Centenarian vet reflects on WWII 73 years later

Looking back on WWII

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  • | 5:14 a.m. December 4, 2014
Photo by: Sarah Wilson - Retired Navy Cpt. Robbie Roberts stands in front of memorabilia from his years in the U.S. Navy during World War II and beyond. Roberts is one of only 1 million remaining living World War II veterans of the 16 million American...
Photo by: Sarah Wilson - Retired Navy Cpt. Robbie Roberts stands in front of memorabilia from his years in the U.S. Navy during World War II and beyond. Roberts is one of only 1 million remaining living World War II veterans of the 16 million American...
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The only strike Navy Cpt. Robbie Roberts had in his plans for the night of Dec. 8, 1941 was one he earned lobbing a three-holed ball down an alley to take down 10 teetering pins. He was 18 hours into the future and half an ocean away from Hawaii when the Japanese bombs struck Pearl Harbor.

For Roberts, it was two hours after he’d returned to his base in the Philippines during the wee morning hours of Dec. 9 after a bowling match that he learned he was now a sailor at-war. He was summoned from his bed by his commander, ordered to arm and fuel up his World War I-era plane, set to strike down an invasion by air.

“I never went back to my quarters again,” Roberts said, “everything just reversed.”

Less than 2,000 miles away from the country President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just declared war on, “It was the worst place to be,” he said. “…But you’re too busy to be terrified.”

He wouldn’t eat or sleep for three days after his orders came in. For going on 72 hours he was up in the air on the defense from incoming Kamikaze pilots.

His next flight was shorter. On the third day of World War II, Roberts said he didn’t get his plane more than 50 feet off the runway when it was shot down over the South China Sea.

A Japanese fighter had shot out the plane’s elevator and one of two engines, leaving he and his fellow copilots barely enough leverage to keep the bird in flight before flopping the seaplane onto the water below and taxiing into a cove. They managed to fix the shot-through wire and get the plane back in the air and home to base. Two months later, he said, a not-so-lucky pilot crashed the same plane into a ferry – leaving it totaled.

By the time Roberts shipped out of the Philippines, nearly his entire 14-plane squadron had been destroyed, Roberts said.

Seventy-three years later a model of the plane Roberts flew across the skies of South East Asia sits on the bookshelf of his home office. The back room of apartment 100 in an Altamonte Springs senior living facility serves as a shrine for 100-year-old Roberts’ 25-year military service.

A map of the world with multicolored push-pins sticking out chronicles the captain’s world travels – red for stops during WWII, green for the two decades after the war, and blue from 1968 to the present. Antarctica is the only continent not pricked by a pin.

His favorite place to check off the map? “I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “… I’ve crossed the Atlantic and Pacific so many times that I can’t count them.” But Switzerland, northern Italy and northern Wales rank up on the top of the list.

Photos on the walls chronicle the pilot’s life in uniform from volunteering to serve in September 1937, to his 100th birthday party in April of this year. There are tributes to both of his previous wives, the first felled by an aneurism, the second by Parkinson’s disease – and to the new generation of ladies in his life, serving as dates for military balls and local veteran celebrations. Aging into the triple digits hasn’t hurt his dating game, he said with a grin, “If they’ve got a car, let’s go!”

Roberts said 200 people showed up to celebrate his solidification as a centenarian, throwing him a party that he said will be nearly impossible to beat when 101 comes around.

“I’m a lucky man,” he said.

In a speech celebrating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June of this year, President Barack Obama said only 1 million of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today. Roberts motions toward a framed back-and-white photo behind his desk of men lined up in uniform from his time in flight school, “I’m the only one left.”

Between his time stationed in the Philippines and the three years he spent living and working 24 hours a day on a U.S. Navy carrier ship as the war dragged on, Roberts said he learned to cope with friends taking flight and never coming back.

He was stationed on the same carrier as former president George H. W. Bush, but never met him.

“We made sure not to know the air crew,” Robert said. “They kept dropping off.” With ship space in short supply, he watched as bodies of deceased comrades were tied to weights and sent overboard to their final resting place of the sea floor.

“You just do it,” he said. “You don’t have a choice.”

Roberts served in the thick of things for all but two major battles in the Pacific. Okinawa, Iwo Jima, and Saipan: he was there in the air, though he missed the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea.

He arrived back on American soil in San Diego on Aug. 14, 1945, the same day the Japanese would announce their surrender, effectively ending the war. He watched from his hotel balcony as the streets filled with civilians celebrating the end of the battle he’d spent the last four years fighting.

These days, every day that he’s still up and at it is a day worth celebrating. The main secrets to his longevity, Roberts said, are maintaining a healthy weight and being happy. He finds time every day to go for a walk – no walker or cane needed, his military-man posture still straight – and prides himself on forming friendships with people who can engage in conversations about topics worth talking about beyond the weather and what’s for dinner.

“One of the biggest things is staying away from people who are sour pusses,” he said with a laugh.

After 100 years, he said he doesn’t have the time or want to be depressed. And despite the warfare and bloodshed that marked many of his most formative years, Roberts said he’s made it this far and can still wear a smile on his face.

“I’ve seen a lot. And most things I’ve seen have been very, very pleasant despite the war,” he said.

Roberts keeps himself happy and occupied serving on veterans’ boards and in social groups, such as the Stag Club of Winter Park. But there’s one activity Roberts said he hasn’t taken a roll at since that “date which will live in infamy” marked by the 73rd anniversary this month.

“I haven’t bowled since,” Roberts said with a laugh.