Innerviews: Memories of war still fresh at 93
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He didn't like school. He didn't like sports. All he cared about was the military. And so, on Veterans Day 74 years ago, 19-year-old Bob Wiblin signed up for the Army and went off to fight in World War II.
He ended up in Europe with the 13th Armored Division, an anti-aircraft outfit nicknamed "The Black Cats." They moved through France and Germany, vanquishing the enemy in one town after another.
But that's not the part he enjoys remembering. It's the anecdotes, little incidents of levity amid the grave and gruesome business of war. He could tell those stories all day.
After the war, he found a job he loved at Union Carbide. He took all sorts of courses in night school. He founded a Presbyterian Church in St. Albans, led a Boy Scout troop, started a puppet ministry and traveled all over in a camper.
At 93, he's happy with the life he looks back on. Just one regret still nags him. He wishes he could have stayed in the Army.
"I was born in North Charleston at Stop 1, where the streetcar used to stop. My dad then bought a house at Stop 3 on West Washington Street. I lived there until I joined the Army.
"My father was a barber on Washington Street. Lawyers and all these people in Charleston used to come there and get their hair cut.
"I wasn't interested in sports or anything. I had on my brain the military. I tried to get my dad to send me to military school and he wouldn't do it.
"I finally quit school and joined the Army when I was 19. My dad had to sign the papers. He said, 'I'll sign these, but you make the best of it.' So I did. I loved it. When they started using live ammunition, that took all the fun out of it.
"Hitler was on his rampage. They signed me in on Nov. 11, 1939. The officer told us it was the first time the Army had taken people in on a holiday. They were getting ants in their pants.
"I wanted to go to Hawaii, but so did everybody else. They said the only foreign service they had was the Panama Canal and Bataan. But they said Bataan was a 45-day boat ride. I wasn't going on a 45-day boat ride, so I took the Panama Canal.
"When they attacked Pearl Harbor, I was going to school on the Pacific side. Sunday morning they had the radio on. They said it was Pearl Harbor. Where was Pearl Harbor? It didn't register. That very day, they sent me back to my outfit on the Atlantic side.
"We thought because we were in the canal zone, they would send us to Vietnam or someplace like that in the South Pacific. Instead, they sent us to Europe.
"They stationed us at Camp Stuart in Florida temporarily and then sent me to Texas to the 13th Armored Infantry. That's who I went to Europe with.
"We were an anti-aircraft unit, 90 millimeter. We were the "Black Cat" division. Walt Disney drew a patch for us but the Army wouldn't approve it. It had a ladder and a black cat.
"We landed in Le Havre, France. They told us we were going to be in Gen. Patton's Third Army. They have a road like our interstate that comes out of Le Havre and goes into Germany. We hit that highway, and the first sign I saw was a huge sign that said: 'Keep Moving or Get the Hell Off the Road ... Gen. George S. Patton.'
"I saw him one time. He visited our outfit at the front lines. I saw him go by in the Jeep. He had a meeting with our officers. Lots of people didn't like him. I thought the world of him.
"We captured some German paratroopers. The paratroopers and the SS troops were some of the worst. This corporal with me told this paratrooper to drop his pants. They just look at you and defy you even knowing you might kill them. That corporal went over and took his knife and split that pants leg down one side and then the other and the pants fell off.
"We were all the way through France. The thing I joined the Army for really was to stay out of the infantry. They stuck me in Texas in that armored infantry, which wasn't as bad. At least you got to ride around in a half-track.
"There were 13 of us guys in this half-track. We had this one guy from New York. All of a sudden, he held up a hand grenade and said, 'Who took the pin out of my grenade?' Everybody hit the floor. It could have been the truth.
"One time, we were going down a road and they started shooting at us. I was standing in the turret of the half-track with a machine gun. I turned it around and stopped them.
"Did you see the movie on Patton? He said, 'When you get over there and they go to shooting at you, you will know what to do.' He was a case.
"We were a mechanized infantry. We would spearhead from town to town, follow a road and wipe out as we went. Then we would sit in that town until the foot infantry would wipe everything up to us. Then we would go to the next town.
"I'll never forget when we relieved that 4th Armored Division. They had been spearheading for the Third Army. When they went by, there would only be two or three guys in the half-tracks. You know what happened to the rest of them.
"I was in the Bavarian Alps. Ever see a movie about Hitler having a meeting in a big hotel and everything was white and red? I was in that room. Braunau, Austria, the town he was born in, we went back there and went up the hill at Berchtesgaden, and we thought we were going to catch Hitler at his mountain retreat. He wasn't there. We went up to the hotel, and in the basement there were bottles of French wine coming out your ears.
"I went around to all those houses and picked up some stuff. They had bombed Hitler's house. A bomb went through the living room to the bottom floor, and there was a picture of the Bavarian Alps and I wanted that. I got that picture and it stuck with me until I got home.
"When I got discharged at Ft. Meade, Md., I had it in the barracks bag with a few other souvenirs. They took us down and gave us our discharges, and when I got back, my barracks bag was gone. I would have given anything to have that picture.
"The first sergeant was the first one who told me the war was over. He said, 'This is a stupid question, but I have to ask you if you would like to be discharged.' We got on a train and went back to Le Havre, France.
"We were just off the front lines, still all dirty. We'd found a keg of beer, but it didn't have a spigot. One guy said he would get us one in the next town we went through. He jumped off and ran and then here he came with one of those big German spigots.
"When the train started pulling out, a bartender in a white apron was standing there waving his apron. He wanted his spigot back.
"My dad owned a meat market on Patrick Street. When he was 55, he said he was going to quit barbering and buy that meat market. I thought, 'Good Lord, he's 55. What is he thinking?' Now here I am, 93.
"So I went to work for him. Then I put in my application to Carbide. That was the one smart thing I ever did. I loved that place. I would have paid them to let me work there. I was an operator working shift work for 17 years. Finally, I was promoted to senior production supervisor. The last job I had, I was plant representative for computer installation -- and one of the best.
"Somebody told me about adult education in South Charleston. This McClanahan guy was the teacher, the smartest guy I ever met. I went every winter. I took TV and computers and that kind of thing.
"When we moved down here in '55, the First Presbyterian Church came out and wanted us to start a church out here so we started Riverlawn Presbyterian Church. My wife, Leota, taught Sunday school and was the first secretary treasurer of the church.
"We never had kids. We raised everybody else's.
"Some people came to the church to demonstrate puppets, so we started a puppet ministry. I had been a Scoutmaster first, but I got tired of all that Indian dancing. We danced everywhere, the troop from the First Presbyterian Church in Charleston.
"Our friends all had travel trailers, but I didn't have time to fool with it. When I retired, I bought one. I told my wife it was a waste of money, that we would never use it. Our first trip, we logged 10,000 miles. I bought four of them.
"We went to Alaska and to California two times and went to every state in the union but North Dakota. Leota never let me forget that. I had the smartest wife in the country. We were married for 67 years.
"Now I play with this computer and visit around. I've got a niece in Ohio, and I go up there a lot. And my nephew, I have to send him an email every morning so they know I'm all right. If he doesn't get that email, he calls my neighbor.
"I've been awfully lucky. I really enjoyed the military. If I hadn't gotten married, I would have stayed in."Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.