William Arthur Simkins
Lieutenant Commander — United States Navy
World War 2, Vietnam War, Cold War (1943-1967)
William Arthur Simkins was born on February 11, 1925 en route to the hospital. His father, a human relations employee with the Standard Oil Refinery in El Segundo, was rushing his mother to the hospital along with the company physician when Simkins was born.
As an adolescent, Simkins worked as a lifeguard, as well as played football and ran track. Simkins’ father served as an Army engineer during World War 1. Prior to joining the Navy, Simkins himself was emerged in the college life at University of California Berkeley. “I was focused on being a freshmen at Cal. I joined a fraternity there, the Betas, and every week somebody departed to the service, just one after another.” Directly after graduating high school, Simkins went to Santa Monica Junior College for a semester. There, he signed up for a program called V-12. The program worked with universities around the country to help pay for tuition of members of the US Military. These men took classes that would be helpful in their military field, and as long as they maintained good grades, the program could continue until they completed education or were needed for war.
The deep roots of Simkins’ love for flying emerged in his childhood. Living in El Segundo, Simkins was perfectly positioned with a view of LAX and airplane manufacturers surrounding it. This inspired him not only to learn to fly, but apply his skills in the Navy.
The decision Simkins made enlisting in the war was supported by his family. “They were interested and accepted what I was doing when I went. The Naval Aviation was a respected part of the military. And necessary. Very necessary.” His father was the one who had introduced him to the V-12 program in the first place.
After a year of college, Simkins was called to war on September 15th of 1943. He was sent to pre-flight training at San Luis Obispo. “When I went to Cal, they insisted on everybody joining some military on the campus. I think the only option for me at the time was Army, ROTC, and I learned how to march. I was named a platoon leader there. When I got down to Cal Poly, they made me a company commander.” In his time at Cal Poly, Simkins impressed peers and officers with his kindness and charisma. He recalled that every inspection day, which took place on Fridays, he would arrange another soldier’s socks the correct way for him because he was never prepared.
After time in San Luis Obispo, Simkins was taken to Susanville, California for flight indoctrination. “Just a range of regular airplanes, most of them light like Stearman. Stearman is a biplane. The Ryan, that was like a little fighter plane. We had a lot of fun getting acquainted and indoctrinated in those up at Susanville.” According to Simkins, the most essential part of his training was practicing takeoffs and landings. Simkins admired the thorough nature of his training.
He received a lot of additional training upon simply learning to fly during his time in the Navy. Simkins was eventually hired by a company called IASCO at the Napa County Airport working to train pilots for Japan Airlines. Simkins recalls this job as, “both challenging and rewarding.” Upon his commision, he also went through some training at Corpus Christi Naval Aviation, where he received his Wings of Commission.
Simkins’ first deployment was in 1957 on the USS Philippine Sea. The ship was an anti-submarine leaving from Long Beach and eventually returning. At the time, Simkins was a Lieutenant. On the USS Philippine Sea, Simkins worked in the CIC, Combat Information Center. Before boarding the ship, he had attended CIC school and was indoctrinated in the CIC. “It’s a darkened room. A very spacious room with plastic and front and I was air controlling. We were an anti-submarine ship, that was our mission, and we watched the anti-submarine airplanes. Once they got airborne, we would vector them towards the last known location of the submarine we were chasing.” Simkins also recalled working in the men who kept the information board in the CIC updated had an extremely difficult job, having to letter in messages backwards from the back.
The living situation was comfortable for Simkins. Living on the ship he recognized that conditions got increasingly better as your rank increased. Simkins enjoyed the food, “The food is always good. The enlisted mess, has to be open 23 hours a day, because you’re operating. If you’re chasing a submarine, you don’t shut down. Those guys were working around the clock all the time.”
Simkins also took on the job of athletic director on the USS Philippine Sea. It was his creativity that led to the development of volleyball courts for the men to enjoy, fashioned from the hangar deck of the ship which had tie-downs for airplanes. Using poles from the ship’s own steelwork, Simkins had courts created. “We’d have about eight or 10 of those volleyball things going at one time That was a lot of fun. Volleyball was definitely what they enjoyed doing.”
Though Simkins had previous training in CIC, he still had to adapt quickly to new machines and a new environment at Sea. “I had to get acquainted with radar scopes for handling the aircraft for instance. And then you’ve got the surface picture radar. Our ship traveled in a company with six destroyers circling around the ship.”
The USS Philippine Sea was not lacking spirit while Simkins was there. He recalled excellent morale and great spirits. He spoke highly of his fellow men. “Everybody is so well-trained, so it’s great. They’re trained in specialties. The schools do a wonderful job, and the ship, people just try to do better than they ever did before they got aboard ship.” Simkins also had fond memories of Captain James. He remembered one instance where he was in an office and picked up the phone. When he asked who it was and the response was “James” it took him a few moments to realize it was in fact the captain of the ship! Simkins wrote letters home daily. In his time at sea he did not experience any shortages of supplies or food. While on the USS Philippine Sea, he did not receive any injuries.
Upon his return from the anti-submarine ship Simkins had spent countless hours in, he got orders almost immediately to Squadron VA-95 located at the Naval Air Station Alameda. “That was good news because it was exactly what I wanted. I think the captain helped me with that. He knew I wanted to come up to the Bay Area because I left my family in San Francisco.”
In Alameda, Simkins was Operations Officer of the Squadron, the third highest rank after Commanding Officer and Executive Officer. Simkins worked to develop specificities of, “what you’re going to do, what kind of flying you’re going to do, what kind of targets you need,” as well as more. “We would simulate an atomic bombing, and we would have to come over what we called an IP. We’d already studied it. Our fordo aircraft took off- they would take all the pictures you needed of the target. That is, the pilots, we would measure 5 miles towards our cell, towards the carrier. And that point, we’d call our initial point, and we’d want to get over that. And if we got away the initial point, going in the right direction, and, at that instant, we’d push a button, and a system called LABS took over. You didn’t do anything else. You just sat back and took your ride. It was the same shape as the actual atomic weapon, but it was concrete. And it – We called them ‘shapes.’ The – And the shape would release and go that way. And we would go, ah, around here, and roll out on the other side. You kept separation. You didn’t want to get burned by your own weapon.”
Simkins also spent six months deployed on the USS Ranger in 1960 during the Nuclear Weapons standoff with China and Russia. On the ship, Simkins experienced long-range and low-level work relating to targets. “We would go in at 50 feet and 600 miles off the chain and I had a target, Shanghai. You’d launch, at 50 feet because you didn’t want radar detection.” At the time of the mission, Simkins considered the cruise very successful. “It’s in the Cold War, and we accomplished our mission, and didn’t lose too many.”
In his time on the USS Ranger, Simkins continued to pursue his love for athletics with foreign ships. At the time, the ship was about to join SEATO, or the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization. Along with the British, New Zealand, and the Philippines even though they didn’t have any ships, Simkins spent a period of a week doing exercise with international men from the service. “My captain asked me, he said, ‘Bill, see if we can’t work up some athletic activities at the termination of this.’” Simkins happily agreed. He flew in a COD, or “Carrier Onboard Delivery” plane to the Naval Air Station in the Philippines and met with an officer. Because the Philippines had been home to the 1936 Olympics, there was a stadium for use.
“I came up with a schedule, I didn’t get it out until the night before. All these ships were tied up at a pier in Manilla, so I had to go out of the last night. That’s when the games began. We had eight teams on the ship, we had basketball teams we could do. Their carriers, the Australian carrier, we could sent our team up because we had helicopters. We’d take them, then we would exchange the other way. A lot of fun,” Simkins said.
Simkins eventually returned to his Squadron VA-95 in Alameda and took over his job as Operation Officer. He stayed at that job for a complete cruise before receiving orders to go to U.S. Post Graduate School at Monterey. He moved his family from San Francisco to Carmel and went to the Post Graduate School in preparation for teaching at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. His experiences teaching in Annapolis are highly regarded by Simkins. “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful experience! But that was really great, because we got housing inside the Yard at the Naval Academy. We got a house, and I had a daughter born there. It was a great family experience there.” Simkins worked on the electrical engineering committee. He recalls one experience where he was invited by the coach of the crew on a training boat and he could bring any friends and family members he wanted for a day of crew-racing.
Simkins worked on the staff of the Commander of the Naval Air Forces, Pacific Fleet, stationed in Coronado. There, he worked managing antisubmarine billets, which is another term for plans. He recalled it was a challenging job, though he stayed from 1962 to 1967. On June 30, 1967, Simkins retired as a Lieutenant Commander.
Motivation came easy for Simkins throughout his service. “I always wanted to fly, and I wanted to fly in the Navy. While I was on active duty, although I wasn’t flying or attached to a squadron at all time, I enjoyed my times at work.” Throughout his service he made many friends, including a very good mate from the CIC room on the USS Philippine Sea.
The most difficult part of service for Simkins was the constant movement. Leaving for new environments consistently proved to be a challenge. Simkins recalled having no particularly scary experiences in his 24 years of service, though it is entirely possible that his experiences and bravery are a feat many only dream of accomplishing.
Though the travel and moving was a sacrifice for Simkins, it was easily justified. “There’s no other way to do it. We have to protect our country; regimes out there would like to tear us apart. If we don’t protect ourselves, we will not have a country.” He considers the years he spent in the service a very valuable experience.
For any men and women interested in serving, Simkins has a lot of encouragement for them. “They’re embarking on a wonderful experience, and that’s something that will relate to the pieces of the rest of their life. That’s what I think. I would put it that way. I would encourage everybody to have some military experience. I think the idea of programs in high school that lead to knowledge of the Air Force, Navy, Marines, I like that because I think anyone that enters these programs and gets the experience will come away with an affirmative view.”
Simkins risked his life many times at sea, gave up a stationary life for many years, and selflessly devoted 24 years to the United States of America. His sacrifices have strengthened the foundation of the continual democracy and liberties we experience daily. Simkins serves not only as inspiration but a wonderful example of how far bravery and a positive outlook on life will take you.
Interview conducted by Emily Sweet on May 29, 2017.