SIOUX CITY | Boarding a ship to serve in the Korean War at age 20, Eugene Stokes was glad he had the work ethic of a Nebraska farm kid.
Serving in the military meant a structured life, as the U.S. sought to defend people in the south part of Korea from a push of communism from the north.
"It gives you responsibility too. I'll put it this way -- the service, my opinion, if you go in there, it will either make you or break you. If you go in as a hell-raiser, you are either gonna get straightened out or go to hell faster," Stokes said.
Tackling tasks with vigor is something Stokes still does today. He is likely one of the few Korean War veterans still employed today. At 85, Stokes, who lives in Sioux City, is a truck driver for Oban Construction in South Sioux City.
"I ain't got no idea when I'm gonna retire. That's one of the ways I've stayed active. I'm always doing something...When I say I'm 85, no one believes me," he said.
Stokes was raised in Webster County, Nebraska, where he attended a one-room school before graduating from Red Cloud High School in 1951. Two of his older brothers served in World War II, with Ivan in Germany and Vernon in the Pacific Theatre, as he got to see "the flag go up in Iwo Jima."
Stokes, who came in the middle of nine kids in his family, worked in a gas station filling cars until enlisting in the Navy in September 1951. He did so because he wanted to serve in the Navy and not have his military branch decided for him.
"I wanted to beat the draft because I didn't want to go in the Army," Stokes said, adding that he knew from his brothers' experiences that in the Navy, "You always had a hot meal and a dry rack to sleep on."
After completing boot camp in San Diego, Stokes shipped out with more than 1,000 others on the U.S.S. St. Paul. Over four years into 1955, he would serve eight months in Korea, then eight months back in Long Beach, California, rotating back and forth three times, for 24 months in Korea in totality.
He worked in Ships Service, which meant he was on a team of people who provided all the needs of daily living. He started in the laundry, then worked in a soda fountain and tailor shop. Stokes noted a ship is like a town on water, having also a barber and cobbler shops.
"It is like a city. You've got to have all these (pieces)," Stokes said.
"I can't say I hated it. I enjoyed it. We had a good crew. We had a crew of 1,500. Most of the people in there enlisted. We had to get our four years in...You learn to get along with your fellow man. You've only got so much space."
The U.S.S. St. Paul patrolled near Wonsan Harbor in Korea. Though it never anchored, the ship provided ground support to troops and had guns that could pound coastal targets from 25 miles away and also picked up downed American pilots.
"The North Koreans couldn't figure out where the big shells were coming from. We were up and down the East and West Coast. We would run the peninsula. We would go up one side and down the other. A lot of time we would go up close to the Manchurian border and destroy railroads, ship yards, whatever they tried to put up. If it looked like it would slow down the war, we would destroy it," Stokes said.
He said there were war deaths on the U.S.S. St. Paul.
"We lost 30 guys. A turret blew up, it misfired," Stokes said. "I helped get them out of the turret. I wasn't scared, but it was a moment that...Burnt flesh, that smell, I'll tell you, it stays with you."
Once out of Korea, he moved back to Red Cloud to farm until 1959. Stokes next went to trade school to learn carpentry, worked on custom combining and built homes in Lincoln, Nebraska. He moved to Sioux City in 1966, when he operated a garbage collection route for the city of Sioux City. He's worked for Oban Construction since 2008.
Stokes and wife LaRue have three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Stokes enjoyed his time in the Navy, so he attends the reunions of those who served on the U.S.S. St. Paul every two years. The most recent reunion was in August.
His war experiences are more than six decades removed, but he still gets emotional with certain prompts, including a familiar tune from funerals.
"Hearing 'Taps' brings it all back," Stokes said.