(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12. Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).
War is for the young. Richard Wayne Skains, like so many young men…or boys…of the World War II era, found that to be true.
Richard (to his business associates) Wayne (to his friends) was only 16 when he graduated from Winnfield High School in 1942, eighteen months after Pearl Harbor. “There were only 11 grades back then. I went to work for the A & P Tea Company, under Earl Whiteapple. My birthday is July 4. In 1943, I turned 18.
“They had this thing that if you volunteered for the draft, you could choose your branch of service. I chose Army Engineers. I was interested in that kind of stuff. My family did some construction and I had friends and family already serving in the Engineers.”
Skains was processed through Camp Beauregard—a two-week process, then shipped to Camp Claiborne for basics.
“I wasn’t particularly tough. But it was a good thing for a young man like me who hadn’t been exposed to a great number of things. We grew up in a hurry. I’m grateful that I learned how important discipline is in life.”
In March 1944, Skains was shipped to England as the Allied Forces were gathering for the inevitable invasion of Europe. “It wasn’t a luxury liner, either. It was a British refrigeration ship that usually brought in meat from South America. This time, it picked up a load of American ‘meat’ and carried us to England.”
When the ship arrived, “there were all sorts of fireworks (bombing and artillery) going on in the port so we stayed on board for a while.”
Skains went to the little town of Cheltonham where a warehouse had been converted into a depot. There they worked on cataloging equipment that would be shipped to France. Items were marked “D-1” or “D+1”, based on its shipment relative to the invasion.
“You could pretty well tell by that the date they were going to invade France. But everything was top secret. You couldn’t say nothing.”
On the night of the invasion, there was a constant roar of aircraft heading across the English Channel. Then it was suddenly quiet. “We knew the invasion was underway.”
Skains did not participate in the D-Day landing. But after the invasion, the depot operation was shifted closer to the fighting men. Skains found himself in an LST headed to Normandy. “It was nighttime. I remember the front end of that ship dropping down in the middle of the ocean and we stepping out in it with all our equipment. The water was about waist-deep.”
Unlike those in the initial assault, these soldiers met no enemy resistance. “We waded maybe 100 yards to the beach, then up an incline. Some of the beaches had cliffs but not us.”
In a staging area at the top, soldiers were given their assignments, then loaded into trucks or transports to their locations. “I had Paris. I stayed there four months. We were in the Shell Oil building where we did the same thing we’d done in England, handling supplies and dispersing them to the front.”
The Germans had vacated Paris as the Allied Forces approached so the immediate danger to troops was not such a concern. But they’d been warned against eating local food or drinking their wines. “I never heard of any problems with that but the Army provided us with hot meals every day. It was not like in the States, but better than the poor boys on the front.”
In early January 1945, there was a shortage of replacement personnel on the front line. “They sent some of us for retraining, then to the front line with the 75th Division.”
Skains carried a Browning automatic rifle. “We did a lot of walking, a lot of trying to hide. We were subject to enemy fire but the German lines had begun to weaken and they were retreating.”
In war service, Skains saw England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. When the war in Europe ended, he was in Werdohl, Germany. With the news came “a period of excitement and personal satisfaction that the danger had passed. This relieved some stress.”
Skains then moved to a place called Camp Chicago, France. Again in the cataloging business, they were now recycling personnel going home. “The way they discharged people was by a point system. We processed them through up to a certain point level.”
One more assignment took him to Chalons, France, with a labor supervision unit. “We had a lot of displaced people, refugees from many areas. We got them food, clothing, medical allocation.”
Finally with 49 points of his own, Skains was sent home and discharged March 30, 1946. “I’d received an education in my 2 ½ years in the military that I could not have received anywhere else. I’m thankful to the Lord that I was physically able, under the hand of God, to serve the United States of America.”
More than six decades later, that time is like a dream, as if it didn’t happen. “You just don’t dwell on it.”
Free from the military, the veteran caught a train from Rockford, Ill., to Alexandria, then the Salter Bus to Winnfield. He went back to work at A & P. Just 20 years old, he’d fought for his country but was still unable to vote.
His army training took him to a career as city clerk under Mayor Eli Harrell, personnel director at the hospital, and administrator with the National Guard unit in Winnfield. He retired July 1985 as chief warrant officer.
“I have a wonderful family life,” he says. “I’d known Wardell McCarty since childhood. We got reacquainted after the war and got married 64 years ago…November 27, 1947.”
They had three sons, Lamar, Terry and Mark. There are also four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“My life has been controlled by my belief in God. I believe if we put everything we have in His hands, He’ll guide us.”
Skains, 86, is a member and deacon at East Winnfield Baptist Church.