For World War II nurse Ruth Skidmore, service and sacrifice strike a chord
“I’ve got an idea for a story,” my friend said.
“Okay, shoot,” I replied.
“It’s about a woman who is 100 and going strong. She’s spicy and feisty. Back in 1941, after Pearl Harbor, her uncle came home one day and told her, ‘I signed you up,’ and she became a nurse in World War II. It didn’t occur to her to complain; she knew it would take every American mobilized to defend the nation. She was stationed in Arizona, where she tended wounded and dying soldiers flown home from the battles of the Pacific. Later, she selflessly served remote communities in Appalachia, bringing much-needed medical services with tenderness and tenacity.”
“Hmm, okay, I think you might be on to something . . .”
“After the war she moved to East Tennessee, married a man who had worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project, raised a family, and along the way—get this—became an all-star musician who shredded on electric guitar.”
“Wow, nice . . .”
“Yeah, her mother had introduced her to the piano, but she gravitated toward guitar. Not only that, but she still wails on it at age 100, and the crowds go wild. Her band is called the Golden Eagles, and the other members are a bunch of ‘babes’, only in their 70s and 80s . . .”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. You had me until the guitar-shredding-at-age-100 plotline. I’m afraid you might lose some readers if your novel goes in that direction.”
“Novel? What are you talking about? This isn’t fiction, bud. It’s a true story.”
“Ah, nice try. Wait . . . are you serious right now?”
“Oh yes. I bet you can’t wait to meet this amazing lady, can you?”
My friend was serious, and she was right: I had to learn more about the main character in this compelling real-life story—a woman who turned out to be even more fascinating than the most page-turning great epic could have depicted.
Her name is Ruth Skidmore, and she was born on either October 12 or 13—there was a mix-up on her birth certificate—of 1922 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In an act that portended how the newborn’s future would unfold, the doctor who delivered Ruth into this world was also her uncle.
Ruth was seven when the Great Depression hit in 1929 (think about that for a second) and recalls the hard times that persisted through the ’30s. She was the sixth of seven children, and “we all had to work,” Ruth says during a conversation from her Oak Ridge home. After those difficult years came the start of the century’s second global conflict.
“We had come out of the Great Depression when we went to war with Japan, Germany, and Italy,” she says. “Everybody—I mean everybody—was doing what they could to contribute to the war effort.”
That is a theme Ruth returns to often: the sacrifice that Americans shared during the war years. “We saved cans, we rationed sugar and gas and tin,” she recalls.
“I lived in part with my uncle, Don Johnston. He was a lieutenant colonel in World War I and II, a doctor. They were needing nurses because so many young men were coming back injured. One day he signed me up for the Army.”
Nursing was new to Ruth, but she was “happy to do a small part to help my country.”
Military life was nothing new, however; it ran in her family. “Most of us had served; my great-grandfather was a captain in the Civil War,” she says.
Ruth was sent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, which had airstrips long enough for B-29 bombers to land. Conditions for the doctors and nurses and their patients were spartan, at best.
Since rubber was rationed (it was all going toward tires for military vehicles), Ruth says, “We had to mend the surgical gloves on Saturdays because the surgeons had to use the same gloves over and over, and they would get holes in them. We would cut pieces and paste them on the holes. That’s how little we had.”
That wasn’t the half of it. “On the floor where there were maybe 25 or 30 patients, we were only allowed five or six syringes. We would use them, bring them back, run sterile water through them, soak them in alcohol for 20 minutes, and use them again.” Medical personnel had to wash their hands and arms up to the shoulders for four to five minutes with soap and water before treating a patient. “We didn’t have antibiotics,” Ruth says. “If you got a bad infection, you died. We tried to prevent as much as we could; we soaked everything in Lysol.”
Ruth emphasizes how clean and orderly the hospital was run, with strict rules enforced. “We had short fingernails, no polish, short hair, dressed in all white. We looked dignified.”
While Ruth was not sent overseas—she served stateside until the war ended in 1945 after first Germany (May 8) and then Japan (September 2) surrendered—she saw more than her share of horror as she cared for wounded and, in many cases, dying soldiers. She also had siblings in the fray who would carry the burdens of battle.
“My two brothers . . .” She pauses. “War is painful. It’s painful for me to talk about it.” After a sigh, she continues. “My brother Paul was with General Patton in Europe, and my brother Jim was in the Pacific. He was getting ready to go into Japan when Harry Truman was advised not to drop that bomb, but you know, he believed ‘the buck stops here,’ so he authorized it. My brother probably would have gotten killed otherwise.”
In Europe, “the boys over there, our young boys were getting killed, and so many of them were friends of mine,” she says. “One boy that lived near me, he was a pilot, he was only 21 or so, and he was shot down over Germany. “Another good friend was a gunner on a bomber, shot down. I knew so many young boys that gave their lives for our freedom.” Ruth’s tone shifts when she recalls the exuberance of the celebrations after the fighting ceased. “All of us were so happy it was over.”
‘She’s like a light’
Five years later in 1950, Ruth followed her sister, Mary, to Oak Ridge. Mary had wed a military veteran and chemist who worked in the Secret City since it was built in 1942.
At first Ruth worked as a nurse for a local doctor. Later one of her brothers persuaded her to move to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to work at the hospital there.
She returned to Oak Ridge after the head of Y-12’s medical operations sent a telegram to Florida offering Ruth a job for $364 a month. “That was big pay at the time. Nurses only made about 10 dollars a day. I took that telegram to my supervisor and told her, ‘I’m outta here!’” Ruth recalls with a laugh.
In Oak Ridge, Ruth met and married Milus Skidmore, who had worked on the Manhattan Project after attending Columbia University. The Skidmores had two sons, Milus Jr. and Dwight, and two daughters, Sally and Mary.
Throughout our conversation, Ruth repeats how proud she is of her children and grandchildren, many of whom have followed her path into the military, medicine, or both.
The grandchildren include Rebecca Rofael, who is on her way to becoming a cardiologist; Alexis Skidmore, a business major at Georgia Tech; and Shelby Williams, who is in the US Air Force working toward completing medical school to become a doctor.
Describing her grandmother, Shelby says, “She’s . . . like a light. She’s very hopeful, an optimist who can find joy in every situation. She’s also very intelligent—she’s 100 and she never stops learning. My husband is an electrical engineer, and she knows what he does better than I do and can talk about it in detail. She’s super inspiring; she doesn’t stop.”
After her children were grown, Ruth continued to apply her penchant for serving those in need by volunteering with Remote Area Medical, a nonprofit founded by Stan Brock to address the pain and suffering from lack of healthcare in the largely impoverished Appalachian region. “Stan was a fabulous fella,” Ruth recalls. “I did that for a couple years, and I also worked with John Rice Erwin, who started the Museum of Appalachia [in Norris], for two years.”
It was also in those years that she honed her musical chops.
‘She plays the heck out of that Fender’
Charlie Orr, a youngster at age 81, met Ruth (or “Ruthie,” as he sometimes calls her) in a guitar class at the Oak Ridge Senior Center circa 2010. The class was on Fridays—“and we still meet then even now,” he says.
The two became fast friends and were part of a core group that formed the Golden Eagles not long after. The band plays at senior centers, retirement homes, and veterans’ gatherings—including a regular monthly date at Ben Atchley Tennessee State Veterans’ Home in Hardin Valley—among other gigs. There are about 15 bandmates ranging from the mid-60s into the 70s and 80s and all the way to Ruth at 100.
Orr’s assessment of Ruth is glowing. “I think she’s just amazing,” he says. “She still drives, you know, still goes to the gym, swims as often as she can.
“She’s so independent. She takes care of herself—she always wants to look nice when we go to lunch or somewhere else—and she cares about people so much. She’ll take folks a little donut or a sandwich; she always wants to do something nice for somebody else.”
Ruth “plays the piano, and there’s no telling what else she plays,” he adds, but most of all, “She plays the heck out of that Fender guitar.”
For her part, Ruth says her favorite music to play is: “anything”. “Our band plays gospel, pop, we like Willie Nelson songs, all kinds of music. We have a lot of veterans in our group, and we’re all pretty congenial. We have a little bit in common. We all just kid and joke with each other,” she says.
They keep things light, for the most part. “We don’t like to talk about all the painful things. We go to veterans breakfasts some Saturdays, and other veterans will feel free to talk to you.”
Ruth maintains a sharp sense of humor. For example, when told this writer’s last name, she laughs and says, “Oh, Newman, there’s a fella on the TV by that name. He’s a postman for the Jerry Seinfeld show. Do you know who that is?”
“Yes, ma’am, I sure do,” she is told as she giggles.
Her military service was no laughing matter, of course, and Ruth reiterates, “It was a hard time. So much was awful, but everybody—one more time—everybody contributed in some way, whether it was cleaning, cooking, sewing, working in factories. I didn’t do any more than anybody else, just my little thing, but I’m kind of proud of it.”
And that, friends, would be—make that is—a story worth telling.