The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center regularly honors and recognizes Tribal servicemen and women. The Veterans Spotlight case currently highlights Darling family descendant Denny Hopkins who served the United States as a U.S. Navy quartermaster.
He served four tours aboard the USS Aludra during the Vietnam War from the spring of 1966 until the fall of 1969 when the military decided to decommission the ship. CHC Curator Blake Norton chose to feature Hopkins in the Spotlight case for his essential position on the high seas.
“We wanted to honor his distinguished career and thank him for the invaluable contribution he made to the permanent collection with his vast donation of military artifacts,” Norton said. “All will help the community better understand what it means to be a Potawatomi during conflict.”
Hopkins donated several pieces to the museum in 2008, including a navigator’s plotting instrument set, his dog tags, a Navy training center manual, work uniform jacket and several photographs.
As a child in the 1950s, Hopkins showed interest in a military career long before he enlisted.
“I didn’t play cops and robbers and stuff like that. I was always fighting the Japanese or something when I was a little kid. Had a stick gun and all that stuff,” he said.
“I’d make mom mad because I was trying to have a fox hole (in the yard).”
Hopkins was born in Norman, Oklahoma, and has three uncles who served in World War II — one in each the Air Force, Army and Navy. He attended the University of Oklahoma after graduating from Norman High School. As a junior in college, Hopkins decided to seek advice about military service.
“I had an uncle that was in the Navy, and I talked to him. And he told me what he did, and he was in WWII. He told me about his adventures and how he handled his commitment. … I followed Uncle Spot into the Navy,” he said.
After boot camp in San Diego in 1966, Hopkins joined the crew of the USS Aludra. The refrigerated cargo ship supplied other warships with goods and food, and the sailors sometimes moved their haul from ship to ship for up to five hours at a time.
“We were their grocery store,” Hopkins said.
“Semi hazardous because the weather would get kind of bad and the ships could get kind of close together. … Other than that, it was tedious with long hours.”
Hopkins spent most of his deployments in the Gulf of Tonkin located in the northwestern portion of the South China Sea bordering Vietnam. The Spotlight case displays a patch that reads “Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club,” a nickname for the U.S. Seventh Fleet during the Vietnam War. The Aludra became an “unofficial” member for its service to the destroyers and battleships.
Another patch reads, “Hong Kong Blood Transfusion Service,” which Hopkins and other crewmembers received for donating blood several times when illness and infection caused low supplies and an urgent need for blood in Hong Kong.
Stars at sea
Hopkins spent his time as a quartermaster, assisting in the navigation of the nearly 460-foot-long ship. His duties also required logging all of the happenings on the Aludra, no matter how small. He learned how to read stars using a sextant to locate the ship on a map.
“I had no idea when I joined the Navy that’s what I’d end up doing,” Hopkins said.
His favorite shifts included the overnight hours and watching the sun move as it rose or set on the open water with no obstacles.
“People who have never been out at sea don’t know how exactly how many stars there are. From the ground, where the ocean is, was like black, and all around you in every direction as far as you can see … just nothing but stars. I mean, you don’t see one-hundredth of what people do at night (on land),” Hopkins said.
He still enjoys looking at the night sky and picking out planets, although nothing beats the sight of the night sky on the ocean.
Hopkins received an honorable discharge on Valentine’s Day in 1972 along with numerous commendations, including the National Defense Service Medal Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.
Ever humble, Hopkins said, “I’m not anything special; I know that. I’m just a sailor. I just did what I was told to do.”
Following his military service, Hopkins had a long career as a United States Postal Service worker until he retired in 1999.
“Just the fact that I got to do it was a big thing to me. I’m really proud that I got to serve my country because a lot of my passing friends did it and didn’t get to come home,” he said.
If you are a veteran and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and would like your place on the Veterans Wall of Honor at the CPN Cultural Heritage Center, please call 405-878-5830 and ask for KeAnne Langford or Blake Norton or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. The CHC also encourages family members of CPN veterans to provide photos of their loved ones to feature on the Wall of Honor. Visit the CHC online at potawatomiheritage.com.