CHESHIRE — Two World War II veterans, an airman in Europe and a sailor in the Pacific, are the two oldest members of the town’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post and were honored by the Town Council earlier this year.
Irvin Daubert and Ralph Rowland are both 97. Both said their time in the military was part of an important effort and instilled discipline that would help them their entire lives.
Rowland was already working for the Navy as a marine draftsman, designing wooden minesweepers in New York, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The following year, Rowland wanted a more active role and joined the newly formed Sea-bees, construction battalions active in the Pacific building infrastructure for naval and aerial warfare against Japanese-held islands.
By the time Rowland and his battalion arrived to build roads, bridges, camps and airfields, the fighting was usually done — but not always. After landing on New Guinea, the Seabees were stationed near Australian soldiers fighting to clear the island.
“We were pretty close to where they were working their way up the New Guinea coast,” Rowland said.
He still has a picture of his cot just two feet from where he’d dug a bomb shelter.
“We were subject to nightly air raids,” Rowland said. “As we worked, our own artillery was firing over our heads. The Japanese dead were unfortun-ately still lying around. The tops had been shot off all the trees. It was a mess.”
Despite hardships that included contracting fever and malaria, Rowland has some fond memories of close friends he made while in the service.
“It was an adventure,” he said.
Friends included natives of the islands. Two in particular on New Guinea, Maloh and Nooley, remain in Rowland’s memory. Natives were invited to join the servicemen watching American films. Some, set in New York or San Francisco, were watched with disbelief by the islanders.
“They found them hilarious because they didn’t believe any such place existed,” Rowland said.
On New Caledonia on leave, Rowland and fellow Seabees took a drive away from their base and stayed for a week with a French colonial coffee farmer and his Tahitian wife in the mountains.
“We swam in the river, drank coffee that (the farmer) had grown,” Rowland said. At night they’d sing along to patriotic French songs, such as the Marseilles, which the farmer played on his phonograph.
In addition to the photos, Rowland still has souvenirs from his time in the Pacific such as a knife made from metal salvaged from a ship sunk off New Caledonia and a wristwatch he bought from a ship store in 1945.
“I’ve worn it every day since,” he said.
After the war Rowland left the service and had a career as an architect with Fletcher Thompson of Bridgeport. He’s lived in Cheshire since he and his wife, now deceased, moved into their home in the 1950s.
Daubert had an interest in flying and, after war was declared, joined the Army Air Force. He recalled lengthy training that included many classroom hours to teach the tasks needed for a bomber crew aboard a B-24.
Daubert’s role was armorer and gunner. He’d watch the bombs fall free of the plane and have to push them out with a long metal pole if they’d gotten hung up, something that only happened once. His other job was manning two guns in the waist of the plane when attacked by German fighters.
Missions from Daubert’s base in England with the Eighth Air Force lasted around eight hours. Waking up at three or four in the morning, he’d board the plane where there was often nowhere to sit. Temperatures reached 55 degrees below zero and Daubert had to break ice that formed between his mask and coat to turn his head.
While the whole crew was alert for enemy fighters, which included jet airplanes late in the war, Daubert said the more common danger was anti-aircraft guns that shot at the bombers on their way to industrial targets in Germany.
“There was nothing you could do about that,” he said.
After returning from one mission, Daubert said they counted 100 holes in the plane from anti-aircraft shrapnel. He still has a piece from a round that exploded underneath the plane, sending a fragment of metal through the hull and into his boot.
No one in Daubert’s crew was killed or injured.
“How everyone escaped we don’t know. To this day we don’t know,” he said.
Bomber crews were expected to fly no more than 35 missions. Few completed that many without getting shot down.
On his 35th mission while flying over Germany, Daubert’s plane got news that the war in Europe had ended.
“It came over the radio loud and clear,” he said. The crew dropped their bombs in the North Sea and headed back to base where celebrations were underway.
Daubert said there was the most apprehension before the first and last missions, but that crews were well-trained and knew what to expect.
“We knew exactly what to do, we knew exactly what we were up against,” he said. “Whatever you were going to do, you were trained well. I think the training saved a lot of lives.”
Daubert left the service and took sales jobs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut. He was a Boy Scout leader in town and had Harvey Barnum, a Marine Corps officer and Medal of Honor recipient in his troop.
Barnum, who now lives in Virginia, wrote a letter in support of the council’s resolution on the World War II veterans.
Daubert and his wife were among the guests invited to Barnum’s Washington, D.C. Medal of Honor ceremony in the 1960s.
“We were treated like kings and queens,” Daubert said.