Veteran’s Day salute: William T. “Bill” Skavdahl
In Sioux County, Nebraska’s Niobrara River valley there’s an uncommon man.
William T. “Bill” Skavdahl is a third-generation cattle rancher. He’s the son of a World War II veteran, and a distinguished and decorated Veteran in his own right. From 1966 to 1969, Bill served as a Chief Warrant Officer 2 in the United States Army, including a year as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, where he logged 1,070 hours of combat flying time as flight section commander and fire team leader.
Service from a line of service
Born in 1910, Bill’s father, Harold Skavdahl, was the son of homesteader Oscar Skavdahl and Grace Wickersham. Harold served as the Sioux County Sheriff in the late 1930s, likely having succeeded the legendary Sid Williams as the second chief peace officer since Sioux County was founded.
When World War II broke out, Harold had hoped to become a glider pilot. However, at age 38, the U.S. Army thought he was too old and instead capitalized on Harold’s law enforcement experience. Harold was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Military Police and given an unordinary assignment: protecting the Panama Canal.
The Germans were eager to try and disrupt American supply ships that were traversing through the narrow passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Harold’s unit and its vigilance proved critical to protect Allied shipping and helped lead to the defeat of the Axis powers.
Life after WWII
After the war, Harold returned to the ranch in Nebraska. Bill, born in 1946, is the second oldest of Harold’s six children- all boys. It was a large family, but not all that uncommon, especially at a time when ranching required a lot of labor.
One of Bill’s first experiences with livestock was Pepper: a half-Shetland/half-Quarter Horse pony. “I rode her five miles to school about every day,” Bill said. “It took us a while to get there, but boy, by the end of the day, we came home like hell.”
He quickly became handy with a horse. Growing up, Bill and his brothers would trail his family’s Hereford cattle 18 miles to pasture. Bill enjoyed working on horseback and has had several good mounts over the years. Harold instilled work ethic in Bill and his brothers, imparting a wealth of knowledge about stockmanship and animal husbandry. It was on the ranch that Bill gained the passion for caring for cattle that he carries with him to this day.
Bill also developed a passion for roughstock, much to his mom’s chagrin.
“It started with an old milk cow we had,” he said. “I’d hop on her back in the barn, and she didn’t like to buck on the concrete floor, but once she got out the door she would get pretty wild.”
When he got into high school, Bill competed in various high school rodeos riding bulls, bareback horses and saddle bronc, as well as bulldogging. He twice attended the National High School Rodeo, and in his senior year he took All-Around Cowboy at the Thedford and Crawford High School rodeos. A bull in Crawford broke his right ankle, but Bill still had a good ride. The State finals were that next week and he had his sights on Nationals. But with a broken ankle, he needed to figure out something quick.
Bill had won a pair of spurs at Thedford. Not being one to give up, he went out to the shop and took a blow torch to one of the spurs, expanding it out to where it’d fit around the cast. He tied it on with some bailing wire and added plaster of Paris.
It was sturdy and the spur worked. Bill had good rides at State on the first two bulls, but got dumped in the short-go when the bull took a turn to the left. Bill finished fourth, one short from a trip to Nationals.
Leaving the ranch
“You know how ranching goes,” Bill said. “You get about one good year out of ten, and it’s sometimes tough to survive.”
That was no truer than when Bill graduated Sioux County High School in 1964. “Times were pretty tough out here. We weren’t making any money and my dad couldn’t really afford to pay me, but he always wrote down what he owed me,” Bill said.
Bill rodeoed a bit during the summer after graduation, but by fall he needed to find steady work. His dad was upset that Bill was leaving the ranch, but gave him a ride to Cheyenne where Bill got on a train for California to visit his aunt, Anne Edwards.
While attending Sioux County High School, Bill had competed on the Harrison FFA chapter’s surveying team. Coupled with his experience operating tractors, he quickly found himself a job with a road paving company making $150 a week – a sum which would’ve taken him a month to earn on the ranch back in Nebraska. “Those guys really liked me because I could run just about everything,” he said. Bill had brought his spurs and a bull rope along with him to California, and competed in a few jackpot rodeos, but he was 19 at the time and you had to be 21 to buy a car in California. The lack of wheels put a damper on his rodeo aspirations.
The Draft Notice
In early 1965, Bill got a letter from his Dad.
“The draft board sent him a notice,” Bill said. “He didn’t say much in the letter, just told me that I needed to take care of it.” Bill was ordered to report to Denver for a physical.
“I called my draft board and told them I was out in California. They told me, ‘Well, that’s fine, they do Army physicals out in California too!” Bill said with a chuckle. “What’s your address? Because you’ll be hearing from us again.’”
A week later, he got a notice from the draft board that ordered him to report to AFES in Fresno, California. On May 3, 1965, he was found fit for service.
“For some reason they couldn’t induct me out there, so I had to come home and get inducted by the local draft board,” Bill said. When he got home, Bill’s mother Ellen tried to get him to enroll at Hiram Scott, a private liberal arts college in Scottsbluff that operated from 1965 to 1972. She thought her son could get a deferment, but Bill had other plans. “That place was full of draft dodgers, and I didn’t want that,” Bill said. “I went to a recruiter and he looked at my physical and my scores from the test they gave me in Fresno.”
The recruiter told Bill that with his scores he could do just about anything, but when he mentioned becoming a pilot the recruiter had doubts. “He told me I would have to take a flight physical in Denver and go before a selection board,” Bill said.
And so it went. Bill passed his flight physical and interviewed before a board of officers to determine his character and fitness. “They asked why I wanted to serve, and I told them that I thought it was my duty. My dad served in World War II and I wanted to do my part,” Bill said. “After we got done with the interview, an old colonel told me – and I’ll never forget this – he said ‘I sure would like to meet your father.’ “ I thought that was really a compliment to my Dad.”
Time in Service
Bill entered the Army in April of 1966 and attended the U.S. Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, graduating from the Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Course, Class 67-3, on April, 11, 1967. As part of Bill’s training he also attended an “Evasion and Escape” course at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Bill and his fellow pilots were dumped out in the middle of the woods. Their mission was to make a 10-mile journey back to their base camp without being detected. It was there that Bill’s horse sense paid dividends. The rest of the soldiers set off on foot, but after a while, Bill said he came across some horses. The cinch marks on their sides told him that the horses were broke to ride, so he hatched up a plan. “We had a survival kit that had a little string in it,” Bill said. “I made a halter out of that, and away I went.” Bill was the first soldier to make it back to the base camp, and his instructors were none the wiser.
Time in Country
Bill received orders and deployed to Vietnam from October, 1967 to October 1968, where he was assigned to the 175th Assault Helicopter Company, known as “Outlaws,” based at Vinh Long Airfield, where he flew missions in the Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter and the Bell AH-1 “Cobra” gunship. Bill recalls many hairy situations where he was not entirely convinced he’d make it home. The worst was the Tet Offensive.
On January 30, 1968, the Vietcong violated a ceasefire that had been brokered to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Nearly 100 VC snuck in and attacked Vinh Long. By the next day, seven U.S. service members were dead and 3 UH-1 Iroquois helicopters were destroyed.
The tensions in Southeast Asia flared up from there. During the height of the Tet offensive, on February 4, 1968, Bill earned the first of two Distinguished Flying Crosses. When an isolated outpost was attacked by the enemy, Bill volunteered to fly a cargo helicopter on a resupply mission under heavy enemy fire. While still under fire, he directed the unloading of his ship, waited for three wounded soldiers to be placed aboard and then lifted off, flying the wounded men to safety.
In early April 14, 1968, the tail rotor of Bill’s helicopter was hit by enemy fire and it went down with a hard crash landing. He broke his back and a piece of the helicopter went through his leg. Bill was laid up in a hospital bed for close to three weeks. However, in a testament to his toughness and grit, he pressed on and within the month he was back in the pilot seat.
Bill was later awarded the Air Medal for Heroism with first Oak Leaf Cluster and V device for action on May 12, 1968. His citation for the award states that he was piloting the lead ship in a fire team of Huey Cobras supporting Vietnamese forces when the ground unit came under heavy fire and sustained casualties requiring immediate evacuation. Skavdahl contacted a Navy “Seawolf” helicopter and escorted it into and out of the evacuation area, keeping up suppressive fire although his ship was twice hit by enemy ground fire.
Bill was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross with an Oak Leaf Cluster for actions on July, 14, 1968. He served as fire team leader during a medical evacuation of a wounded allied soldier on Coto Mountain. Despite the extremely hazardous situation imposed on the aircraft, Bill accepted the medevac mission. The terrain required that he fly within range of the enemy, who were equipped with well-paced .50 caliber automatic weapons. In addition, extreme turbulence and hazardous terrain put his flying ability to the test. He was able to place extremely accurate suppressive fire on the enemy, causing one secondary explosion in a cave with his rocket fire. When the medevac aircraft had to hover to hoist out the wounded man, Bill flew in low directly in front of the enemy to draw fire away from the recovery aircraft. Without his suppressive fire, the mission could not have been completed without the loss of many lives.
In addition to a Purple Heart and Vietnam Campaign medals, Bill received the Army Commendation Medal in recognition of the countless other missions he went on that supported and saved American and South Vietnamese soldiers between February and October, 1968.
Bill can remember flying into San Francisco. “We were told that we had to fly back to the U.S. in our Class A uniform,” he said. “But with all of the anti-war protesters going around, they told us that the first thing we should do after we land is change into our civilian clothes.”
Bill was stationed at Ft. Carson until his discharge, where he served as an instructor pilot for a National Guard helicopter unit that was being mobilized and trained before the pilots were shipped to Vietnam. When he got out of the service, Bill returned to Nebraska. Harold had bought a second ranch and asked Bill to run it. He got married and had four children, three boys, (Josh, Jud, and Joe), and a daughter (Tomi Jain).
“All I ever wanted to do was ranch,” Bill said. When times were tough during the 1980s, Bill could seldom afford to hire a hired man, so he brought his kids along with him when he worked. His oldest son, Josh, said he has fond memories of the hours spent in the saddle. He also remembers his sister Tomi being Bill’s “number one helper.”
That work ethic and upbringing has led his children to be driven to success. Tomi attended the University of Wyoming, and today she is married and teaches English in Riverton. The up-bringing on horseback has led to a passion for ranching that continues for a fourth generation. Bill’s three sons all attended the University of Nebraska and today ranch alongside him in Sioux County. Joe also has a veterinary practice. “One thing my Dad probably picked up in the service is that he never let us quit once we started something,” his oldest son Josh said. “We always finished it through.” That experience is something that has been imparted to the fifth generation of Skavdahls.
Josh and his brother Jud often have their hands full. Both have their own individual ranches, leases, and sizeable herds to look after, as well as partnering on the lease for the Coffee Hat Creek Ranch north of Harrison. Both are involved with various local and state boards and commitments. There’s a lot of country to cover, and they haven’t always had the time to stop and show their kids how to do things the right way. Josh said that’s where Bill’s interactions with his 10 grandkids are a lot different than most people’s grandparents. “
Dad has never been one to show up, spoil them, and leave,” Josh said. “He has worked alongside them and showed them how to do things. He put his grandkids to work, but they respect and love him for that.”
His grandkids have also seen their own degrees of success and accomplishment. Josh’s oldest daughter, Grace, was the first graduate of Sioux County High School to be accepted by an Ivy League School, and his son Sam is studying Agribusiness at UNL while also participating in Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Jud’s son Jack has taken up his grandfather’s penchant for roughstock riding and rodeos while going to school, and Jud’s daughter Julie was twice a Nebraska State Champion orator who is attending pre-law at Chadron State College with hopes of attending her father’s alma matter for Law School.
The rest of Bill’s grandchildren will no doubt accomplish big things when they graduate from school. Bill has some uncertainty about the future of this country, but he doesn’t have many regrets about the past. He is proud he served his country. He’s proud to have raised his family on the ranch. And he’s proud that he’s able to continue ranching to this day.
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