Sunday, March 30, 2014

Robert F. Rohde: Boyhood plane ride leads to dodging enemy fire as WWII cargo pilot

Robert F. Rohde, 91

• Hometown: Buffalo

• Residence: Lancaster

• Branch: Army Air Forces, Air National Guard

• War zone: China-Burma-India Theater

• Years of service: 1942-83

• Rank: Lieutenant colonel

• Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, Asiatic-Pacific Theater Medal with two battle stars, Conspicuous Service Cross

• Specialty: Pilot on C-47 Skytrain

At age 12, when Robert F. Rohde was a Boy Scout, he was at a troop meeting in Riverside carving an airplane out of a block of wood when Scoutmaster Francis Ford walked up to him and asked if he’d like to go up in an airplane.

“I nearly fell over when he asked. I said, ‘Yes!’ He was a pilot, and he took me up in a Piper Cub at the airport in Cheektowaga,” the 91-year-old Rohde recalls as if it were yesterday. “I just loved it, and said I wanted to be a pilot.”

After he graduated from Riverside High School in 1941, Rohde enlisted in the Civilian Air Patrol, the training unit for what was then the Army Air Corps, and took up residence on the second floor of the University of Buffalo’s Lockwood Memorial Library, a makeshift barracks.

“We studied meteorology and navigation and practiced marching in UB’s back parking lot under Col. Oury,” Rohde says. “We learned how to fly at the Buffalo Airport.”

After completing his courses, he was activated and sent to Denton, Texas, where he trained to become a glider pilot. But due to a glut of glider pilots, he soon found himself at a base in Stuttgart, Ark., where he pulled shifts working in the base kitchen and digging a swimming pool for officers.

“We were using shovels to dig the pool, and this first sergeant came to the top of the hole we were digging and said, ‘We need some volunteers for liaison pilots,’ ” Rohde says, “and I stopped and asked my friend Arnie what a liaison pilot was and he said he didn’t know, and he wasn’t volunteering. I told Arnie, ‘It must be better than this,’ and I raised my hand with one other guy.”

The same night, he was on a train to Waco, Texas, where he learned the skills of a liaison pilot.

“Our job was to fly a Piper Cub and perform reconnaissance duty for combat troops, letting them know where the enemy was situated,” says Rohde, who was promoted to staff sergeant.

But before he was sent overseas, he made a case with the battalion commander at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma to let him train with the big boys, the pilots who could fly twin- and four-engine airplanes.

At 21 years old and with his brand-new twin-engine C-47 Skytrain cargo plane, he was soon on his way to the China-Burma-India Theater, making a pit stop in Cairo, where he saw the Sphinx and rode a camel. In India, he toured the Taj Mahal, but what he would see the most of in that far-flung corner of the world were the Himalayan Mountains, while he was going “over the Hump” to resupply troops in Burma who were battling the Japanese.

“There were no roads in Burma, and everything had to be dropped, either free drops at 150 to 300 feet or parachute drops at 300 to 500 feet,” Rohde says. “We’d use parachutes for the 50-gallon drums of fuel and heavier items, but food and ammunition, that was pretty packed up, and could be free-dropped.”

It was exhilarating and dangerous work, with the Japanese often shooting at the unarmed cargo planes as they flew low to make the drops.

“When you’re low and flying between two mountains, you could see the bullets actually hitting the mountainsides,” Rohde says. “With every drop, you changed your approach on the target to stay out of the gunfire. Guys who didn’t would get shot down.”

Even with those precautionary maneuvers, he says, his plane was often struck with bullets. “When we’d come back to our base in India, they would patch up our plane.”

The weather, he says, was the biggest challenge.

“In monsoon season, we’d fly through terrible rain, thunderstorms, ice storms and fog. I had a surface ceiling of 14,000 feet, and when the plane was loaded, it was lower than that,” Rohde recalls.

“The mountains went up to 29,000 feet. We weaved our way through the mountains. We would use the aluminum on the ground from planes that had crashed to guide us. We called it the ‘aluminum trail.’ ”

To stay alive, pilots had to be imaginative, Rohde says, remembering how one of his buddies got the better of a Japanese Zero fighter plane.

“He had this Zero on his tail,” Rohde says, “and he took him up a dead-end valley and at the last minute dropped his landing gear to slow the plane and made a tight turn and the Zero crashed right into the mountain.”

Rohde also proudly recalled helping a famed figure who hailed from South Buffalo.

“We supplied Maj. Gen. William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan’s units with supplies about 100 to 150 miles behind enemy lines in Burma where they raised hell with the enemy,” Rohde says, remembering that Donovan had established the Office of Strategic Services, which eventually became the CIA.

After the war, Rohde knew he wanted to keep a hand in flying and joined the Air National Guard at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and was twice called up to active duty stateside during the Korean War and the Berlin Crisis, when Soviet leaders in 1958 demanded that the United States and the other allies vacate West Berlin. In 1983, he retired from the Guard.

Returning to civilian life, he began with Buffalo Savings Bank in 1948 as a file clerk.

“It was the lowest job, but the bank sent me to school and I worked my way up the ladder and – would you believe it? – I retired as the bank’s corporate secretary,” Rohde says.

He and his wife, Antoinette Tamila Rohde, raised five children, all of whom graduated from college with master’s degrees. And on April 30, the former military officer and bank executive and his bride will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary.

“We’re happily married,” he says. “It’s always been a happy life for us.”

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