DR. PHILLIPS — Rene Alexander Roy Sr. recalls the hard labor of working on the family farm in Bennington, Virginia, where he grew up with three brothers and five sisters. His childhood revolved around his farm chores and his schoolwork, until he quit high school after one year to enlist in the military. He was only 17, so his mother had to sign for him.
Now 90 and living in Southwest Orlando, Roy reflected on life during and after the war.
He was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corps, and after training in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, his personal world grew considerably when he boarded the Queen Elizabeth and headed across the Atlantic Ocean to participate in World War II’s European Theater.
From 1943 to 1945, he was stationed in 14 different locations in seven countries with the 380th Fighter, 160th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron: Scotland, England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland and Germany.
A LOT OF PRAYING
His tour of duty started once the ship docked in Scotland and he boarded a train headed for the action.
Roy was a medical corpsman, so he dispensed medicine in the infirmary and drove the ambulance for his squadron.
“When our airplanes were in the air, I had to be on the flight line, on the landing strip, so if they crashed coming in or going out, I was there, right on the spot,” Roy said. “And then if anybody was sick, I took them to the hospital — or the morgue — whichever the case was.”
Frightening moments were common during Roy’s service. While stationed in England, he experienced a few air raids.
“We were told to get in the tunnels, in the subway,” he said. “Being dumb kids, we wanted to stay up (above ground). We saw the bombs and the fires.”
During another, the German soldiers attacked in the middle of the night, dropping bombs nearby. The men dug a foxhole and jumped in, he said, but they tended to dig them too shallow.
On another night, in Luxembourg, Roy heard the whistle of shells as they flew above him.
Injuries and casualties were heavy at times, and although Roy returned home unscathed, others in his squadron weren’t so lucky. In one month’s time, his outfit lost all of its pilots.
It’s possible that Roy’s own life was spared during the Ardennes Counteroffensive (also called Battle of the Bulge).
“The word was out that they wanted ambulance drivers, and I volunteered to go, but Dr. (Michael) DiMiao wouldn’t release me,” Roy said. “So I never really saw action. I was just a kid. What did I know?”
Occasionally, his group was assigned to take care of foreign civilians. Roy recalled one experience with a pregnant woman who was with a group of Russian displaced persons. Her husband rushed into the dispensary, excitedly speaking Russian; the Americans had to locate one of their own who could speak the couple’s language.
At one point during his overseas service, the government turned his fighter squadron into a reconnaissance squadron.
The airplanes were stripped of all heavy armament to make them more maneuverable, and cameras were added for ground surveillance.
Years later, Roy recounted his service — his life — in a 2004 autobiography titled, “A Walk Through Life.” And in the chapter outlining his tour of duty, he was able to add information that has always been special to him and his family.
He wasn’t the only member of the Roy family to live through World War II. His three brothers were overseas, too — one in the islands of the South Pacific and the other two in Europe. He actually was able to visit briefly with two of them.
“None of us got hurt,” he said. “My mother did a lot of praying, I guess.”
Roy was honorably discharged as a corporal at the end of his service in 1945.
“When I got out and into civilian life, I just went bananas,” he said. “I wanted to go back in. Civilian life was completely alien to me. Of course, my mother cried. She didn’t want me to go back in. I hated (the military) with a passion when I was in — we all did — but when I got into civilian life, I wanted to go back in.”
What he wouldn’t miss, however, were the brutally cold European winters. For three years, he and his fellow corpsmen lived in tents.
“We had just a pup tent, and we slept on cots,” he said. “In the wintertime, they gave us a bag, and we filled it with leaves, grass — anything to keep us warm — and we put that on our cots and slept on it.”
LIFE AFTER THE WAR
Prior to being called into service in 1943, Roy worked for a few months in a paper mill. He knew he wanted to avoid returning to mill work, so he did carpentry jobs for less than a month before taking a driver position with Central Vermont Public Service. He also performed industrial electrician work at places such as schools and refineries, working his way up to job superintendent and transferring to Pennsylvania.
He married when he was 27, and they had a son and a daughter. They moved in 1979 to Florida to live and work in a warmer climate.
After retirement, he took up stained-glass art, recalling how he first fell in love with the craft years before, when a neighbor asked him to install a Tiffany lamp fixture. He went to the library and did some research.
“I love to touch the glass,” he said. “I love it. The glass has a personality. Some glass is smooth and easy to work with. And some is difficult.”
Throughout the years, he has remained active, creating Tiffany-inspired works of art in lamps, windows — “anything that can be made out of stained glass, I think I’ve done it,” he said.
He has his own studio in his Bay Lakes home off Apopka-Vineland Road, where he lives with his partner of 16 years, Joyce Decker. (She is an artist, too, in her own right with her paintings, drawings and sculptures lining the walls of her studio down the hall from his.)
He calls his personal space his hideaway, where a crafting table is set up with all the necessary tools so he can continue creating his glasswork. Finished pieces hang in the window: the square-and-compasses freemasonry logo and Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.”
On an adjacent wall are two reminders of his past: a framed hand-drawn map of his route through seven European countries; and a collage of five war survivors, Roy and his three brothers — all World War II veterans, — and his father, who served in France during World War I.
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].