Vietnam Army Veteran Gary Skaggs keeps memories alive with posters and collections of war items at his home and family store, Skaggs Ace Hardware, in Pratt.
Vietnam War Veteran and Pratt citizen Gary Skaggs will spend this Veterans Day, as he has in past years, reflecting on his war-service comrades lost but not forgotten.
Following his graduation from Kansas State University Reserved Officer Training Program (ROTC) in 1964, Skaggs served two tours in Vietnam, from 1966-1969, with the rank of Infantry Captain, as he left behind his bride Bette, who also graduated with the KSU Class of 1964.
“She was a good soldier’s wife while I was gone, raising two babies, patiently waiting for my return,” Skaggs said of Bette.
Both Gary and Bette are Pratt natives and graduates of the Pratt High School Class of 1959, Skaggs said, but they did not become a “couple” until their college years.
Following his war service, the pair worked alongside each other for almost four decades at Skaggs Ace Hardware. Gary’s grandfather, Clay, started the first family business on Main Street in 1921. Gary’s father, Curt, followed in Clay’s footsteps of Main Street merchants, and Gary took the reins when Curt retired. Ace Hardware is now under the charge Gary’s son, Bill, after Gary retired in 2009 from the business which he headed as owner-manager for almost three decades.
Skaggs entered the U.S. Army as Infantry Captain and served from 1966-67 with the 25th Division in the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon, the region famed for the tens of thousands of miles of tunnels dug by enemy Viet Cong guerrilla troops.
“The tunnels were massive, like underground villages,” Skaggs said.
Used by the Viet Cong enemy to lay booby traps, transport munitions and supplies, treat their wounded soldiers, and mount surprise attacks, the tunnels have gained a place in war history.
Skaggs served his second Vietnam tour from 1968-69 with the 9th Infantry Division where, instead of being land-based, the division was quartered on Navy boats called Mobile Riverine Force. The boats were positioned on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, the world’s 12th-longest river, since the landscape of the region would not support the usual land-based facilities.
“The river was miles wide, so the Viet Cong were never able to damage even one of our boats which were large enough to hold brigades at a time,” Skaggs said. A brigade, he said, is comprised of roughly 500 troops.
For his service as Rifle Company Commander, Skaggs was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge (CIB), one of the military’s most-coveted awards. He was also presented with both a Bronze Star and Silver Star for Valor.
While he served in the front lines, Skaggs said he recognized and appreciated the behind-the–scene roles of soldiers who kept the front-line troops supplied with ammunition, food, water, and other necessities.
“For every one soldier on the front lines, it takes 100 support people at the base,” Skaggs said. “Every soldier up-and-down the supply change is badly needed.”
Now 77, Skaggs ended his military career in Pratt, where he served as Commander of the Pratt Army Reserve Unit from 1975-77.
He keeps memories alive by way of pictures, posters and trophies displayed on the walls of what he calls his “man-cave,” at his home.
While most of his wall-hangings relate to the Vietnam era, there is one relating to World War II, that Skaggs said he holds dear to his heart.
Titled “Two Zeros for Barbara Ann,” the painting shows a plane piloted by Skaggs’ long-time friend George Chandler, former president of then-First National Bank, after Chandler shot down two Japanese aircraft in one pass during an air battle in the South Pacific. .
The plane Chandler was piloting was “Barbara Ann,” named for Chandler’s wife.
There is also a framed display of U.S. Army Badges chronicling Skaggs' military career, starting with Officer Training at Ft. Benning, Ga. from 1964-65 and ending with his final assignment in Pratt as Commander of the Pratt Army Reserve.
The badges also denote assignments at Ft. Benning and Ft. Wainwright Alaska, adjacent to Fairbanks, along with his Vietnam duty stations.
Another memory, captured-and-framed, is of Christmas 1966 when Skaggs and his older brother, Richard, who was also serving in Vietnam, connected to attend together the Bob Hope Christmas Show at Cu Chi.
“We never expected to serve in Vietnam at the same time, much to our parents’ concerns about our safety in a war zone, so spending Christmas with him was a unique experience,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs also has put some of his military memorabilia on public display at Skaggs Ace Hardware in the Housewares/Hallmark section in the northeast corner of the store at 101 South Main Street, corner of Main and Highway 54.
“I want to pay tribute to our military, serving and retired,” Skaggs said. “The display is a permanent exhibit because our veterans should never be forgotten.”
Skaggs son, Bill, and grandson, Tyler, recently returned from an Honor Guard Flight to the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“It was a great experience, very humbling,” Skaggs said. “I give thanks every day for the freedom we have because of the commitment of our military, past and present.”
“That’s what Veterans Day is really all about,” he said.