On Memorial Day we honor those who have given their lives in the service of our country and all who fought to defend our freedoms. Greenwich Library Oral Project blogger Joseph Campbell offers highlights of an interview with Robert Wylie that was conducted by project volunteer Connie Gibb in 2019. Mr. Wylie, longtime Greenwich resident who recently moved to Redding, CT, fought admirably in World War II as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and shares his experiences.
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey once said, “There are no extraordinary men, just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” To read the interview of Bob Wylie, one would hardly consider him to be an ordinary man. Bob came of age in a world that was to be plunged into a global war with destruction on a scale unprecedented in human history. Bob, and millions of other men and women, joined the military without hesitation to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Bob was in high school in Stony Brook, New York, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In the aftermath of the attack and in their zeal to serve, Bob and two of his friends initially decided they would join the Marine Corps. Bob’s father was an intelligence officer in the New York National Guard and eventually served in the United States Army Air Corps. He quickly disillusioned Bob from serving in the Marines and, instead, Bob entered the Army Air Corps pilot cadet program. However, since he was dyslexic, he trained in gunnery school in Denver, Colorado. Although Bob enlisted at 17 years of age, he did not leave for training until 1943 and was not sent to Europe until 1944.
It is hard to imagine today the circumstances that existed during World War II. By 1943, the British and the Americans were constantly bombing occupied Europe. Every day, thousands of young men would climb into planes to attack Hitler’s Fortress Europa. There was a steep and deadly learning curve when it came to fighting the Germans. The Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force, was a tough and determined foe and, even as it was being defeated, the Allies lost a staggering number of air crews on missions over Europe. At times, the Allies put 1,000 planes into the air on a single mission—a feat that is hard to imagine even today.
When you read Bob’s story, you meet a man who is humble. While discussing his missions over Europe, he talks about how much worse it was for the airmen in 1943 and early 1944 since the Luftwaffe had not yet been worn down by the Allied forces.
However, that humility belies the danger that Bob and his fellow airmen faced every day. The war was far from over when Bob arrived in England in 1944. His story is both amazing and tragic as he speaks about the experience of flying in freezing temperatures with open windows at high altitudes facing German fighter and anti-aircraft fire. (Do not miss his description of the clothing he wore on these missions.). Bob lost friends from school, including one on the same mission in which he was flying.
Bob tells about the time his father, a Colonel in the Army Air Corps, visited him in England. In this segment of the interview, he gives a snippet of his father’s time in WWII as well. Bob also talks about what life was like at home for his mother. It is easy to forget that those left behind were often forced to deal with not knowing the fate of loved ones. Most communication was through letters and mail took a long time to arrive from overseas. In addition, lifestyles were altered by the war as Army pay was often not the equivalent of civilian pay.
In his interview, Bob describes the men with whom he served and their missions as well as what occurred if they were shot down and captured. Bob flew missions over occupied Western Europe, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Although his story is a fascinating one on its own, it is made even more so when one realizes that it is the story of so many of his generation—a story of lives interrupted in order to defeat true evil in the world.
Bob’s interview also delves into other aspects of his life. He discusses the discrimination and segregationist policies of the US military at the time and how these experiences led him later into his involvement in the civil rights movement. He describes in detail coming home after the war and becoming involved in his church and Democratic politics in Greenwich and the state. Bob’s interview is a wonderful story of an amazing life. It should be read, not just by residents of Greenwich, but by everyone. It is a fascinating insight into the experience of an American man who came of age in a life-altering time and carries the lessons of his experiences with him.
As with all our interview transcripts, the Robert Wylie transcript may be read at Greenwich Library and is available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. Mary Jacobson serves as OHP blog editor. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org.