LAST WEEK: Robert Ross left home at 18 to join the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942. Hoping to become a pilot, he went through extensive training, eventually flying P-51 Mustang fighter planes.
By January 1944, U.S. Army Air Force pilot Robert E. Ross had earned his wings. It wasn’t long before the New York native, now 92, was in the South Pacific flying armed photographic and combat missions as a member of the 82nd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.
His leaders were Medal of Honor recipient William A. Shomo and Distinguished Service Medal recipient Paul Lipscombe. Ross arrived in mid-January 1945, just days after those two men had earned their honors for a heroic aerial attack on 12 Japanese fighter planes that were escorting a “Bouncing Betty” bomber.
Located in Mindoro, Philippines, Ross had already flown his first combat mission from Clark Field, on the island of Luzon, with instructions to “shoot anything that moved.” However, he never took a shot. He was so focused on his wingman duties that he forgot to fire.
He was, as he described it, “a real tenderfoot.” But that wouldn’t be the case for long.
When he first arrived in Luzon, the Army had backed the Japanese to about 30 miles from the airfield. The fighting was still a little too close for comfort.
“They were firing at us, but you didn’t know it unless you got hit,” Ross said.
Close call in mid-air
On one mission over the Lingayen Gulf, the lead pilot had problems with his guns and asked Ross to make a few additional passes. A 37mm shell passed through his fuselage tank, took out the radio and exploded against the back of his seat, which was armored with a steel plate. For a moment, he unable to hear or see.
“The cockpit was filled with smoke,” he said. “I was beating a path off that airfield. Where there’s one shell, there’s another.”
During his service time in the Pacific, Ross lost only one man, a wingman whose plane failed. The pilot bailed out, and Ross raced back to the airfield, alerting rescue teams of the location. The last Ross knew, the wingman was safely in a life raft, waiting to be picked up at first light. Unfortunately, a typhoon swept through during the night and the man was lost at sea.
From the Philippines, the entire outfit transferred to Ie Shima Island in the summer of 1945. Located about five miles west of Okinawa — the same place famed journalist Ernie Pyle lost his life — Ross was assigned to photograph strategic targets where the Japanese army expected U.S. forces to invade, he said.
Three days after the atomic bomb was deployed over Hiroshima, the U.S. dropped another on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. The next day Ross was the lead of two planes sent to take low-level photographs of the aftermath. They hadn’t gone far before entering what looked like fog. It turned out to be smoke. Having lost sight of the horizon, they had to fly by instruments.
“It was terrible,” he said. “The center (of the city) was gone.” At that time, there was a high level of radiation. “No one said anything,” Ross added. “All we could think about was that the war was over — let’s go home.”
Married after war; on to Alaska
Ross was married in June 1946 to Margaret Deakin, who would usually travel with Ross on his many assignments around the world. He left active duty, joined the New York National Guard, and was attending college on the GI Bill when his unit was activated during the Korean War in 1951.
He was stationed for a time in Niagara Falls, where he flew a new F-86 Sabre jet fighter. As orders came in by ones and twos for Korea, Ross finally received his and was surprised to find he had been assigned to Fairbanks, Alaska. He enjoyed his posting there, especially one new duty: conducting air shows.
Ross spent 28 years in the military, including a deployment in England. His final transfer was to Waco, where he remained until retiring in 1970 after advancing through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel.
During his service, Ross flew 115 missions, and earned three Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross for combat over an airfield on Luzon. After retiring from the Air Force, he worked 23 years in civil service with the Veterans Administration.
Over their 70-plus years together, Ross and Margaret had three children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She passed away in November.
He no longer thinks about his service much, but it was obviously a special time in his life. “I loved it,” said Ross. “I loved military life.”
And he credits God and Providence – and just plain luck – for bringing him home unscathed.
“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.