CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Walter Stinner was born in July 1947 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was inspired to join the Navy by his brother, who had previously served in that branch of service. Stinner recalled that “it was the uniform” that really attracted him, but that he also saw the navy as a vehicle to achieve his personal goals and to see the world as well. He enlisted at the age of seventeen, and five days after high school graduation was on his way to Great Lakes, Illinois for “boot camp” basic training. He remembered boot camp as a complete change of life style that provided him with a “rude awakening” to the demands of the service.
After finishing boot camp, Stinner attended eighteen weeks of Naval Aviation Ordnance School in Jacksonville, Florida. There he was trained to arm bombs, rockets, and other weapons systems used by naval aircraft. His first assignment was to Attack Squadron 106 based on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga.
In 1966 the Saratoga set sail for a seven month training cruise in the Mediterranean Sea, the sort of trip Stinner had looked forward to when he joined the navy. The cruise was structured to provide ten days in port followed by ten days at sea. The ports of call included stops in Italy, Greece, Sicily, Malta, and Spain. Stinner described the cruise as a great experience, although he recalled the training while at sea as being very demanding and dangerous. He told the interviewer that “there was no downtime to lose your train of thought.” Any mistakes could result in being blown across the deck or being sucked into a plane’s engines. While aboard the Saratoga, Stinner was assigned the position of final checker, with the job of making sure ordnance was armed and ready to fire once installed on a plane.
Following the Mediterranean cruise, Stinner was assigned to Naval Air Station (NAS) Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida, where he joined a unit that spent the winter of 1966 and spring of 1967 training for combat situations. In March of 1967 he received orders to report to the USS Forrestal,an aircraft carrier headed for Vietnam. Final training before shipping overseas was conducted in the Caribbean prior to a June departure on the Forrestal’s first combat cruise. Thirty-three days after leaving the Caribbean, the ship docked at Subic Bay in the Philippines, and after a week of rest and recreation for the crew, she sailed to Yankee Station, off the coast of North Vietnam.
Stinner described the days of duty at Yankee Station as very long and hot. He and his comrades worked from 5:00 AM to 7:00 or 8:00 PM. A flight of fifteen to twenty planes loaded with 500, 750, and 1000 pound bombs would take off every hour and a half. July 29, 1967, the Forrestal’s 5th day in Vietnam, started out like any other for Stinner, but around 11:00 AM he heard a large explosion from the rear of the flight deck. He remembered that seconds later “a cloud of black smoke enveloped everyone.” When the smoke cleared, he could see the fire crew running toward the area of the explosion; but, tragically, within a few minutes a chain reaction series of explosions went off, killing the fire crew and all those in the immediate area of the initial blast. One-third of the flight deck was engulfed in flames and torn up. Stinner described the deck as being “ripped apart like newspaper.”
The night ordnance shift and other crew members, Stinner’s friends, had been sleeping below the deck and had no warning of the explosion, and they were all killed by the fire and explosions. A total of 134 sailors perished that day. If not for the heroic efforts of the rest of the crew, the whole ship would have been lost. Stinner remembers pushing planes over the side in order to prevent more explosions.
The fire had started when an electrical charge ran through an airplane loaded with weapons. One of the rockets launched, hitting an armed, nearby plane piloted by future senator John McCain. McCain was able to crawl out of the cockpit and roll down the nose of the plane through the fire to safety, as the deck was engulfed in flames.
Once the fires were extinguished, the USS Forrestal set sail for Subic Bay, where it rendezvoused with a hospital ship, the USS Repose. After a week at Subic, the Forrestal limped home. Stinner spent the rest of his time in the military at NAS Cecil Field. In the spring of 1968 he was involved in combat training for a return to Vietnam aboard the USS Intrepid, but since he only had forty-five of active duty left on his enlistment, the Navy decided not to send him. He was honorably discharged on May 31, 1968.
For the next 20 years Stinner put the war behind him; he did not talk about the war or being a veteran. He was unable to do so until an explosion occurred at his workplace, immediately bringing back the horrific events of July 29, 1967. The memories flooded Stinner’s mind, and he developed a series of psychological problems that led him to the Newark, New Jersey Veterans Center, where the staff recommended that he get help. He agreed but did not pursue the suggestion.
On Jan 3, 1998, believing himself on the verge of death, Stinner had a “heart-to-heart” conversation with his son, which prompted him to go immediately to the Veterans’ hospital in Lyons, New Jersey for treatment, and, he firmly believes, gave him back his life. He thanks his family as well as the people at the VA for keeping him alive. He still makes the eighty mile drive to Lyons to relate his experiences to other veterans, as he wants people to know that no matter how bad a situation seems, there is always a better alternative.
Each year Walter Stinner attends USS Forrestal reunions and the annual memorial held for the fire crew at the Farrior Fire Training Center in Norfolk, VA. As a result of the tragedy aboard the Forrestal, all sailors are now trained to fight fires. The USS Forrestal was decommissioned in 1993 and will soon be scrapped. In 2010 Sinner went to Philadelphia, where the ship has sat at anchor since decommissioning, to see the Forrestal one more time. It was an emotional experience. He recalled an eerie feeling, as the only man standing there, looking at the doomed vessel a mere 400 feet away through the fence, where he had almost died himself over forty years ago. It was time to say goodbye.