Stillwater News Press

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July 5, 2013

Courage Under Fire: Tom Kinnick

STILLWATER, Okla. — The big globe at Spring Valley Rural School east of Stillwater spun around with names of places the students could not pronounce in the 1950s. Tom Kinnick attended the one room schoolhouse — the closest school to his family’s section of land that his great-great-grandfather had traded a livery stable in Perry and $100 to acquire in 1923.

With one teacher through the eighth grade, Kinnick stretched his imagination beyond the family farm coming into town and graduating with the first class at the “new” Stillwater High School in 1961. He married his high school sweetheart, Priscilla Washinka, and they shipped off together to see those tiny dots on the schoolroom globe with Kinnick’s enlistment in the Navy. Kinnick not only learned to pronounce the names of many exotic lands — he served in military intelligence gathering data about just what some of those faraway countries were up to in sea ports throughout the world.

His first deployment was aboard the USS Currituck (AV-7) which was nicknamed the Wild Goose. The Currituck class seaplane tenders provided base facilities for squadrons of seaplanes which were used extensively in World War II. The Navy continued to use the seaplanes for patrols and Kinnick found himself in ports of call from the Far East of Japan and the Philippines to the hostile shores of Vietnam.

“We would be anchored from 2 to 300 miles offshore and the sea planes would fly back and forth to get serviced,” Kinnick said.  

Up and down the Vietnamese coast, the ship often had to use naval gunfire to protect the sea planes conducting search and rescue missions for downed air crews.

Sailing the seven seas

As the United States entered heavy combat in southeast Asia, Kinnick moved to Command Cruiser Destroyer Flotilla 3 on which he served as Admiral Donald Irvine’s personal secretary. They continued routinely patrolling in the western Pacific with calls at Japanese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and Philippine ports. The routine came to a halt when North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. His crew steamed into war, cruising the waters off the Vietnamese shore as American involvement began to gather momentum. For 47 days, the crew battled in support of American and South Vietnamese troops on the ground fighting the communists.  

“Forward observers would call in targets and we would move to shoot in those areas,” Kinnick said.

Often targets were spotted by submarines which went undetected beneath the seas — and Kinnick became intrigued with the elite group. He volunteered for submarine service but “only one out of 100 are accepted.”

“Submarine school is intense,” he said. “There’s psychological testing, physical fitness aspects — and the academics of learning the machinery.”

Because of the stressful environment aboard submarines, personnel are accepted only after rigorous testing and observation at the Navy Submarine School New London Base in Groton, Conn. Besides their academic and technical training, much of which is classified top secret, all prospective U.S. naval submariners undergo three phases of testing related to the intense pressure differential between the surface and submarine operating depth. But what washes sailors out, if they are not claustrophobic and their ear drums don’t burst from the pressure, is the ultimate test of the diving tower which is really “spooky,” he said.

Packed like sardines into a dark room, damage control training classes replicate the submarine space and what can go wrong creating a need to escape. To simulate the possibility, sailors are locked in the tight space as water rapidly rises neck-high and they have to pop out of the hatch like a cork. It can be a harrowing experience but once you do it, the test is almost exhilarating, Kinnick said.

“Submarine school is very specialized training — but in the end — they are the best folks in the world,” Kinnick said. “When you go on patrol, you are undetected and it’s not fun and games. It’s real.”

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