Call to arms

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerDecember 7, 2013 

Seventy-two years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan, following the Japanese surprise attack the previous day on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Congress responded almost immediately, and the nation was thrust into World War II. A degree of patriotic fervor beyond the understanding of more modern generations swept the country. Military recruiting stations were swamped as thousands rushed to sign up. Seventeen-year-old Robert C. Moore, a college freshman in Monroe, Louisiana, was one of them. With his mother's necessary official approval, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.

It was a time of rapid and violent change. A population hoping for a better life as the Depression wound down now found itself subject to often severe rationing of desirable goods: cars, tires, gasoline, fuel oil, shoes, meat, cheese, processed foods, silk, nylons. More painful still was the pervasive sense of separation, of fear, of longing for togetherness and for calmness and hope. The spectrum of moods was reflected in the jaunty but sentimental lyrics of the Andrews Sisters' "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree … With Anyone Else But Me," and the yearning for peace in Kate Smith's rendition of "When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World." Aviation Cadet Moore would have heard those and other similar songs when he was undergoing basic training at Shepherd Field in Amarillo, Texas. He would not have had a lot of time to appreciate them.

After initial pilot training at Parks Air College in East St. Louis, there was intermediate pilot training in Grenville, Texas, where Moore became proficient at formation and night flying. All these phases of training are simple to name, but highly complex, difficult and dangerous to complete. This can be seen by the fact that, during the course of the war, 324,647 aviation cadets entered training, and 132,992, 40 per cent, were either killed or washed out. Lt. Moore, though, completed all the training and was ready to go to war. But to his chagrin, he was retained to be a flight instructor, a duty not much desired by young men honed for combat flying.

But eventually even that would end, and in 1944, Lt. Moore boarded a troopship that deposited him in Italy. He had been told that he could expect to go to Corsica, where he would undergo necessary familiarization and transition into flying B-26 bombers. But the Army Air Corps, as military organizations will, ignored all that and put him where he was most needed at the time, and the need at the moment was for C-47 transport pilots to fly some unusual missions. For the foreseeable future, Moore would be flying a C-47 over Northern Italy, the part still under German control, and over Northern Greece and Yugoslavia. Flying mostly at night, over mountainous terrain, he would drop supplies and equipment to partisan forces fighting the Germans. He also, on occasion, dropped American and British intelligence agents by parachute behind enemy lines. At other times, he landed on rough landing strips hacked out by the underground and retrieved wounded American air crew members who had parachuted out of downed aircraft or survived crashes, and who had managed to evade the Germans. It was not unusual also to bring out wounded partisans. These were normally single-plane missions, at night. The makeshift airstrips were not only dangerous, they were easy for the Germans to discover, so new ones had to be hacked out in different locations.

Eventually the extremely hazardous nature of the night missions, and the increased volume of needed rescues caused the missions to shift to daylight. This made it mandatory that the C-47s be accompanied by fighter aircraft. Moore remembers the welcome sight of the P-51 fighters of the "Red Tails," Tuskegee Airmen, flying cover for him.

The scope of the rescue effort grew, especially when authorities became aware of the large number of downed aircrew members surviving in Yugoslavia, being hidden from the enemy by friendly members of Draza Mihailovic's Chetniks and Joseph Tito's Partisans. A major effort, kept from public knowledge until just a few years ago, was launched to retrieve them, with the coordination behind the lines of American OSS agents and the aid of the two underground groups who hacked out a landing strip to be used in daylight by multiple transport aircraft under fighter protection. This effort, known as Operation Halyard, would bring out some 500 survivors and a number of wounded partisans. Bob Moore flew one of the C-47s. A group of six landed, loaded, and took off, skimming the trees, while supporting fighter aircraft strafed the Germans in surrounding hills. Another flight of six would arrive shortly, with fresh fighter escorts. Gregory A. Freeman, in "The Forgotten Five Hundred," his book about Operation Halyard, describes the scene at the airstrip this way: "Musulin (OSS leader) was astounded at the skills of the C-47 pilots and concluded they were some of the hottest fliers he had ever seen."

Bob Moore would fly a total of 49 combat missions, including dropping paratroopers in Southern France when not dropping supplies or secret agents in other parts of Europe. He was still in Italy when the war ended, already on orders to go to India and fly missions 'over the Hump' to China and Burma, orders that were now canceled. But he still had work to do, flying one leg of the shuttle route that brought troops home out of Europe by way of South America, over the Amazon jungle and into Miami Beach. After that, he would spend a time picking up military aircraft around the country and flying them to Arizona to be cocooned.

Captain Moore got back to Monroe, Louisiana, the day before his classes started at Louisiana Tech, where he was once again a civilian student. Not long out of his teens, he had already experienced more excitement and adventure than most people would in a life time. Now he was ready to ease back into a more normal life. Attaining his civil engineering degree, he went to work in the oil industry in the construction and maintenance engineering area. Eventually he shifted into marketing, becoming vice president of marketing for a major oil company. Still later, he would become vice president of Public and Governmental Affairs, operating in Washington.

In 1989, Bob Moore and his wife Snookie, enjoying retirement, settled in Columbus, Georgia, to be near family members. He clearly relishes the responsibilities and the rewards that come with being patriarch of a large family, and he is proud of each of them, and of his role in their lives. But he has reason for pride in another area as well, for the time when his country, beset by overwhelming evil, called for someone to risk all in her defense. And like Isaiah, young Bob Moore said, "Here am I; send me."

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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