Biography of Captain Alexander Rives Skinker
Captain Alexander Rives Skinker, son of Thomas Keith and Bertha (Rives) Skinker, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, October 13, 1883. He was educated at Smith Academy and Washington University, both of St. Louis and was graduated from the latter institution in June, 1905, with the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He obtained a position with the Long Distance Bell Telephone Company, in whose service he remained for six years. In 1903 Alexander R. Skinker enlisted in Battery A, St. Louis Light Artillery. After five years’ service with this company he obtained a discharge, having left the city in the interests of the telephone company. In the winter of 1916 he heard an address by the colonel of the First Missouri Infantry National Guards, in which the speaker, referring to the prospects of war with Mexico or Germany or both, pointed out the lack of officers and strongly urged that all young men who had any military training should join in forming an Officers’ Training Corps. For this purpose he offered the use of the First Regiment Armory, with experienced officers to do the training. Aleck Skinker and half a dozen others immediately accepted this offer and started a training corps. By the end of May this corps numbered two hundred and twenty-five, of whom two hundred subsequently went into the service. Captain Carmack of Company I, First Missouri, needed lieutenants for his company and selected Aleck Skinker and one other, whom he had elected to lieutenancies. Owing to business complications, Captain Skinker hesitated until the president’s call for the National Guard on the 16th of June, 1916. He then promptly accepted and went as second lieutenant of Company I to the Mexican border. Returning, the regiment was mustered out on the 26th of September. On the 16th of December, 1916, he became first lieutenant and on the 29th of July, 1917, was promoted to the captaincy of the company. On the 26th of March, 1917, the regiment was again called out and for several months performed guard duty, protecting against apprehended attacks by German sympathizers the St. Louis city water works, the bridges over the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the lead works and smelters at Flat River and Bonne Terre, Missouri, and several munition works in and near St. Louis.
On the 11th of August, 1917, Captain Skinker was married in St. Louis to Miss Caroline French Rulon-Miller, of Philadelphia. Later his regiment was sent to Camp Doniphan at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where it was consolidated with the Fifth Missouri, the two forming the One Hundred and Thirty-eight United States Infantry. Captain Skinker was retained as captain of Company I. While the regiment was at this camp a school was opened for the instruction of non-commissioned officers and privates who wished to get commissions. Candidates were admitted on the selection and recommendation of their company commanders and Captain Skinker recommended five of his men. The school opened with about four hundred students and of these about one hundred withdrew. The other three hundred stood the examinations and seventy-five of them passed and were commissioned, among whom were the five from Company I. Thus this single company furnished one-fifteenth of the winners of the entire Thirty-fifth Division of twenty-six thousand men. Nothing could more plainly attest the high quality of the men of this company, nor the good judgment of the commander who selected them.
Toward the end of April, 1918, this regiment left Camp Doniphan for Camp Mills, New York, where it remained for a week and on the 3d of May started across. After a voyage of sixteen days it reached England, where it went to a rest camp for two days, then crossed to France and was assigned to a position in the Vosges mountains. Captain Skinker was for a time detached and sent to Pont Remy as liaison officer with the School of Musketry of the British Fifth Army. While there he wrote that the commander of the camp had invited him to his mess and he was associated with a number of British officers whom he described as splendid fellows. Captain Parry of the Manchester regiment, on the other hand, wrote that Captain Skinker was a fine soldier, a thorough sportsman and a good comrade and told of a testimonial given him by the British officers at parting. Nominally a liaison officer, his mission to the British camp was of a much higher kind than that term ordinarily imports. A large number of junior officers of the American army had been sent to this school. Mutual antagonism arose between them and the British officers. They simply did not like each other; and besides there were differences in methods that were irritating. The situation became so unpleasant that the American generals thought it wise to send one of the Junior officers to pour oil on the troubled waters and Captain Skinker was the man selected for this work-a most delicate task in which he was extremely successful. A little older than most of the junior officers of both armies, he was still young enough to make it easy for him to win their goodwill; but to become a reconciler it took tact, patience, good temper, good judgment and ready wit, and above all he had to be fair and honest and a thorough gentleman. Captain Skinker possessed all of these qualifications and beyond doubt was selected by his superior officers because he was known to have them. He wrote home that he was having an easy time-only six hours’ work per day-but rumor had come that his regiment had been engaged and he was disturbed by the thought that he was absent the first time his men came under fire. The rumor turned out to be unfounded. On the 29th of July, 1918, Captain Skinker rejoined his regiment to his great satisfaction and that of the men as well, as many of them attested. Shortly after he was offered a leave of absence to attend a school of instruction in the duties of the general staff but declined, preferring to remain with his men. The One Hundred and Thirty-eighth was at St. Mihiel but was held in reserve and took no part in the battle. Thence the regiment was transferred to Bar-le-duc, marching principally by night through wooded country to avoid enemy airplanes. This regiment belonged to the Thirty-fifth Division and was assigned to the duty of leading the attack for that division in the battle of the Argonne. The attack began on the 26th of September. Companies I and M were in front. On the first day of the battle at a dangerous place, Captain Skinker, taking two men and ordering the rest to keep themselves under cover, went ahead to find out the lay of the land and if possible to break up a machinegun nest. The enemy suddenly opened a heavy machine-gun fire and he was killed. Major Comfort, who succeeded to the command of the regiment after the colonel was wounded and the lieutenant colonel killed, in his official report wrote: “Captain Skinker, in his local area, not desiring to expose more men than were necessary, required his men to take cover, and personally set out with an automatic rifleman and a carrier to silence a machine-gun nest in his immediate front. The ammunition carrier was promptly killed, and Captain Skinker taking his ammunition continued on, firing the automatic rifle, until he met death himself, followed immediately by the automatic rifleman. Captain Skinker has been recommended for the Distinguished Service Medal, posthumous.” Major Comfort also wrote the bereaved parents as follows: “I looked upon his poor body lying where he fell in the road. His face bore the serene and peaceful expression of his waking hours.”
Upon more deliberate examination of the circumstances attending Captain Skinker’s heroic death the commanding general decided that the Distinguished Service Medal was inadequate, and the Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded instead. This is the reward offered by military law for “bravery and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.” (See Kenamore’s From Vauquois Hill to Exermont, p. 115).
Colonel McMahon, who formerly commanded the regiment, has written: “He died, as he had lived, protecting his men. Greater love than this hath no man-that he lay down his life for his friend.’ I have had the story by letter from several and from others verbally it is known to the regiment-and I hope it is some consolation in your day of sorrow, to know that whenever the story is told it is agreed that a man among men died a man’s death, for America wonderful, quiet, heroic.”
In civil life Alexander Skinker was a model son, brother and husband, genial, kind, honorable, unselfish, energetic, judicious, temperate and sure of himself, a Christian gentleman, and a member of the Protestant Episcopal church. In military life he was a diligent and intelligent instructor and careful protector of his men, thoroughly in sympathy with their needs, and in the day of battle calmly resolute and absolutely fearless.