It was tough, grueling, undesirable work, but someone had to do it.

Mandan veteran Jerry LaFave said his time deep below deck of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam in the late 1960s working in the boiler room was far from the most desirable place to be.

However, without him and the others below deck in scorching conditions, the ship wouldn’t have been able to function as part of the war effort.

LaFave, 70, graduated from Bismarck High School in 1965. Knowing he wasn’t going to attend college, he realized — with the draft approaching as he was “feeding someone’s cows south of Mandan” — the U.S. Navy might be a path to a better future.

So he enlisted in February 1966, following the footsteps of his father, who served aboard an aircraft carrier in World War II. LaFave completed training in April of that year in San Diego, with an assignment aboard the Ticonderoga coming shortly thereafter.

LaFave said he remembers when he was with a group of men being told by officers that the work in the boiler room was hottest, dirtiest, most miserable job in the service.

“I looked at the guy next to me and said: ‘I know what they’re going to do with me,’” LaFave said.

Sure enough, he wound up working in the belly of the ship, where he recalls the hatch marking the entry to the boiler room being painted with three devils and the phrase “Welcome to Hell.”

At upward of 130 degrees in the work area, he said it wasn’t far from the truth, with men needing to constantly be supplied water to keep from passing out or having other health issues during lengthy shifts among hot equipment. Those shifts could sometimes begin with four hours of watch duty at 4 a.m. before heading down below for eight hours then require further duty as late as 8 p.m.

LaFave said by comparison, the air in the hot environs of Southeast Asia was quite pleasant, almost cool, when pumped down into the boiler room for ventilation.

After leaving the Navy in the fall of 1969, LaFave returned to Bismarck, working briefly for a construction company.

Early in 1970, he joined Minnkota Power Cooperative, where he was among one of the original staff members hired to work at the Milton R. Young Station in Center. He began as an equipment operator and worked his way up, retiring in 2007 as a shift supervisor.

LaFave and his wife moved to their home on the outskirts of Mandan in 1976.

He said he definitely didn’t have it anywhere near as rough as those who served on the front lines in Vietnam. His job was to keep things running smoothly and allowing the war effort to continue in some small way.

“Joining the Navy was probably the biggest thing that set my course,” said LaFave, adding he wasn’t the greatest student and wouldn’t have been cut out for college. “I knew I didn’t want to stack hay and feed someone else’s cows for the rest of my life.”

He said in the mid-1960s North Dakota was largely exporting wheat and young people. The Navy, in his case, allowed him to not be among those who left permanently.

He said his Navy experience and skill set were attractive to the Minnkota people when he applied, setting him on a comfortable career path despite not being college educated.

“One of the highlights of my life. I would do it all over again,” LaFave said of his service.

(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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