Waco resident Robert Ross, 92, served 58 years with the government — 28 in the military. The retired lieutenant colonel served as a fighter pilot and took tactical reconnaissance photographs during World War II. To put it mildly, his was anything but a dull military career.
Born and raised in Gowanda, New York, Ross left home at 18, joining the rush of would-be aviation cadets hoping to join the U.S. Army Air Force. “I didn’t think I would do too well with a rifle and a bayonet,” he said. “I was kind of a skinny little guy.”
Two months after enlisting, he got his draft notice. Although he joined in the fall of 1942, he didn’t put on a uniform until 1943, as there were few openings available. When he finally reported for basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
“We still had Army cots and Army food,” he said. But, he got a real thrill once when he found out that Glenn Miller and his orchestra were playing inside an enormous auditorium-turned-mess hall.
Between basic training to the day he earned his wings at the end of January 1944, Ross received increasingly advanced training throughout the United States. After learning to become a pilot, he was schooled in formation flying, gunnery training, night checkout landing, dive and skip bombing and much more.
While still a cadet, he was one of only 10 pilots selected to fly the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the first American single-seat fighter plane to be manufactured on a mass-production basis.
On a wing and a prayer
Throughout his service time, Ross credits “the good Lord and Providence” for helping him through some rough moments, including once when his engine quit in the middle of target practice. It didn’t occur to him to bail out; Instead, within sight of the airfield, he managed to glide in safely. The brand-new plane had thrown an engine rod.
Ross initially got orders for Europe, but was selected at the last moment for tactical reconnaissance training. A standard fighter plane was specially outfitted with a large K-17 camera, used to photograph bridges, trains, buildings, bodies of water and other strategic targets with the push of a button.
Around this time he was practicing dogfights on P-51s with a fellow pilot during less-than-ideal weather. “It was a broken deck, which means at least 50 percent of the sky covered with clouds,” Ross said. “Remember, we’re young guys without much flying time and no instrument training — none.”
When they finished, they dropped down to look for the airport and saw nothing but forest. They had lost their bearings. After much searching, the two pilots decided to go opposite directions.
Ross went east. By the time he found an airport, his fuel gauge read empty. If he would’ve had to go on, he wouldn’t have made it. Stationed at Key Field in Mississippi, he wound up at Craig Field in Alabama. “I was lost like you couldn’t believe,” he said. He called Key Field collect to get someone to come get him.
Headed for the South Pacific
After leaving Key Field, Ross got sealed orders with instructions not to open them until he was an hour out of San Francisco, over the Pacific. His destination turned out to be New Guinea. Upon arrival, he was sent to Biak Island, where a new depot was putting together P-51 Mustang fighters. He ended up flying with the 82nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.
Ross was sent to a southern island of Mindoro, Philippines, where he went on his first mission the next day. His target was Clark Field, Luzon, and his instructions were “to shoot anything that moved,” he said. He was assigned as wingman to the leader. When he returned to the airport, he had to tell his armorer he was so caught up in being the perfect wing man, he forgot to fire his guns.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he implored the armorer. “They just laughed and laughed. I was such a tenderfoot.”
He wouldn’t remain that way long.
NEXT WEEK: Ross flies over the Philippines, followed by an assignment in Japan, where he photographed Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped. After the war, he joined the New York National Guard and flew over Niagara Falls. Reactivated in 1951 and flying a new F-86 jet, he was sent to Alaska while other airmen went to Korea. By then, he was married with children.
“Voices of Valor,” featuring stories about Central Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday in the Waco Trib. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices of Valor is proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing.