their children, a daughter and son. Though retired, Woody is a craftsman of fine furniture that he designs and creates.

The first reunion of the Enterprise fire was held in 2004. Of the 6,000 men who served aboard the Big E at the time of the fire, the whereabouts of only 400 are known. “Four hundred out of 6,000?” says Jerpseth, “A lot of being are being forgotten. No one should be forgotten.”

Dave, Lynell and Woody hope that this article will encourage those who served on the Big E during the time of the fire to contact them. Dave can be reached at:  605-881-6347 or (North East South Dakota Vietnam Vets of America.)

They also hope that any veteran of any conflict will know that they are not alone and that help is available for them.

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