2nd LT Robert C. Hart
US Air Corps.
439th Troop Carrier Group, 9th Air Force
US Air Corps.
439th Troop Carrier Group, 9th Air Force
Robert Hart was born in New Haven, CT in 1921. He had a brother Ken who was 18 months younger and a sister Lois who is 14 years younger. His parents divorced and his mother remarried, and his stepfather moved the family to Madison, CT in 1930. “I remember we didn’t have much during the depression, but we had food. We had a large garden and grew potatoes, corn and carrots and we had chickens. So, we had eggs and we ate the chickens and pigs.” His father had his own business called the Milton M. Kateley Company. He was a tree surgeon and also trimmed shrubs. He had plenty of work during the depression.
Robert went to Madison High School and enrolled in the business program but failed shorthand and typing. He then transferred into the college program and made up his mind that he was going to be two things. The first was an engineer because his was very good in algebra and geometry. The second was he was going to be a pilot. I asked what it was about flying that was so attractive to him. “I don’t know. I just had an interest in it and I was always building model airplanes.” Madison had a small airport owned by Jack Griswold. He had a bi-plane and charged $1 for a ride. One day Bob talked his friend into going to the airport to see if they could get a ride. He asked Jack if they could have a ride and Jack said yes. Bob told Jack that he and his friend had only 50 cents each. Jack Griswold said, “get in!”
Bob enrolled at the University of Connecticut in 1940 in the engineering program. Bob said, “back then, you were obligated to join the ROTC for 2 years. At the end of the two years you could apply for the advanced ROTC and graduate as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Infantry”. When he was getting his physical, he asked the doctor if he could pass the Air Corp physical and the doctor said yes. Bob didn’t want to be in the Infantry so he immediately joined the Air Cadets so he was sure he could join the Air Corp (predecessor to the air force). In 1943 “I received an invitation from President Roosevelt to join the military”, so off he went to the Air Corp.
Robert received his pilots training in the US. First, he learned to fly a bi-wing plane in Decatur, Alabama. 2 months later he moved to a better plane and then 2 months later he began fighter training. Next he was sent to Texas to learn to fly C47s. In January of 1944 he flew a C47 to the UK via the southern route – down to South America, over to Africa and up to the UK. He trained at an airfield just east of Oxford, UK. He learned to tow gliders, drop paratroopers and haul supplies. He knew they were training for an invasion, but it wasn’t until the day before that they learned the specifics of the D-Day operation. This would be his first flight. Bad weather caused the invasion to be postponed by one day. I asked what was going through his mind. “There wasn’t anything you could do but wait. I wasn’t afraid of it.”
Bob’s plane took off in the early evening of June 6th after the Allied Forces had taken the beaches and he towed a glider across the English Channel. Beneath him he saw “so many boats you could walk from boat to boat.” As he crossed over the beach, he could see the tracer bullets coming up from the ground. “They looked like Roman Candles”. The glider pilot released from the cable and Bob made a hard right, dropped the cable, flew low to the ground and shot off for the English Channel and back to his base in the UK. “I wasn’t hit but my friend was. They shot up his plane including his gas tank. In the middle of the English Channel he ran out of gas and had to ditch. Everyone on board survived and they were picked up by an English torpedo boat.
Bob said they were like flying delivery trucks with a 5-man crew. Pilot, Co-Pilot, Navigator, Radioman and Engineer. They delivered ammunition, food, fuel and anything else the troops needed. Once he carried a plane full of 5-gallon gasoline containers for delivery to Patton’s tanks. On another occasion he carried a jeep and a 75mm canon. “I have no idea how they got that on the plane it was so big.” A few weeks after the invasion he started to bring wounded US GI’s back to the UK. He could carry 18 stretchers or 27 “walking wounded”. “If we had the stretchers, we also carried a nurse”. Although he wasn’t shot at, except for D-Day, once he had a tire blow out on take-off. Fortunately, the plane was empty, and he quickly turned around and managed to land the plane on its left tire and rear tire. “It was a real balancing act.”
5 months after the invasion, when the Allied troops pushed the Nazi’s back into eastern France the trips started to get longer so they changed their base of operations from Oxford to Amiens, France. Most of his flights were one day and he estimates he made close to 1,500 trips. “I got to sleep in my bunk every night, not in a foxhole like some of those poor guys”.
“Once we had to fly into Brussels. The Nazi’s had left the day before. The people were so happy to see us. You couldn’t buy a drink. They paid for everything”. While on leave in London he was walking through Hyde Park. “I walked by this girl sitting on a bench reading a book. She was gorgeous! So, I turned around, walked back and sat on the bench next to her. She told me she was going to call for the police. I said, ‘Don’t do that. I just want to talk to you.’ So, we talked and made a date for the following day. She was from San Sabastian, Spain and her parents had sent her to England to get away from the Fascists.” At that time Marie was working as a translator for NATO.
Bob returned to the US when he was discharged in September of 1946 but went back to get Marie. They were married by a Justice of the Peace in London. Now they needed to get back to the US but Bob was running out of money. He contacted the US Embassy and they told him they could get him on the Gripsholm. He and Marie boarded the ship, still outfitted as a transport ship, and returned to the US.
Bob went back to the University of Connecticut to complete his degree in engineering on the GI Bill. He went on to work as an engineer at the Ponds Extract Co building machines that filled jars and powered the conveyor belts. He later worked as an engineer at the the RR Donnelly & Sons printing company. They printed the well-known magazines of their day, Look and Life. “I could see the circulation dropping and then one day I got laid off.” Fortunately, Bob had seen the writing on the wall and had begun to dabble in land surveying. He got his license and hung out his own shingle and had a successful career as a surveyor and worked until he was 90. He and Marie had one son and were married for 57 years before she passed away in 2004.
Like so many of the WW2 veterans I have spoken to, Bob is very matter of fact about the war, he loves to chat about any topic, was married for a long time and worked well beyond his “golden years”. Maybe that is why they are called the greatest generation.
“I really enjoyed my time during the war. I was doing something I loved. Not many guys can say that.”