For a guy reported dead almost 80 years ago, retired Navy Capt. Richard “Robbie” Roberts has lived a remarkably long life.
The combat pilot earned 15 medals over a 24-year military career, which ended in 1963. He flew over 50 aircraft models, including fighters, helicopters, patrol bombers and sea planes; fought in two wars; and saw action in nine major naval engagements.
He was shot down on the third day of World War II but survived, landing the damaged seaplane on the water.
Roberts said he was just 27 at the time and “never expected to see 30.\u2033 But he will celebrate his 107th birthday Saturday with new friends and family at the Allegro senior community in Winter Park where he spends most days listening to big band music or audio books.
“I wish I could do more than I can,” he said.
Fading eyesight and poor balance limit him now. He no longer dances twice a month as he did a few years ago.
A nurse often sits with him, but he showers, shaves and mostly dresses himself. He needs help lifting his feet into shoes.
His memory is sharp, his mind clear, said stepson, Blake Warren, 71, of Maitland.
“His faculties are there 100 percent,” Warren said.
Roberts, who served in both World War II and the Korean War, is the oldest active member of the Navy League, a nonprofit civilian and advocacy organization founded in 1902 to support America’s sea services. The Central Florida chapter will fete him Friday.
At least 10 U.S. World War II veterans — and maybe more — are believed to be older than Roberts, who signed up for duty after he heard a radio commercial about the Navy’s search for aviators. According to a link provided by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, the oldest is Lawrence Nathaniel Brooks Sr., 111, of Louisiana.
Asked to list his favorite memories, Roberts gently closed his eyes.
“It wanders,” he said of his imagination.
He said he often sees the face of Ginnie, “the cute little gal” he knew for two weeks before marrying her in 1945.
They had no children but lots of fun over the next 22 years, traveling the world together, Roberts said.
She died from a brain aneurysm in 1967.
He said he also pictures Gloria, his second wife, who he married in 1969.
They moved to Central Florida in 2005 to be closer to her children. She died in 2006 at age 83 of Parkinson’s disease.
Roberts said he sometimes remembers the view of Earth from the sky.
“Even what’s terrible on the ground is beautiful from above,” he said.
He said he wished he could have spent even more time flying than he did.
Glaucoma grounded him in 1963.
His most unforgettable, happy memory is a serendipitous moment in San Francisco in 1942.
Roberts, stationed in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, flew 14-hour missions in a patrol bomber over the Pacific Ocean in search of Japanese ships. He also flew the last plane out of the Philippines before the Japanese invaded.
At the time, he was frequently unable to contact his family in Oregon.
A lieutenant commander mistakenly listed him as missing in action, presumed dead, as many airmen were.
But, months later, on leave in California and hoping to soon visit his parents, he walked down from the balcony of The Emporium, a store in San Francisco. He lifted his eyes on a stairway landing to see suddenly in front of him his mother, Idamae, walking up.
She was in California visiting his brother in military training, Roberts said, voice quivering, a tear skidding down his cheek.
His mother reacted the same as he did — hollering and screaming — “and the party started,” Roberts said. “She thought I was gone and there I was.”
But not all his memories are welcome. “I’ve got a lot of horrible ones,” he said. “Combat’s pretty hellacious.”
He saw fellow pilots shot out of the sky, watched through binoculars from the deck of the USS San Jacinto as young Marines were cut down on Iwo Jima. He said he saw a Japanese warplane dive through the clouds and bomb the USS Franklin.
Explosions blew men and aircraft and fuel overboard, and a burning sea swallowed them.
“There was nothing we could do to help,” Roberts said. “Nothing.”
When asked if he lost close friends in the war, he nodded and said in a barely audible whisper, “All of them.”
Roberts was honored in March as the nation’s oldest living Naval helicopter pilot at a ceremony at Orlando Executive Airport. The Naval Helicopter Association also saluted him with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his work to integrate helicopters into the Navy.
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