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By Betty Vanderwielen

Keeping the Ships Afloat


February 8, 2018

Photo provided

Scott Miller, Engineman Petty Officer Second Class, proving he could grow a "decent beard."

POTOMAC – Since his father, uncle and two cousins had served in the U.S. Navy, it seemed only natural to Scott Miller in 1967 that, rather than wait to be drafted into the U.S. Army, he should enlist in the Navy instead. As a corollary to growing up on a ranch in Stevensville, Mont., Miller had learned to handle repairs on farm equipment. It was that mechanical ability the Navy recognized when they headed Miller down a career path as an electrician.

Because of his prior experience, Miller was not sent to a training school, but went straight from boot camp to the U.S.S. Ajax. The Ajax was a large repair ship containing several machine shops and even a foundry for casting metal. Based out of Sasebo, Japan, the Ajax sailed to the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and down to Vietnam.

Miller said, "Boats would tie up to us and we'd do any repairs they needed. We could rewind motors, build shafts; we could even build ships' bells and stuff."

After 18 months aboard the Ajax, Miller was re-assigned to the U.S.S. Sanctuary as a Ship's Company Electrician.

About the Sanctuary, Miller explained, "What they did was take an old cargo ship and right in the center, where the cargo bays were, they just built a hospital in it. They had four operating rooms and everything else. It was basically a floating hospital. We had a helo deck on it, so helicopters would fly [the wounded] right straight out of the battlefield to the ship."

During the evening, the Sanctuary cruised off the coast of Vietnam from Danang to the demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Miller said the ship was like a small city. He estimated it housed about 350 crew and another 350 or so medical personnel. Miller noted the Sanctuary was one of the first ships to have female Navy nurses aboard and, while he was stationed on it, the Sanctuary logged its 10,000th helicopter landing.

Miller was primarily in charge of all the generators and electric motors in the engine room as well as the air conditioning and vents.

Summing up his work, Miller said, "Anything electrical on the ship, we worked on it."

During the time Miller served on the Sanctuary, the Navy reversed its policy forbidding the growing of facial hair. Miller said on one six-day run back to the ship's home base in Subic Bay, Philippines, the Commanding Officer told the men if they could grow a decent beard before they reached the Philippines, they could keep it. Miller grew a nice red one and has had it ever since.

His wife Debbie said, "He's only shaved it once in the 46 years we've been married, and the kids [Brian and Jessica] didn't know who he was. Our daughter [about three-years-old at the time] asked me who that strange man was."

Miller served a total of three years, three months and 21 days in the Navy. He said the odd number was because he had a "critical" rating due to his service in the Vietnam arena. He was offered the option of going home for a 30-day paid leave if he would extend his tour an additional six months. Miller agreed to do so, but was not enticed to stay longer, despite the re-enlistment bonus he was offered.

Miller said, "I didn't like being on a ship. It was okay at the time, but I didn't want to make a career out of it. I wanted to go back to the mountains."

Initially, though Miller applied for electrician positions, the only job he could find after returning to Stevensville was pumping gas. After a year, he applied to the Missoula Vocational Technical Center (Vo Tech) to get certified as a heavy equipment mechanic. Miller told the story of a barber friend of his who was talking to a customer from the Van Evans Company. The customer said they were looking for a plant electrician, but just couldn't find anyone qualified. The barber said he knew a friend who had worked as an electrician in the Navy and gave him Miller's phone number.

Miller related, "So the guy calls me and he said, 'I hear you were in the Navy and were an engineer. Well we could sure use you.' I said, "That's funny, I talked to you about a year ago and you told me I didn't have enough experience."

Miller added, "That's the bad thing that happens to a lot of veterans. [Potential employers] don't realize the experience that you have. I mean, being an electrician, we would take pumps and things apart to get to the motors and stuff like that – I mean you had to know what you were doing. It wasn't just changing a fuse or whatever."

Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Miller's beard is still there though it is no longer red.

Since his Vo Tech application had already been accepted and he could count on financial support from the GI Bill, Miller declined the Van Evans offer. Once he finished the Vo Tech training, Miller initially got a job with Allis Chalmers Mountain Tractor Dealership, and two years later he accepted a position with Champion Building Products in Bonner.

Miller clarified that, though his mailing address is Bonner, he and his family consider themselves residents of Potomac. He said his son and daughter went to Potomac schools and his grandchildren also. Miller's 10-year-old grandson Maquin, in particular, is interested in his grandfather's military stories. Maquin has already inherited Miller's old uniform, which Maquin wears to school on occasion.

Miller said he wouldn't object if any of grandkids wanted to enter the military. He said, "If I had to do it over, I'd do it again. You learn life. You learn how to be responsible for yourself, and to follow orders and to do things the way you're supposed to do them. And to be on time!"


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