A Canadian resident with an American father who met his mother while living in the Montreal area, Bob Werner of Bay Indies Mobile Home Park was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Force in 1946. He ended up in Sheppard Field, near Wichita Falls, Texas for basic which was the beginning of a series of educational experiences for the 20-year-old.
Sent on to Geiger Field outside Spokane, Wash. for training to become a printer, he got a good look at the spectacular mountainous countryside during the last leg of his trip by train to the base. From there it was on to Eglin Field, 30 miles east of Pensacola.
While at Eglin, Werner had his first look at segregation in the deep South up close and personal during a boxing match on base. As a Canadian, he knew nothing of segregation.
“In one corner of the ring stood our fighter, the base reigning champion, a sergeant from the Military Police. In the other corner was his black opponent, a young private representing the Corps of Engineers,” he recalled.
“Before the end of the second round the Engineer’s fighter was jabbing his opponent unmercifully. It was a one-sided affair that lasted until the end of the sixth round,” Werner said. “When the ring announcer rendered the judgement of the three judges that the base champion won the crowd went wild and bedlam broke out. A black soldier in the crowd was killed when he was hit by a flying stone.”
Although Werner requested assignment in Europe. he ended up being sent to the Pacific. The young airman, in early 1947, became a member of the 10th Photo Tech Unit, based at Kadena Air Force Base on the island of Okinawa off the Japanese coast.
Their operation was small, possibly 35 airmen, who ran a photo lab for a secret aerial photograph operation. Werner and his buddies printed high altitude aerial pictures taken by a flight of World War II B-29 “Super Fortresses” flying secret missions into Russia and China to photograph industrial complexes and military basis.
“We would make prints from huge rolls of aerial film. My job was to reduce the film in the photo lab into 16 by 20-inch prints,” he said. “Many times there would be a high ranking officer at the lab waiting for the prints I was making.”
For the men of the 10th Photo Tech Unit, Okinawa was the end of the earth. It was a boring, godforsaken assignment on an Air Force base of Quonset huts, sand, mosquitoes with little or nothing for the men to do on their off time.
“We were restricted to the base and had no contact with the local inhabitants,” Warner said. “For 20 months I remained on base with only one weekend pass to fly to Manila with my company commander.
“Two other sergeants and I got to see what was left of Manila with our C.O. The city had been leveled by the bombs during the war. There were still sunken ships in the harbor that we flew over which was a sorrowful sight,” he said.
Werner and his pals had pooled their fortunes to buy booze in Manila. The returned with some over-priced champagne that didn’t live up to the sales pitch.
The most exciting thing that happened to Warner during the almost two years he was stationed on Okinawa was a 100 mph. typhoon that struck the base.
“We were living in Quonset huts that had to be reinforced with 2 x 4s before the storm hit. They were also held down and partially covered with sandbags to keep the huts in place,” he explained.
In December 1948 Werner’s tour was up. He sailed for the U.S.A. on a slow moving troop ship that reached the California shore 17 days later.
“Three of us were walking down the avenue in Stockton, Calif. with our reputed duck (discharge) pins on our uniforms when we saw three pretty girls walk by. They were selling subscriptions to national magazines to help pay for their college educations they told us. We signed up, but never received a copy of what they were selling. I guess it was a scam,” he said with a smile 60 years later.
Werner went to work for a firm that appraised real estate. After four years he became an appraiser. Later he switched jobs and became an appraiser for the Equitable Life Insurance Co., appraising commercial properties in West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio.
After that, he went to work for an insurance agency his father-in-law owned. Werner ended up running the company 15 years later. Twenty years after that he and his wife, Ruth, retired to Bay Indies in the 1980s.
“Ever since we’ve been down here we’ve been doing volunteer work,” Werner said. “For the past 25 years we’ve worked with “Big Brothers and Big Sisters.” We also worked with “Southeastern Guide Dogs” that trains dogs for blind individuals at no cost. For more than two decades the couple has been “puppy raisers” for the program.
In addition, the Werners have been active in “Meals on Wheels” for years, donated more than 15 gallons of blood and volunteered at Mote Marine Laboratory in the Sarasota area.
They have three children: Nancy, Andrea and Matthew.
Name: Robert H. Werner, Jr.
D.O.B: 29 Dec. 1926
Hometown: Montreal, Canada
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 19 Feb. 1946
Discharged: 13 Dec. 1948
Unit: 10th Photo Tech Unit
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, Occupation Medal
Skills: Photolithographer, dark room and photo lab
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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