Times were tough for Robert Smith’s family when he was inducted into the Navy.
“I sent 60 percent of my Navy pay home to my mother to help the family. My other three brothers did the same. I never played payday poker in the barracks,” he said.
“My older brother quit school in 12th grade the year before I quit in 11th grade. Both of us went to work because of the economic conditions in our home at the time,” the 90-year-old resident of La Casa mobile home park in North Port, Fla. recalled. “Before World War II was over all four of us boys were in the Navy.
“I was inducted in March 1943 and was sent to Green Bay, Wis. for boot camp. After that I went to a warehouse on the Navy’s big dock in Chicago and trained to be an aviation mechanics-mate. We worked on F4U “Corsairs” and “Stearman,” PT-17, two-seated biplane trainers,” he said.
“I ended up in Livermore, a little town in California with about 2,400 residents located near a Naval base doing general maintenance work on the planes the aviation cadets were learning to fly. We made sure the planes were fueled, the oil was okay and everything was copacetic with the mechanics of the PT-17 they were taking up.”
The Naval Air Station at Livermore didn’t lack for movie stars who signed up for the duration to work for Uncle Sam.
“I remember Robert Taylor. I flew with him on several occasions. He was one of the flying instructors who trained the cadets,” Smith said. “I flew weather hops with him in the morning. We’d go up in a PT-17 and fly over the California countryside checking out the weather early in the morning before the cadets took to the air.
“Taylor was very good to the enlisted men. He’d sit around the hanger at night and talk to the sailors while having a cup of coffee.”
By then he had played the lead in Magnificent Obsession, Waterloo Bridge and A Yank at Oxford. Still to come in the ’50s and ’60s: Conspirator, Ivanhoe, Vally of the Kings and many more.
Because Smith and his buddies worked on planes at night they found themselves with days off they could use to their advantage.
“If we had two or three days leave we’d go down to the Oakland docks on San Francisco Bay and work as stevedores. We could go down there, catch a bed at the YMCA, have breakfast and go to work. They paid us well,” he said.
Another favorite place to pick up an extra buck or two on their time off was the Livermore Winery.
“We mostly did odd jobs at the winery. You know, it’s still in business today,” Smith said.
Livermore was a pretty little town populated with nice people, he recalled after more than half a century. After 18 months keeping the trainer planes in the air in California, Smith was relocated to Opa-locka Naval Air Station outside Miami.
The war was ending and Smith went back to repairing Navy planes at Opa-locka. The field had a huge hanger were Navy torpedo bombers and dive-bombers were reconditioned and put back on the front line again.
Opa-locka was even smaller than Livermore.
“In those days Opa-lacka consisted of one general store with two gas pumps and some vacation houses,” he recalled. “In order to get to Miami you took the bus from the front gate of the air station.
On his time off, Smith often went up with a stunt pilot who knew his stuff.
“This one instructor would take me up and ring me out doing loops, wing overs, barrel rolls and Immelmanns. If you got air sick stunt flying with him you had no place to go but in your helmet or over the side.If you went over the side you’d have to get some gasoline and clean the mess off the side of the plane. It was embarrassing.
“On V-J Day (Victory Over Japan, Aug. 15, 1945) the mayor of Miami called the base commander and asked him to keep his sailors on base and out of town. The mayor was afraid they might get drunk and tear his town up.
“The base commander said: ‘No, he was going to give them leave to come into Miami and have a good time.’ I remember there was a lot of partying going on in Miami, but the sailors didn’t damage the town,” he said.
As for Smith, he wasn’t 21 yet, so he threw down some soft drinks to celebrate the war’s end.
“Right after V-J Day I was discharged from the Navy. I hopped a train and took a bus on the last leg of my journey home to Ohio. My mom didn’t know I was coming. I was her first son home from the war. She was shocked and delighted when I walked in the door,” he said.
Like many other returning servicemen, Smith went to night school while holding down a full time job. He spent decades working in steel-related industries around the Ohio area. Toward the end of his working career, he became the general manager of a firm in Cincinnati.
He and his wife, Charlotte, retired to the North Port in October of 1987 where they have lived ever since.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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