For K.C. Banta, the word “hero” is not used lightly.
Kenton C. ‘K.C.’ Banta was born and raised at Center Square, the son of Loren and Russell Banta. He decided as a teenager to drop out of high school and join the military service – and the rest is history.
“The Navy was an absolute life saver for me,” K.C. Banta said. “I was 17 years old and working in the tobacco patch. I had a great naval career. You’re gone a lot. Barbara and I were married 12 years in the Navy, and we figured up one time that I was gone five years of that.”
In September of 1959, just 20 days after his 17th birthday, he enlisted and headed for Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois.
“I’ve never been sorry for quitting school, I never have,” he reflected. “I picked it up. Got taught and watched and learned a lot.”
When he entered the Navy, the Korean War had ended and Vietnam had not yet begun.
“We still had a lot of World War II veterans in the service,” K.C. Banta said. “We didn’t pick their brains nearly enough. They were just another sailor. We could have learned so much from their sacrifices.”
During his career in the Navy, K.C. Banta was on six different ships, seeing nearly all of the world.
“I was on the ‘Intrepid’ when we picked up Astronaut Scott Carpenter, who was the second man to go around the world in 1962,” he said. “I was on the ‘Enterprise’ when they sent the all nuclear-powered task group around the world in 1964. The Navy was trying to prove what nuclear power could do without help. They were quick. Those ships were really fast. Those were some pretty big highlights of my career.”
K.C. Banta also spent a total of 31 months in Vietnam, including one year on shore and two cruises on ships.
“We did a lot of evacuations when we pulled out of there,” he said. “I was on shore in 1967. We had a little detachment of small boats up there. What we did was, there was a big harbor and there was a lot of big hardware that came in and anchored there. Our job was to keep everything away from them.”
And while all that was going on, wife Barbara was left back here to raise their family and provide support for her husband so far away.
“When I was over there, I left Barbara here for 18 months,” he said. “She was 18 years old and six months pregnant. I brought her back here. She didn’t know anyone but my sister and my mother. Being from a military family, she understood what she was getting into, as much as an 18 year old could.”
K.C. and Barbara met through her mother. Barbara’s dad was in the Navy, serving in World War II as part of 22 years of service. K.C. was stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia; and the two met there.
“There’s the real hero,” K.C. Banta says when speaking of Barbara. “You know what? We forget that. We honor our military, and we should; but the real heroes are the ones who are here, keeping us strong. I can’t believe she did it. I don’t know how she did it. I had a great career, but if you don’t have that family behind you, you’re nothing. Without her, I don’t know where I’d be.”
The young couple moved here in January of 1967; and in February of 1967 K.C. left for Vietnam for a year.
“It was a cold February day when I got on that airplane in Louisville,” he remembered. “I don’t know how I did it. How I ever got on that airplane; but in those days you did what you had to do.”
Along the way, the couple had three children: son Casey; son Robert; and daughter Dawn.
His job when he first entered the Navy was as a baker in food service. He eventually rose to the rank of E-8, which gave him the responsibility of loading ships with food and making sure there were enough supplies before the ship set sail.
“If you’re going to sea for 40 days, and you’ve got 500 young men aboard, you better have enough to feed them,” he said.
During his career, he also spent time in many different Naval ports.
“I was on two ships out of Norfolk, Virginia. One out of Philadelphia; and three out of San Diego,” he said. “I got a full shot of the world. I’ve been to 23 foreign countries and 40 cities within those countries. That’s a long way from Center Square.”
He also spent two years in Alaska; and also two years in Little Creek, Virginia.
The longest he was ever at sea was 43 days, when he was in Manila in the Philippines on board the ‘Ticonderoga’.
“We got the crew back aboard, and – believe it or not, this was 1962 and they sent us to Vietnam to show the American Flag,” K.C. Banta said. “They sent a task group down there along the coast of Vietnam and we were there to show the American Flag. Just to show them that we were watching what was going on.”
He retired from the Navy after 20 years in March of 1979. Stationed in San Diego, he requested a transfer back to Great Lakes, Illinois so that he could be closer to Switzerland County when he retired, because the family had already bought a farm on Ball Diamond Road here.
“I retired about two blocks from where I walked in,” he laughed.
But, in all of his service and commitment to this country, K.C. Banta never wants anyone to call him a hero.
“You know, we use the word ‘hero’ pretty loosely anymore,” he said. “Heroes don’t kick footballs and hit homeruns in the World Series. Heroes are Bob Brown who went over the cliffs in Europe. The Turner boy who drown in Belgium on Christmas Day. Bob Lock, who lived on Tapps Ridge, who went aboard a ship in Brooklyn when he was 18 years old on Christmas Eve and went to Europe.
“Denny Brown. Jim Lucas, 18 years old Marine in the South Pacific,” he continued. “Those are heroes. They don’t catch footballs and hit homeruns.”
His time in the service also helped form friendships that last to this day.
“This Monday Barbara and I are going to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” K.C. Banta said. “I met Jack Arnold in 1960, we were both 18 years old. We’re going to spent about three days together. We’ve done that every two years, all these years. I was stationed with him twice.”
The duo also had a third friend while stationed at Norfolk. K.C. Banta said that Doug Spoonour’s home was close enough that the three could hitch hike there for weekends; and that the Spoonour family treated their two guests just like part of the family.
Doug Spoonour passed away seven years ago.
So, 35 years after he left military service, does K.C. Banta look back at what it means to be a veteran differently?
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “Switzerland County is really good to its veterans, they really are. When you’re around so many for so many years, sometimes we don’t take that part of it serious. A don’t think a true veteran will ever call himself a ‘hero’, because he lives with heroes. You know, I did a service at Swiss Villa Tuesday morning and I look out and there’s Carroll Scudder sitting there. There’s a hero. Then I went to the high school and all those kids and the energy that was in that building. There were 40 vets sitting out there. Sometimes it can almost be a little embarrassing to be honored and be called a hero, because we just went and did what we needed to do. We didn’t do it so people would think we were heroes. I never felt special, and still don’t, but the community makes you feel special.”
- Pat Lanman