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Kansas veteran recalls USS Enterprise fire

CHENEY, Kan. (KSNW) — As you enter Bruce Mooberry’s home, you are immediately surrounded by military memorabilia. From the glittering medals to the pristine pictures that line the walls, and from a vintage bottle of wine gifted at a veterans reunion to a Lego set of an aircraft carrier he and his nephew built, the Mooberry house in and of itself is a tribute to all things veterans .

Mooberry himself has an extensive military family background: His father was a naval aviator during WWII and the Korean War, while his father-in-law served in the European theater during WWII. In 1967, Mooberry himself would find himself in a helicopter bound for his first gas station after enlisting in the Navy.

“They took me on a helicopter to Vietnam. It was at sea, and they took me aboard the ship, and I got lost, as big as that ship,” Mooberry said with a hearty laugh. “I drew probably one of the best gas stations you could draw: the USS Enterprise .”

With 6,000 sailors and about 50 aircraft resting on her flight deck, USS Enterprise was actually the eighth ship in United States Navy history to bear that name. During Vietnam, the vessel passed through the South China Sea. Mooberry says the flight operations would have lasted 24/7 while the vessel lay in wait off the coast of North Vietnam.

“You couldn’t see land, but at night, if you went up to level O-12, you could see bombs flashing,” Mooberry said.

On the ship, Mooberry served as a pipe fitter tending a maze the size of four football fields.

“Mainly to keep the main drainage system and fire, fire and water systems running and to make sure the pumps were running,” Mooberry said.

On the morning of January 14, 1969, the USS Enterprise was conducting flight operations off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. At 8:18 that day, an exhaust from a machine used to start aircraft on deck exploded into a nearby rocket.

“I was walking back to the eat line, around 7 in the morning, and then around 8 is when it hit,” Mooberry said. “The spider rockets overheated, it blew up and shot up a plane ahead, and then, it was just like dominoes. They all started shutting down.

Within seconds, Mooberry and the rest of the crew were in action.

“We saw a lot of smoke, you know, but I was down on the second deck, and the whole O-3 level is where the fire started, what blew up, so it’s four decks above us, so, I only you know , I smelled smoke and saw some smoke,” Mooberry said. “I’ve seen a lot of injured guys going through our, our place going to the infirmary and the hangar.”

The entire crew successfully put out the fire in four hours.

“It took all personnel, all personnel aboard the vessel, to put out that fire,” Mooberry said. “Everyone, whether you were an air wing, or a shipping company, brought us all in to put out the fire.”

The explosion and subsequent fire injured more than 300 sailors and killed 28 others.

“Those who were killed were on the flight deck, or those sleeping just below O-3 level when the bombs went off,” Mooberry said. “He poked holes, you know, the size of a, oh, you couldn’t drive a car in it, but one big hole, two big holes, three big holes, I guess total in the flight deck.”

Mooberry served four years on the ship.

Today, he is a member of the USS Enterprise Association and is charged with organizing annual reunions to honor the more than a quarter of a million sailors who served aboard the longest-serving combat vessel.

“I’ve been to 14 meetings,” Mooberry said. “We were the flagship when we were in Vietnam, and serving on such a ship is something many people, sailors, dream about, but I was one of the lucky ones who managed to do it. So, I was really fascinated by it.

Mooberry would serve another 20 years in the United States Army Reserves, receive the Citizen Soldier Award twice, and lead his Reserves fire team to championship wins in the 1980s.

As for the USS Enterprise, the vessel was decommissioned in 2017 and is currently docked in Chesapeake Bay.

A ninth and final USS Enterprise is expected to enter service in 2028.

If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, please email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at [email protected].

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