In the wake of President Trump’s attacks on John McCain, an old canard has resurfaced in memes throughout social media. Specifically, it is that John McCain caused the deadly fire on board the U.S.S. Forrestal by “wet-starting” his engine.
The Forrestal fire was one of the deadliest in the history of the U.S.S. Navy. If he had been responsible for it, and that story had been covered up, the effect on his career would have been devastating if the truth were revealed.
The story goes like this: while McCain’s plane isn’t the one that fired the rocket which started the fire, he was attempting to scare the other pilot out of pettiness for some unspecified slight. He “wet-started” his engine which in turn triggered the other pilot’s rocket.
The problem for the accusers is that there is absolutely no truth to the rumor.
This accusation has been trotted out and disproven before. It came to national prominence during the 2008 election when hard-left websites like Daily Kos leveled it. The rumor gained such traction among Democrats that it was addressed by national organizations like FactCheck.org, who provided extensive details as to why the rumor was completely and utterly false. In the intervening years, other sites such as Snopes and Politifact have also weighed in with full explanations, declaring it, respectively, “False” and “Pants On Fire”.
All of those sites are ones which some Republicans have distrusted for years. The claims are that they are left-leaning under the guise of being nonpartisan, and that they shade the truth by declaring anti-Republican fictions as plausible or partly true while declaring anti-Democrat fictions as completely false. This would not explain why FactCheck and Snopes both declared the rumor as completely false, back when such a statement would help Republicans and hinder Democrats.
Either the sites are attempting to be nonpartisan, or the lie was so blatant that they could not shade it as truthful in any way. Both possibilities solidly refute McCain as being responsible for the fire.
All three of the linked fact-checking sites provide comprehensive explanations for the events on board the Forrestal. I urge people to read one, two, or all three of them.
If there is no truth to the rumor, however, the question arises: why is this rumor resurgent?
In this case, there is no direct cause that can be established. But there is absolutely a political correlation. The rumor gained its first major national traction during the 2008 Presidential campaign, when McCain was running against candidate Obama. It resurfaced in 2017, during the McCain funeral, when President Trump was being negatively compared to McCain. It is returning now, as President Trump attacks John McCain on the campaign trail and falsely uses McCain as a scapegoat for Trump’s utter failure to rescind the Affordable Care Act.
There has been no systematic trace to the individual sources of the rumor, but it seems very likely that the rumor has been used in an effort to tarnish the reputation of a war hero by forces who support those who never served, attacking a veteran and POW for cheap political gain.