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Searching for Paul

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Pearl Harbor separates buddies for 67 years

By The Staff

On Dec. 7, 1941, a young Lancaster man – U.S. Army Sgt. Paul D. Robertson – found himself in the center of America’s entry into the World War II.

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Robertson, an electrician in the 259th Quarter Master Corps of the 7th Bomber Command, was stationed at Hickam Field on the island of Oahu in Hawaii when the war broke out. Hickam is adjacent to Pearl Harbor.

That day, Robertson received a near-fatal chest wound from flying shrapnel when the Imperial Japanese Air Force started its ugly Sunday morning bombing.

The war had been going on for less than an hour when Robertson became the first Lancaster (and South Carolina) casualty of World War II.

I can only wonder why it’s taken 67 years to call attention to this hometown hero.

It’s also taken that long for successful Gastonia, N.C., businessman Bill Rudder to find out what happened to his best friend.

The two served together at Hickam Field in 1940-41.

It’s a friendship that’s still as fresh as ever for Rudder, who searched for Robertson ever since that day without success.

Rudder’s story

Rudder was born in 1923 in Rock Hill, though his family soon moved to Chester, where he grew up during the dark days of the Great Depression. When he was 16, he took a job in a Chester cotton mill for 26 cents an hour ($2.08 a day). It was hard, grueling work and Rudder was constantly looking for a ticket out.

He found it in September 1939, halfway around the world when Germany invaded Poland.

And that marked the end of the lint head days for Rudder.

Rudder said he hated the Nazis with a passion and the Polish invasion was more than he could take.

“I absolutely saw red when I read about that huge German army pouring across the borders into little Poland,” Rudder said. “Plus, I hated the mill almost as much as I did Nazi Germany, so I just quit and told my folks goodbye. Then I went straight and joined the Army Air Corps.”

Rudder, a man with a keen sense of humor, laughed. “You see, at the time, the army was paying privates $12 a month and I was ready to get my hands on some big money. In the army, we had free room and board. Quite honestly, that wasn’t a bad deal during the Depression.”

Fascinated with electronics since childhood, Rudder said he enlisted with the  understanding that he could work in the speciality after basic training.

In 1940, he was sent to Hickam Field, with its landing strips that butted up against the beach at Pearl Harbor.

“Our primary purpose was to protect our Pacific fleet anchored there,” he said.

The first two years at Hickam were uneventful, though he did make friends with a few of the locals from back home, including Robertson and the Small brothers from Lancaster.

Two boys from Rock Hill – Audry Hastey and Bill Lovelace – also served in the 259th and Rudder said they spent most of their days looking after row after row of gleaming B-18 bombers parked on the Hickam runways.

Rudder said his life was downright boring, since the boys lacked the money to go downtown and entertain the hula girls.

He and the other fellows spent their downtime rifting around in the barracks, listening to American radio stations, writing letters home and playing penny poker.

He remembers that the No. 1 song in America the week the war started was Red Foley’s “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.”

Occasionally, Rudder said they walked to the beer garden, which was laughingly called the “War College,” for a glass or two of draft beer.

He said the peacetime army was boring until Dec. 7,1941. That day – in a matter of minutes – sheer boredom turned to sheer terror.

Just after 7:30 a.m., Rudder, Robertson and their airmen buddies were rudely jolted from their bunks by ear-shattering explosions and terrible percussion.

Rudder said the barracks was shaking, window panes were being blown out and glass shards were flying everywhere.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Lord, don’t tell me the Germans have invaded the  Islands,” he said. “It sounded as though the whole world was exploding. It scared the daylights out of me.”

Rudder said he jumped out of bed, ran to a window and looked out to a sky filled with planes, fighters and dive bombers.

“I could see big red rising suns painted on their wings and fuselages, so I knew they were not German,” he said. “They were Japs. Then I noticed the bodies of dead American soldiers. They were scattered everywhere.”

The barracks quickly emptied.

To eliminate any sort of retaliation, the Japanese hit the hangars and aircraft at   Hickam at the same time they bombed battleship row at Pearl Harbor.

“The attack was totally unexpected and we really didn’t know what we were supposed to do” Rudder said. “You see, America was totally unprepared for World War II. Then an officer came up and told us to load up on the back of a truck. I looked over at the runway and all those beautiful B-18s were just flaming wreckage. We had no navy, no air corps and we couldn’t do a thing about it because the Japs had knocked out our water lines. Our first order of business was to repair those water lines so we could put out some fires.”

Rudder said the truck – now loaded with electricians doubling as water line repairmen – raced for the huge hangars some two blocks away, dodging bombs and machine gun bullets along the route.

Rudder said he asked the man next to him in the back of the truck how to repair a water line.

“He said, ‘How the hell should I know? I’m an electrician,’ ” Rudder said.

Before they could reach the hangars, their truck got stuck in a bomb crater at the base of the big American flag that flew at the entrance to Hickam Field.

With bombs and bullets exploding around them, Rudder said they took cover under the truck, wishing they had way to fire at the Japanese planes zooming overhead at treetop level.

“I swear those planes seemed to be just floating along like butterflies,” Rudder said. “We could clearly see the Jap pilots and some of them actually smiled and waved at us. But there was nothing we could do. A minute later a Zero came in and shot our big American flag all to shreds. Today that flag hangs in the Hickam Museum. And there’s a photograph hanging there that shows our truck in the at the base of the flag and us ducking down.”

It was then that Rudder noticed an inured Robertson stagger by with his chest bathed in blood, obviously hit by shrapnel.

Rudder said Robertson stopped long enough to warn the others to avoid the hangars. They were destroyed, he said, and all the men were dead.

“His wound didn’t look that serious, but I was told later that it was pretty bad,” Rudder said.

Rudder managed to get his friend turned around and started walking him to the nearby base hospital, amid exploding bombs and strafing bullets.

Rudder said the bodies of dead and wounded American soldiers littered the ground.

“I knew I had to get back to my men still under that truck,” Rudder said. “So I pointed Robertson in the right direction and told him to keep walking until he reached the hospital. That was the last time I ever saw him.”

Rudder said within seconds Hastey was cut down by a hail of machine gun bullets. Then moments later, Lovelace took a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb.

“That poor boy was totally disintegrated,” Rudder said of Lovelace, who now has a Rock Hill highway named is his honor.

Rudder sadly shakes his head when recounting his last sight of Robertson.

“I’d give anything if I’d stayed with him until we reached the hospital,” he said. “At least I’d know what happened to him.

“Did he die? I don’t know. Did he survive and return home on leave? I don’t know. But I’d give anything to find out. I’ve worried about this and felt guilty about this for 67 years now."

Later, Rudder fought with General McArthur’s 7th Army across the islands of the Pacific.

In January of 1945, he returned to Chester on a 30-day pass.

While on leave, Rudder said he went to Fort Bragg and told the commanding general there that he had no intention of return to the Pacific Theater.

“He said, ‘But we need you, son.’ I said, ‘Like hell you do. I’ve spent 38 months in combat while you’ve got a million soldiers sitting here at home who’ve never seen a day of combat. You can send one of those fellows over there to take my place.’ He could see I was pretty hot, so he sat down right then and there and wrote orders assigning me to a post here in America. And that’s the story of Bill Rudder in World War.”

Following the war Rudder was still fascinated with electronics and took a job with in Charleston. In 1983, he started his own business – Bill Rudder & Associates –  which specializes in inventing and marketing equipment for newspapers.

That just goes to show that a high school dropout can accomplish big things. Today, at age 85, Rudder is still active in the family business and goes to his office every morning to help his son, Fred Rudder Jr.

What about Robertson?

Files at the Veterans Affairs office in Lancaster provide some basic information on Paul Robertson. Born Dec. 20,1920, in Lancaster, Robertson joined the Army Air Corps in 1938 at the age of 18.

He was assigned to the 259th Quarter Master Corps of the 7th Bomber Command as an electronics specialist and arrived at Hickam Field in 1939. As recounted by Rudder, Robertson was working in a hangar when the attack of Pearl Harbor began. He suffered a severe chest wound from shrapnel fragments and was taken to the Army Hospital in Honolulu.

Microfilm issues of The Lancaster News in the archives at the Lancaster County Library led to some real progress.

A brief article from the December 12, 1941, edition reported that Paul Robertson was Lancaster’s first World War II casualty, but the extent of his injuries was not known.

An obituary from the April 17, 1993, edition of The Lancaster News stated that the Rev. Mitchell lngram officiated his funeral.

A couple of hours later, I phoned Rev. Ingram.

Not only did he officiate at the funeral, Ingram said Robertson was his uncle.

Ingram also said his mother, Martha Ingram, was Robertson’s niece and had cared for him after he returned home from the war.

I had struck pay dirt.

I went to visit Martha Ingram, who is a delightful lady and an absolute encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to her uncle.

We were soon we joined by two of her nieces, Tina Gardner and Melany Harper. Both are very attractive ladies with wonderful childhood memories of their Uncle Paul. They furnished me with numerous photographs and documents relating to Paul Robertson. To them I am most indebted.

Rudder was right about Robertson’s wounds; they were serious. He spent 13 weeks in the Army Hospital and underwent multiple surgeries to remove the shrapnel fragments in his chest. The surgeries went well, but the big problem were metal fragments embedded in the wall of Robertson’s heart.

Surgeons couldn’t remove them and it became a painful reminder of what Robertson would have to deal with for the rest of his life.

No longer fit for military service, Robertson was given a medical discharge, a Purple Heart and returned home.

“He could never work again,” Martha Ingram said. “He was weak and frequently in pain. He would take a part-time job occasionally, but his real working life was over. Of course, he had 100 percent disability and received a check every month from the government, and that allowed him to live fairly well.”

In 1960, at the age of 40, he married Mary Jordan and they lived on South Avenue in Lancaster.

The Robertsons had no children of their own, but were very close to their numerous nieces and nephews.

“I have the fondest memories of Uncle Paul and Aunt Mary,” Tina Gardner said. “They were always around and did everything they could to see that we were having fun. Sometimes, Uncle Paul would get some boxes and blankets and make a stage for us. Then he’d bring out his old 45 RPM record player and we kids would get on stage and pantomime the songs on the records. The grown-ups would act as our audience and clap like crazy.

“And we were always making homemade ice cream,” she said. “We kids would take turns turning the handle on that churn, which is pretty tough for a kid.”

Gardner said each summer, Robertson would load them into the back of his truck for an outing to the Pageland Watermelon Festival.

“We just had a great time,” Gardner said.

Active in the American Legion, Paul and Mary attended New Life Freewill Baptist Church.

He died in 1993 at the age of 73, with shrapnel fragments from a long-ago sneak attack still embedded in his heart.

It seems fitting that his much-loved nephew, the Rev. Mitchell Ingram, should preach his funeral.

Robertson is buried in Westside Cemetery.

As for Bill Rudder, who brought Robertson  to my attention, I can only say thanks. I hope this answers some of the questions about the friend you lost track of on the “Day of Infamy.”

It doesn’t have to trouble you anymore.

– An award-winning author, Dr. John Griffin is a distinguished professor emeritus with the University of South Carolina at Lancaster.