WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – He joined the air force and kept some of the nation’s biggest aircraft in the air. Later he was stationed at a base where his dad spent time.
After seeing his older brother go into their force, Ken Skelton knew he wanted to do the same someday. He joined at the age of 21 in January 1964, just months before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, an event that led to a much larger U.S. Military presence in Vietnam.
Skelton’s first night of basic training was perhaps a harbinger of what lay ahead.
“During the night, I heard several of the guys crying…away from home, probably for the first time for a lot of these guys, and I guess it’s probably fear of the unknown, you don’t know what’s gonna happen to you,” said Skelton.
As an aircraft mechanic, Skelton would receive an eye-opening introduction to what lay ahead during tech school.
“Had a young portly second lieutenant making a speech to us about bombing Vietnam…I looked at a guy next to me, and I said, ‘What’s a Vietnam?’ ‘I don’t know! Never heard of it, what a Vietnam, what it was,'” said Skelton.
After tech school, Skelton would work with B-47s, B-52s, and KC-97s across the country, eventually becoming a crew chief for KC-135s.
“Alert was always interesting…this was basically practicing to go to war. That’s what alert was. You had to be proficient. You had to get those planes off the ground as quickly as possible,” said Skelton.
After several Temporary Duty (TDY) missions stateside, Skelton went on three temporary duty missions to Southeast Asia. His mission: refueling and maintaining bombers, tankers, and fighters over Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin.
“We were always either on the airplane or on the ground to receive the airplane when we came back, so our mission was to make the airplane ready to fly and then recover it fix anything that went wrong, get it ready to fly again,” said Skelton.
Skelton was then stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for two months. His time there was a sobering experience. His own father had made the invasion of Okinawa during World War II.
“He had the hand of god watching him, taking care of him….I had told dad that I was going, and I think it’d caused him some flashbacks with him because there’d been some bitter fighting on Okinawa, and 20 years later, I’m there, and he sent me a letter while I was there saying, ‘Stay out of the jungles.’ It meant a lot to me that he would say that,” said Skelton.
His final TDY overseas would take him to Thailand.
“Utapau, Thailand. Interesting place. We did most of our work at night. Out of Utapau, most of those missions were the fighters..we were out over the Gulf of Tonkin, and you just fly figure eights, and the fighters would come up and refuel,” said Skelton.
During one combat mission, Skelton’s plane encountered a MIG, a soviet aircraft flown by the North Vietnamese.
“The navigator gets on the radio, starts hollering, ‘Mayday!’ You know, we got a MIG, we had an F-4, just left us, he just refueled and left us going back, we had an F-4 making a strike, another guy was flying top cover for him, so the one that just left us, turned and came back, but the MIG made three quick passes, and then he took off,” said Skelton.
Despite several similar close calls, Skelton credits his crew and the air force pilots he worked with for making sure he returned home.
“One of my favorite phrases is keep on keeping on. That’s what you do,” said Skelton.
Skelton would go on to work in the car industry and for Boeing until he retired.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at firstname.lastname@example.org.