Powell took in beauty and bloodshed aboard a gunboat in Vietnam


One would think that James Powell would want to forget about his time in the services.

Serving in the United States Navy, he was an electrician mate aboard his gunboat during the Vietnam War.

The possibility of death became as normal as “waking up.”

Taking in the beauty of a foreign country would be interrupted by rocket-fire and bloodshed.

But James looks back fondly upon his time in the services. He was and is a Navy man, a sailor, a mate.

And even war won’t dim his spirit and dedication to the Navy.

“Even now, it’s in my system,” the 78-year-old electrician said. “It never gets out.”

James now lives in Benton where he continues to work as an electrician. When he was younger, he spent a lot of time in Detroit with his family.

He was in Michigan when he decided to join the Navy at 17-years-old.

“All my friends left to join the Navy,” he said. “I figured that I might as well go too.”

The year was 1955 when he became a sailor. And he was still considered “a kid.”

“I tried to sign up on my own, but I couldn’t do anything because I was 17 years old,” James said. “But then they said I could show my birth certificate, and somehow the process got started.”

With a warm bomber jacket on, James headed off to basic training in Great Lakes, Ill.

“It was the coldest place in the world,” James said, with a smile. “At first, I figured that I had made a mistake. But for my first duty, I was given cold weather gear and a non-firing rifle and told to stand watch. I remember when I stood there, I would spit. And it froze before it hit the ground.”

After 14 weeks at boot camp, James was sent to Newport, R.I. It was the first of many travels for the young man.

“I had been to Mississippi and Michigan,” he said. “I had never been to any of these other places. And I had never even seen a ship except for in pictures.”

Before long, James would find himself on a small boat, heading out to sea towards one of those big ships he had only seen in photographs.

“The boat would take you to the ship, and you would have to climb a ladder to get aboard,” James said. “I kept thinking, ‘how am I gonna salute the flag and officers when I get up this ladder with all the stuff on my back.’ That was my biggest worry.”

But he managed to salute.

“I started to mellow out then,” he said, with a laugh.

For months, James continued his travels through the Mediterranean Sea. He saw such beautiful places, even places where the sun would shine at midnight.

And then he volunteered to go to Vietnam.

“I got on a gunboat during Vietnam,” James said. “We would be in rivers about the width of the (Mississippi) River at Vicksburg.”

James and the others on the gunboat would wait until they were needed.

“The SEALS in the jungles would call for fire,” he said. “We would be given coordinates and send them fire power.”

James holds up a photograph of the gunboat he was aboard.

“See that water coming out there,” he said, pointing to the boat in the photograph. “They fired a rocket at us from the beach. They fired six of them. That one went through the ship.”

James was recognized for his service aboard the USS Crockett.

“He was responsible for the maintenance, operation and repair of the ship’s electrical system,” said J.H. King Jr., for the secretary of the Navy. “Primarily due to his ingenuity and skill, his ship met all combat commitments. In addition, Powell participated in an extensive overhaul of the Crockett during which he trained inexperienced personnel in electrical casualty control.”

“I remember Vietnam being beautiful, beautiful beaches,” James said, looking at his award. “But then you could  get killed so easy. When you leave there, you almost have no fear about death anymore. Death was like waking up in the morning. It became normal.”

Under the threat of attacks, James performed his duties. He was subject to terrorist squads and rocket and mortar attacks.

But he remained a Navy man.

James retired from the Navy when he was 36 years old.

But he remembered the ship he served on during his time.

“They have decommissioned her now,” he said. “I felt like I was losing a member of my family.”

James continues his calling, working as an electrician. He admits he can be impatient now, contributing that to his time in the service. But he believes in hard work and is grateful to be home.

“I am lucky to be back in my own skin from over there,” James said.