Helicopter pilots were rare in the Tailhook Association until the 1980s. However, as Tailhook expanded to serve the wider community of sea-based aviation, the increasing importance of helos (roughly one-half of all Golden Wingers on active duty today) was represented by aviators such as Bill Stuyvesant, Bob Vermilya, Bill Quarg--and Steve Millikin.
A native Californian who finished Pensacola in 1964, Steve was in the zone for the Vietnam War. As a lieutenant he was a helicopter commander operating in the Tonkin Gulf during 1967, when the combat search and rescue business flourished. Flying an H-3, he and his crew pulled off a notable save that April, grabbing an A-4 pilot out of Haiphong Harbor within 300 yards of the beach in an “opposed rescue.”
Subsequently Steve served as a recruiter, a squadron commander and wing commander for the Naval Reserve’s seven helicopter squadrons. He endured a Pentagon tour before being named skipper of the Recruit Training Command at Great Lakes, Ill. His final duty before retiring in 1990 was chief of staff to the Naval Training Center, Great Lakes.
In the meantime he also found time to serve on several Tailhook committees and as associate editor of The Hook, as well as on the Association board of directors.
Upon retirement Steve moved back to California, putting his journalism degree to good use as editor of The Hook. After a “PCO” (prospective CO) stint he relieved Bob Lawson full time as of August 1991. Faced with the challenge of maintaining the magazine’s quality during a prolonged period of diminished advertising and industry support, Steve significantly reduced magazine production costs while maintaining the quarterly journal’s reputation as the undisputed world leader in Naval Aviation publications.
Soon after Tailhook 91, when it became clear that the Navy and the Bush administration devoutly wished us gone, Steve and I discussed the tone of the convention report. I had written the first draft in the usual reportorial style, which suited him. After all, we were both alums of the University of Oregon journalism school, and the only thing we ever disagreed upon was whether to hyphenate compound adjectives! (I was Pro; he was Con. And since he was editor, he won!)
Once the lay of the political land became apparent, I asked Steve if the report should contain some commentary reflecting the changed reality. He said, “Nobody expects much of politicians but we’ll keep our standards.” So the article was published largely as originally written. That spoke volumes of Steve Millikin’s ethics and professionalism.
Subsequently Steve became the Association’s ready-five spokesman. I don’t know how many appearances he made, but for a couple of months he seemed a regular on TV. One of our very few allies in the media was Bob Caldwell of the Union-Tribune, which had published the leaked accusations, blaming the association for the conduct of military personnel. (As Jig Dog Ramage said, “It was a Navy problem that was made into a Tailhook problem.”)
As I recall, Caldwell sat in on one of Steve’s interviews with a hostile reporter who tried her damndest to make him angry and say something “quotable.” Steve kept his cool, always speaking thoughtfully in modulated tones, staying on point. When the interrogation ended, Steve said that he scored it a draw. Caldwell replied, “No, you won. She couldn’t get to you.”
That was Cap’n Steve. When you’ve motored into Haiphong Harbor at 140 knots to fetch an A-4 pilot from Deep Serious, a petulant reporter with an agenda didn’t stand a chance.
Steve medically retired from The Hook in 2006. It took years to identify the neurological problem that confined him to a wheelchair, and subsequently he was diagnosed with Agent Orange. As with some other Tonkin Gulf aviators, his exposure to the malady remained a mystery since he was only in South Vietnam long enough to address the “Five O’Clock Follies” in Saigon, following his dramatic rescue mission.
Nontheless, for nearly ten years Steve bore his illness with steadfast courage and typical humor. When he transitioned into a celestial hover on January 31, age 75, he left a wealth of devoted friends and admirers in addition to his loving wife Maren and his three children. His strength in adversity remains an example for all of us who knew “Cap’n Steve.”