Just 17, and in the Vietnam War


In World War II, the average age of the combat soldier was 26; in the Vietnam War, he was 19.

British musician Paul Hardcastle explored this age and the challenges to these young men with his listeners in his musical composition entitled 19: “ Ni-Ni-Ni 19, 19, Ni 19 19.”

Steve Skinner, 74, of Troy, Ohio, came home from Northmont High School on Oct. 23, 1963, provoked because his English teacher had asked him to rewrite a paper that Steve thought was “pretty good.”

He had always liked classes in shop and history in high school and particularly enjoyed playing football and baseball. He had even liked a former English teacher, Mr. George, who allowed him to read and write the “dreaded book reports” on volumes that he enjoyed, including Kipling’s Captains Courageous and Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.

On that day in October he said to his father, Robert Earl Skinner, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran, “I’m not going back. I’m finished with high school.”

His father’s response was, “Get in the car. You’re not going to be laying around here all day.”

Minutes later, they were at a Dayton military recruiting station, and the recruiter was asking, “What branch?”

Steve’s response was, “I’ll do the Navy like my dad did.”

Mr. Skinner confirmed his son’s choice and in his Scottish brogue said, “This boy wants to join the Navy. I’m signing for him.”

At the time there was a delay because of a lack of openings; however, by January of 1964 Steve was at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois.

With whimsy and deep respect, Steve speaks of the impact his father’s military service had on him: “Dad talked a lot about his service. With his Gibson acoustic guitar and his love for Blue Grass music, he entertained the troops on the tanker on which he served. And they seemed to have lots of fun with their high jinks, and Dad got to travel around the world.”

He continues: “My dad instilled in me that we need to support democracy. He had seen what communism was when he witnessed punishment being handed out to workers at Archangel, Russia. And when Dad worked with German POWs at Oran, North Africa, he understood as an American sailor the basic humanity of those men. He felt that some were farmers, just like him, and they weren’t the devil. Hitler was.”

Steve’s boot camp training at Great Lakes was “all about basic seamanship:” the vocabulary (Steve overwhelmed me with his command of Navy language — some very technical and some that family newspapers would never print); the ABCs of types of warfare; first aid; and housekeeping, including basic personal hygiene. As he described the close quarters on his ship, the USS Independence (an aircraft carrier, the final ship of the Forrestal Class of conventionally-powered super carriers; launched in June of 1958; decommissioned in 1998) with 12 men bunking in a compartment the size of a living room and 3,500 men aboard the ship with an ongoing need to conserve water, I was taken aback, never having boarded a 20th-Century battleship. Note that the Wikipedia photographs of his ship, USS Independence CVA-62, will give you some sense of the carrier when you see the number of planes parked on it.

When Steve learned he was going to Vietnam, he now says, “ I’d never heard of a country called Vietnam.”

He began to hear reports in Norfolk, his next stop after basic, from men who were returning from “that little country.” Common was “In Vietnam, daytime belongs to us, but the night belongs to Victor Charlie.” Further, those returnees reported on heat, the monsoon season, the Swift boats (PBRs), also called the Brownwater Navy, that patrolled rivers where at times the enemy had put cables across the rivers to snag the boats of the Allied forces and had put straw in the rivers to snag up their intake ducts. Then, they could easily fire on them as they were “sitting ducks.” And there was the movie, “The Longest Day,” which was shown to the new recruits. This 1962 film revolved around the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach in Normandy and paints a realistic picture of war.

As Steve heard these stories and watched the movie, he says he thought, “Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself into?”

After Norfolk, it was south around Cape Horn where the waters were so rough that the men had to tie themselves in their bunks so they could sleep. Then, the ship travelled north to the South China Sea and south of the Mekong River. The mission: to provide coastal defense which involved a variety of tasks such as stopping the small North Vietnamese navy from completing its mission of smuggling weapons and munitions along what they called the Ho Chi Minh Highway and impressing men into military service.

When officers learned that Steve was a welder, via a shop class at Northmont, he went from boiler tender to boiler maker/welder without the official title and began making the ship’s repairs.

On October 24, 1964, Steve celebrated his 18th birthday aboard the ship, and the day was “just like any other day except I had a card from my mother and a CARE package.”

He learned later that while he was in the Navy, his father drank a lot and went to church every Sunday — both unusual activities for him.

When Steve’s 12 months of deployment were up and the ship headed back to the U.S., he saw the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. He reports he thought, “Thank God, I survived.”

In conclusion, this is another story of a veteran who served as a young man and who followed in his father’s footsteps and the footsteps of the millions of Americans who have served. On behalf of all Americans, I say, “Thank you.”

Note: This is a fraction of Steve Skinner’s story. Dr. Blevins, Wright State University media studies major Shelley Fisher, and Vietnam Air Force veteran Ray Snedegar will be working on a travel display, a film, and a book spring semester of 2021 for the Miami Valley Veterans Museum. Their subject is “Giving Voice: Operation Babylift,” which details the initiative to bring babies and young children from orphanages in South Vietnam to countries in Western Europe and the U.S. when the U.S. presence in Vietnam ended in April of 1965.


By Vivian Blevins

Contributing columnist

Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., a graduate of The Ohio State University, served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected].

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