Lieutenant Commander Alfred “Ski” Sokolowski, U.S. Navy (Retired), has experienced much over the last ninety-nine years. He had a front row seat in World War II as his ships plowed the North Atlantic, protecting convoys from German submarines. He fought on a destroyer in the Pacific, helping recapture islands lost to Japan at the start of the war, and then joined the fight again just five years later in the Korean War sailing off the coast of North Korea. As if that wasn’t enough, he took on the dangerous job of explosive ordnance disposal and managed weapons logistics in the western Pacific. He didn’t just watch U.S. history from a distance—he lived it over the course of thirty years. This is his story.
Voices To Veterans
Let’s help veterans tell their stories. Maybe they worked in the mess halls serving chow, or helped load ordnance onto jets waiting their turn to launch on combat missions, or maybe they had to watch their friends get hit in an ambush or a firefight in a rice paddy in Vietnam. It’s time we hear what they have to say!
If you are a veteran, or you know a veteran you’d like to have considered, send an email to [email protected] with the name of the veteran, a short summary of his or her story, and a picture of the veteran in uniform if you have it. I’ll then select veterans from the nominations I receive and write-up their stories for the Voices to Veterans Spotlight. Every veteran whose story I feature will receive a free signed copy of my latest Steve Stilwell legal thriller, Sapphire Pavilion, which is dedicated to “Wounded Warriors and Vietnam War veterans, especially those heroes still waiting to come home.”
The naval aviator training pipeline is grueling. It takes months of study to learn the basics of flying. It takes strength of body and mind to withstand the physical and mental strains of landing a plane on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Most of all, it takes courage, to launch from a ship in the middle of the ocean in search of a target with the hope of accomplishing the mission and returning home safely. Few have what it takes to even try to meet naval aviation’s high standards and even fewer succeed. At the height of World War II, with the naval war against Japan raging in the Pacific, Lieutenant Commander Joe Dwigans, U.S. Navy (Retired), raised his hand and said I can do it. This is his story.
Sometimes people are presented with options having life changing consequences. Such was the case with Sergeant Russell J. Wright, U.S. Army, when he received his draft notice in May of 1970. With the war in Vietnam winding down and protestors clamoring for draftees to flee to Canada, Russ could have evaded the draft and kept himself safe from a war that had already killed tens of thousands of Americans. Instead, he chose to do his duty and report for service because he knew it was the right thing to do. Now, looking back on his service in the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam over fifty years later, Russ is proud of his service and would do it all again. This is his story.
Master Chief Petty Officer Donald Gohman, U.S. Navy (Retired) – Keeping the Navy Flying During Three Wars
Master Chief Petty Officer Donald Gohman, U.S. Navy (Retired) is a humble man. When we began to talk, he told me his career was routine and he didn’t think he’d done anything special. Then he told me about how he helped keep planes flying from Henderson Field during the six-month long battle for Guadalcanal during World War II and kept carrier aircraft in fighting shape for missions over Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Needless to say, I was spellbound. Weaving in and out of peacetime and war, Don’s career is a thirty-year American history lesson taught at the individual level. I could not get enough of it, and I think you will share the same view. This is his story.
It’s easy to take for granted the freedoms we have because we live in a country isolated from its adversaries by two vast oceans. As a result, most of us live our lives unconcerned with the possibility of an invading foreign army. Many U.S. allies do not enjoy the same luxury, as they find themselves bordered by authoritarian regimes ready to cross their borders at the first sign of weakness. The U.S. has supported its allies since the end of World War II by sending forces to stand with them against would-be aggressors. Sergeant Thomas Lucken, U.S. Army, was one of those soldiers called to hold the line during the Cold War by spending over thirteen years overseas in South Korea and Germany as a Cavalry Scout. This is his story.
Chaplains in the military are a special breed. Not only do they assume the hardships of their own military service, including long family separations and deployments into combat zones, but they also try to lighten the burdens of the men and women they serve with by helping them carry their loads. Chaplain Lavern W. Gardai, U.S. Army (Retired), who served with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam and then went on to a distinguished twenty-eight-year Army career, knows these stresses all to well—he lived them firsthand. From ministering to the wounded, to surviving a deadly helicopter crash, he’s done it all. This is his story
Everyone faces adversity in life. How an individual deals with that adversity determines the course their life will follow. Specialist Ashley Hawkins, U.S. Army (Retired), has dealt with more than her share of adversity, yet she’s never let it define her. Instead, she confronts it head on and overcomes it, always looking toward a better future. This unwavering determination resulted in her being the first female soldier in U.S. history to be awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” for valor in combat. This is her story.
Photographs are like time capsules, forever freezing a moment in time. They provide us with a window into the past, documenting our history in a way the written word cannot. Yet for Sergeant Ron Haeberle, U.S. Army, a photograph he took on March 16, 1968, did more than just look back in time. It foretold the future—a future built on courage and survival and shining as a beacon of hope to all who see and understand it. Now, over fifty years after Ron’s Nikon camera captured the image, it serves as an inspiration for Ron in every aspect of his life. This is Ron’s story.
In the 1965 World War II movie classic In Harm’s Way, the character Commander Paul Eddington, played by Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, describes the coming war in the Pacific as “a gut bustin’, mother-lovin’ Navy war.” All the men who served on ships in the Pacific theater from the start of the war at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to the end of the war in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, know just how true that statement was. One of those men was Seaman First Class Edward Collins, U.S. Navy, who joined the fray in 1943 aboard the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), a light aircraft carrier that participated in all the major Pacific War Navy campaigns in 1944 and 1945. Manning his station on the USS San Jacinto’s flight deck during everything from hurricanes to kamikaze attacks, he lived and breathed the history that has inspired generations of Americans ever since. This is his story.
Many people who serve in the military are inspired to do so by a family member or friend who served before them. Oftentimes the role model is a parent or grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or even a brother or sister. Technical Sergeant Mark Himmer, U.S. Air Force, had two family members in whose footsteps he followed. He also had the unique experience of serving with one of them for fourteen of the fifteen years he spent in the Minnesota Air National Guard. This is Mark’s story.