Saturday, September 19, 2020

Salute to Veterans: Robert Sargeant

Robert in his US Army uniform 1944. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Robert in his US Army uniform 1944. SUBMITTED PHOTO

By Maggie Gust

Robert Sargeant served in the U.S. Army 925th Ordnance Battalion, achieving the rank of sergeant, March 1943 to April 1946, in the European Theater.

Born on a farm in Ohio in 1924, Robert grew up during the Depression years with two brothers and one sister. Like most of the families in the area, they “didn’t go to bed hungry” because they raised their own food. There was never any spending money and not much money for anything, period. Since everyone else was in the same boat, it was just the norm. He met his wife Thelma, also from a farm family, when they started school together in the first grade. She was his lifetime sweetheart.

His childhood in rural Ohio was typical of farm kids across the country. There were chores to be done at various times throughout the day. At age 9 he learned how to drive their steel tractor, by 12 was driving on the highway. There were no state laws requiring driver licenses at that time but at age 13, that changed and Robert had to pass a test to get his driver license. A person aged 18 or older merely had to sign a paper and were handed a license, but those under 18 had to pass a driver test. Stop signs were white ovals with a narrow black border and STOP in black 3-inch high letters.

From his early childhood, Robert remembers there were still hitching posts in town and some folks were still using buggies, though not many. They cured their own hams in the basement on a platform hung on wires from the ceiling. His father would stuff salt and a bit of sugar into the slabs of meat and top off their entire exteriors with a quarter-inch of salt. They also had a

Robert and Thelma’s wedding photo, 1944. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Robert and Thelma’s wedding photo, 1944. SUBMITTED PHOTO

smokehouse and would smoke the meat at times, about five hogs at a time. His dad also worked as a conservation office for the state of Ohio, so they had a few farmhands. Raising their own meat helped feed the 7 people at the table for each meal, which were robust, including pie at breakfast to keep them fueled through the hours of hard manual labor until lunch time.

A favorite memory is free Saturday movies. A small town nearby would close off a street, people would sit on the side of a hill and watch the movies. Robert remembers that at age 13, they got electricity in the area. Prior to that, the radio was battery operated. That means his mom’s cooking and baking of those hearty farm meals were done on fire-powered stove and oven. The laundry was a tub of water and a washboard. No water heater. Nine out of 10 rural homes in America had no electricity in the mid 1930s. The Rural Electric Administration under FDR turned that statistic on its head and less than 20 years later in 1953, 9 out of 10 rural homes had an electricity source.

A17-CBN-12-25-15-10He was age 15 when the war started and remembers that at a threshing ring (a cooperative of farmers working together to hire a threshing machine to pound and shake their wheat, oat or barley, separating the grain from its husks and stalks. Prior to 1940, steam engines were used to power the thresher, then the combine was invented, capable of doing all the harvesting – reaping, threshing and winnowing- all at once. Some Amish communities still thresh the old way.), the war was being discussed. One man said that no one knew how long the war would last,

Robert relaxing on  his lanai, October 2015. PHOTOS BY MAGGIE GUST

Robert relaxing on his lanai, October 2015. PHOTOS BY MAGGIE GUST

that “Even Bob may have to go.” At the time, draft age was 21, so that seemed farfetched.

On December 7, 1941, the day after Robert’s 17th birthday, he was on a double date with Thelma and another couple, crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky back to Cincinnati when the news about the Pearl Harbor attack was broadcast. They listened to FDR’s speech the next day when he asked congress to declare war. Robert tried to enlist in the Air Corps but his mother refused to sign the papers and since both parents’ permissions were required, he stayed home. He spent that year, his senior year of high school, working the farm and attending school very infrequently. Nevertheless, he graduated in May 1942.

In a little less than a year, he was drafted into the army, sent to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. He expressed an interest in the air corps and was sent to Jackson for tests. One of the requirements for that training was two years of college or the equivalent, but Robert passed the test and was accepted. He was moved on to a hotel room in Miami Beach, Florida, rather a heady thing for a kid from rural Ohio. After a pre-aviation cadet course and flight training at George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, next stop was San Antonio, Texas for advanced training. Their only activity was exercise as there were too many cadets. They winnowed them down by keeping the volunteers and returning all the transferees back to their previous branch.

A17-CBN-12-25-15-13So, after almost a year and half of air corps training, Robert was sent back to square one, in his case back to Biloxi. By this time, Robert and Thelma were married and he brought her to Biloxi. An

 

 

officer said, “You brought your wife? You’re going to go overseas!” Thelma went back to Ohio, worked in a defense plant that made aluminum rivets and skin for airplanes. She eventually was working in the chemistry department, doing and recording quality control of the anodizing of aircraft. Robert went to war.

He was shipped to Europe via the North Atlantic, avoiding the wolf packs of German submarines in the more southern waters. Although he wasn’t afflicted with seasickness, many of his shipmates were bedridden (or bunk ridden?) through most of the journey. Still, it was a rough crossing for the “landlubbing farm boy.” They disembarked at Liverpool, December 1944, and after a short while were trucked to a port city, put on a landing craft on a ship and crossed the English Channel to France. “They bulldozed some sand out and dropped that front down and drove right up to the German border.”

At this time they were in Mannheim, Germany, right after the Battle of the Bulge, still winter time and although Americans had retrieved their fatalities, the Germans had not. There was a lot of wreckage in the villages and on the roads, much of it inflicted by the American bombers. The remains of entire German convoys were present everywhere. There were refugees, escaping from the advance of the Russian soldiers. When they crossed the Rhine, they saw refugees climbing the girders of the wreckage of the Remagen Bridge. “We advanced then on up to the Rhine River and crossed on a pontoon bridge that our soldiers had already set up. I was under General Patton at that time….of course we didn’t see him.” They did not go much further into Germany.

A17-CBN-12-25-15-12They were there when President Roosevelt passed away, just five months

 

 

after winning his fourth term. He had been president during most of Robert’s life, “It was almost like losing your father.”

There was very little to no protocol observed in the combat zone, with soldiers dressing as they wanted and first name usage between the men up to a rank of first lieutenant or so. He slept on cots in tents for the entire time he was there. A typical day for Robert while in the European theater began with getting up early and eating breakfast in the mess hall. Because the army moved slowly and stayed in one place for awhile, they always set up a mess. Powdered milk always, powdered eggs sometimes, ham, corned beef and hash were some of the frequent menu items. He was satisfied with the food, though some soldiers would never like anything served and even complained when they had steak. German kids would line up at the fence outside the mess hall, each holding a bucket, hoping for scraps. Some soldiers would walk past the kids and scrape their trays into the garbage cans.

Robert was in Ordnance and had been given a license to drive virtually any vehicle. He became quite familiar with “ducks,” which were equipped to travel on both soft and hard surfaces. This was accomplished by a hand control placed near the steering wheel so that the driver could expel or intake air in the tires to flatten or round them to match the terrain. He remembers that one day in April 1945 after breakfast they asked for a volunteer. “Well, no one volunteers in the army.” So, he was chosen to volunteer because he held a universal license. He was sent over to a semi, a type of vehicle he had never driven before, a small-sided trailer hitched to it

 

 

and was told to drive to the train station. There he picked up 54 displaced persons and transported them to a rest camp, where they were helped in the process of eventual relocation.

On V-E (Victory in Europe) Day in Germany, everybody was happy! Two American airplanes were out celebrating, crisscrossing each other, when one clipped the tail off the other. Both pilots parachuted to safety.

A17-CBN-12-25-15-11After a little more time in Germany, Robert was sent to central France, took an advance group down to Marseilles, France, and put his things on a ship to go west for the Invasion of Japan. Orders came to retrieve their things from the ship and go back where they came from. Twelve of them were put on a boxcar and told to stay on that boxcar which would get them back eventually. They were supplied with five days of K rations, no water. It was part of a freight train operated by the French, went very slowly and only operated during daylight. Every night the train would be stopped, moved around the rail yard and the men would get planks to use as beds and sleep on top of the boxcar. It was August, quite hot and the box car was stuffy. Since they had been given no water, they were drinking wine from a vat that they could access from the boxcar. No one became intoxicated, but they were apparently quite mellow throughout the trip. At the time they didn’t realize just how much they had to “party” about.

When the train finally got them back to Mannheim, there was talk about a strange new term “atom bomb” which had been dropped in Japan. Apparently this was the reason they were pulled off the ship in Marseilles.

 

 

“That bomb probably saved my life,” according to Robert as the estimates had been that up to a million American lives would be lost during the Invasion and double or triple that for Japanese fatalities. There was an indescribable feeling of relief among the troops.

From there, he put in more time in France. After General Patton died in December 1945, Robert’s unit was transferred to the command of General Omar Bradley. From France he was sent stateside in early 1946 and mustered out in April of that year.

Robert credits his military training, particularly the air cadet training, for changing his life. It was very regimented for the purpose of instilling self-discipline. The cadets were taught the paramount importance of integrity, that an officer must be honest and above reproach. His fellow officers must be able to count on his word – if he tells them he can deliver X number of men at X hour in a conflict, they must be able to trust that. Therefore, the officers’ honor code was not to lie, cheat or steal or tolerate anyone who did. The most difficult part of that code for most people was the latter, turning in classmates. His 17 months in that corps was a world-expanding education for the young man from rural Ohio.

A17-CBN-12-25-15-16When Robert was mustered out, he went home to Ohio. Thelma had worked throughout the war and between her paycheck and Robert’s monthly allotment which he had sent home, she had managed to save around 800 dollars. He had a motorcycle and his dad gave him 400 dollars, the price of a cow at that time, as a gift to help him start civilian life. At first, Robert tried to set his up own farm, but it was

 

 

impossible to purchase farm equipment. It simply was not available. All manufacturing in the country had been war focused for years.

After picking up work here and there, he started a steady job at a factory which manufactured trim for automobiles. Robert was assigned to the tool room at $1.25 an hour with a 6-cent raise at the end of his first year. Realizing the limitations of this position, he moved to another shop and over the next few years steadily increased his wages as he progressed through a series of tooling jobs. He took to manufacturing and tooling “Like a duck to water.”

He and Thelma decided to start up their own business. “That was the best thing I ever did.” Finances were slim. They had to refinance their house but started up, took on a junior partner after awhile, and started some new companies. Robert’s brother was also in the business. At one point, they had 13 companies established, with 3 million square feet of workplace all under roofs.

Boeing and Airbus were among their major customers. Sidney Tool and Die also contracted with NASA, becoming a certified supplier of parts for space vehicle including the space shuttle. Apparently it was an exciting, innovative work place as Robert and his brother each hold dozens of patents, as do several of their engineers.

This was around the time when Robert and Thelma came to Florida, to wind down and eventually retire here full time. However, the junior partner suddenly passed away. So Robert and his brother hired a management team to take care of the businesses while they continued their part-time Florida visits. Eventually, they decided to sell most of the business.

Thelma and Robert were building a family along with their business. They had two daughters, Marsha and Lynn, (and now have four

Veterans Park is just oneof the local sites that hasbenefited from Robert andThelma Sargeant’s generosity.

Veterans Park is just oneof the local sites that hasbenefited from Robert andThelma Sargeant’s generosity.

grandchildren and two great-grandchildren). A foster daughter came into family at age 12 but was tragically killed in a truck-pedestrian accident at age 30, on her way to buy Thelma a birthday card.

The Sargeant family enjoyed traveling and spent many vacations in a motor home, visiting both the United States and Canada. He went back to Europe several years ago and visited Normandy for a weekend, as well as some other sites and has included Hiroshima in his travels. Robert still enjoys traveling and has some exciting trips coming up.

Robert and Thelma were very benevolent throughout their lives and have shared the rewards of their hard work. In the Marco area, they have been generous supporters of the historical museum, Veterans Park, Air Rescue, the YMCA and other organizations. Up in Sidney, they are even more involved of course. Although Thelma passed away last year, Robert continues their tradition of giving and an animal shelter is currently being built in Sidney because of his generosity. One of the first gifts they established was a scholarship fund for their own rural school. It is well endowed and will continue to sponsor bright ambitious students for many generations to come.

Like many other World War II veterans, Robert has participated in the Honor Flight program. Thelma was his guide/guardian, so they were able to enjoy the trip together. In his area in Ohio, it is actually a 3-day bus trip rather than a flight. In the beginning, they used one bus on the trip but it exploded in popularity almost immediately, so the trips now consist of two 50-passenger busses to accommodate both the veterans and their guardians. It was a very satisfying experience.

Thank you for your military service as a young man, Robert Sargeant. Thank you for your benevolence to Marco and for making this your second home. We are proud to call you neighbor

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