Oral History of Ivan Vance Skelton Sr.

As appeasement failed to halt Hitler’s rampage for power, Europe fearfully watched numerous countries fall under his Nazi control. Meanwhile the isolationistic United States attempted to recover from the economic crisis of the Great Depression through war-related occupations to support the countries attempting to fight Germany’s wrath. On December 7, 1942 the United States became directly affected as Pearl Harbor was deliberately attacked by the oil-lacking Japanese, and the United States declared war on Japan and its allies. Home front groups such as the National Guard were already enlarged by the patriotic spirit, but they now mobilized to join a fight against powerful dictators. Americans were willing to sacrifice all for total war; every citizen played an important function in the war whether in a military combat role or in picking up the slack left by the drafted soldiers. The entire nation joined together to win World War II, to defend the liberties of independence and democracy, and to produce heroes of the heart not of trivial fame.

Ivan Vance Skelton Sr. was born to Thornton and Marie on June 23, 1922 in the family farmhouse on the skirts of the rural town of South Boston, Indiana. Both of his parents had unique backgrounds, his father a veteran of World War I and his mother a high school graduate, and although Ivan was always proud of his parents’ achievements a realization of their lack of money came at a young age during the Great Depression. Despite the disheartening time period, Ivan’s family still kept hope with the promise of education. Although he earned a high school diploma from Salem High School in 1940, Ivan was already experiencing the real world through a home front role in the National Guard in 1939.

For three years, from 1939 to 1941, Ivan served in the Indiana National Guard Company C 152 Infantry as a private during the beginning of World War II. In several two-week training sessions, he journeyed to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, Sandhill Ann also in Wisconsin, and Fort Knox in Kentucky. At each camp the soldiers had a responsibility to form the camp, dig trenches to serve as latrines, drive truck convoys, and undergo seek-and-find missions through which wartime survival techniques were taught. Ivan also trained with the Guard Drill each month at the National Guard Armory in Salem learning to properly use army rifles in the military style and earning a pay of one dollar-per-meeting. Ivan received draft papers in late 1941 as the war intensified and was discharged as his unit left for Mississippi. Unfortunately due to severe color-blindness, Ivan didn’t pass his physical exam in Louisville, Kentucky. A young man with strong muscles from years of farm life and seemingly in perfect health, Ivan was shocked to be unable to serve; he was left with only a red 4-F stamped onto his papers.

After his military life had seemingly ended, Ivan worked in a powder-bagging plant in Charleston, Indiana for two years. There Ivan would supervise the women’s sewing of bags to hold incremented powder for later use in guns. Such an environment was very dangerous so passes were constantly required, employees found it necessary to wear company clothes to avoid accidental confiscation of powder, and a constant fear of explosion persisted. Factory workers even took shifts with the company’s fire department as they went on brigades to check for unusual events. Ivan spent these years unable to fight, but he labored on government-owned land to assist the United States’ effort.

Despite the fact that the United States had not yet entered the European War when Ivan joined the National Guard, a serious tension still surrounded the soldiers. Serving one’s country was a solemn endeavor. Even at two-week training sessions there was danger and a chance of losing life. Ivan witnessed horrible tragedy at Fort Knox where “duds,” or intact shells that still contained live ammunition, littered the ground. Without warning of danger, several members of Ivan’s unit curiously tinkered with a seemingly harmless dud. Suddenly the bomb exploded and at least two soldiers, sons or brothers to unworried relatives, were instantly killed. The grave situation was largely impressed upon the young soldiers; no longer did war seem an enthusiastic chance to prove one’s willingness but a struggle for survival. Although they don’t often receive proper recognition, even those with non-combat roles deserve the utmost respect. They not only pursued the opportunity to defend America’s soil from attack but were willing to sacrifice their very lives to defend their beloved land and family members.

During World War II, those not directly and personally involved militaristically struggled to feel useful while unable to bury their uncertainties. For any young man physically restricted from serving, an emotional sense of guilt afflicted their conscious with thoughts of unworthiness. They felt it necessary to defend their patriotism and separate themselves from a “draft dodger” status. Unable to personally fight, the Americans left on U.S. soil would soon progressively use their strong built-up emotions to aid the war effort through the home front.

The United States’ general public largely supported World War II, as they were willing to participate in any way necessary to avoid a hostile invasion that might lead to blood on America’s soil. This willingness even led to a temporary void of liberties as rations were set to save materials needed for the soldiers. The rattled but inventive Americans found ways of creating back-up supplies through gardens, the freezing of surplus items, and the canning of anything natural and edible. Ivan’s favorite songs of “Over There” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” inspired an increase in the patriotic spirit, but the knowledge of food in one’s stomach and the ability to support the soldiers held the home front together despite the sacrifices that were asked and readily given.

Although World War II was won by courageous individuals, it was necessary for America’s businesses to turn their focus to war. This may have proven impossible if not for the ability of the once-homemaking women who put up their hair and followed the example of “Rosie the Riveter” to replace the leftover labor of those fighting. Whether sewing powder bags, welding metal, or piecing together tanks, the labor of countless women allowed an almost continuous wartime production. Women awaited the men’s return, enjoyed their newfound freedom, and anticipated a future with potential equality.

After World War II had ended and Ivan was no longer involved in military or home front activities, he too looked forward to the future by selling real estate and continuing to work on his father’s farm. Within the single year of 1947, Ivan’s life shifted as he went into business by working at a restaurant, bought a twenty-three acre farm, and married the love of his life. Perhaps the most significant event in Ivan’s life occurred due to chance: a blind date resulted in holy matrimony with a Betty Lee Vittitow from the far-away city of Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1950 Ivan began working at Smith Cabinet. Here he would remain until retirement in 1992 working as a supervisor in a sand room over sixty-two sanders. Within this occupation Ivan learned the finer art of working with wood and proved that military relationships are lasting friendships. For many years Ivan and his Corporal in the National Guard, a veteran who sacrificed half of his face, worked together in peace as they had in war.

Although Ivan’s experiences after the military life may have involved hard labor, love was also abundant. Four children were born to Ivan and Betty, and they were later blessed with five grandchildren. Now after eighty-five years of life, Ivan finds entertainment in basketball games while Betty works puzzles, and he enjoys discussing memories with his eager grandchildren. Ideals of hard work and education have been passed through the generations, and the joy of life has never lessoned.

Research by Sarah Lilly
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum
Cosby High School

Kennedy, David M., Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas A. Bailey. The American Pageant. 13th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. 801-849.

Skelton, Ivan. Personal interview. 26 March 2008.

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