Times Past

Teacher tells of veteran father's wartime tales

Second Lt. Robert W. Gregory holds his daughter Roberta in Taft in 1943. He is the father of Jim Gregory, who teaches history at Arroyo Grande High School.
Second Lt. Robert W. Gregory holds his daughter Roberta in Taft in 1943. He is the father of Jim Gregory, who teaches history at Arroyo Grande High School.

‘Dad discovered that the cook at Gardner Field in Taft was pocketing mess funds and serving condemned food to the Army airmen. Dad was a natural-born accountant. He turned the rascal in. The base commander promoted him to corporal.”

Today, Veterans Day, Jim Gregory, a fine history teacher at Arroyo Grande High School, recalls Robert Gregory’s service.

“Last summer’s London Olympic Games reminded me of my dad. He lived in the great battered city during World War II.

“Dad was appointed to Officers’ Candidate School in the Quartermaster Corps by Sen. Harry Truman. Grandpa Gregory’s blackberry wine was the clincher, since Truman always stopped by my grandfather’s Missouri farmhouse for a sip or five on campaign swings downstate. During the OCS interview Dad was asked by the board: ‘What did you do before the War, Corporal?’

“Dad replied: ‘I was a bank manager, sir, for the Bank of America in Fellows, California.’

“The Board inquired: ‘Aren’t you a little young to be managing a bank?’

“Dad said: ‘I was also the janitor, sir.’

“Dad recalled being issued a .45 pistol, rather than a typewriter and adding machine, on the troopship bound for England. It was his job to keep black enlisted men, in a racist Army, below decks. These were the men who would drive the ‘deuceand-a-half trucks’ on the famed ‘Red Ball Express,’ the supply line that kept the American infantry soldier alive. Dad thought that these men were treated barbarically.

“Once in London, he was billeted in the movie actor Stewart Granger’s London flat.”

Granger had joined the British Army in 1940 but was invalided out in 1942.

“He was doing lots of swashbuckling stuff in Hollywood, but Dad neither swashed nor buckled for the duration.

“Dad was nearly arrested for exuberantly singing ‘Wearin’ of the Green,’ an act of sedition, with the Irish elevator operator at a London hotel, who had become his new best friend after Dad shared a bottle of Johnnie Walker Scotch. Being a supply officer had its privileges. The elevator operator was so good at his job that the Bobbies gave up after repeatedly racing up and down the hotel stairwell.

“He was semi-adopted by an English family he’d grown fond of. One day he presented them with a bag of oranges. Londoners hadn’t seen oranges for five years.

“He almost got busted to private when an enraged division commander tore into him, via cross-channel phone from the Normandy beachhead, about five gasoline supply companies that never showed up. It turned out Patton’s 3rd Army had stolen them.

“Dad received a beautifully lettered certificate from the enlisted men in his office for ‘Meritorious Drinking Under Fire.’ Dad refused to seek shelter during a V-1 raid because he’d had a rough day at the office, and no buzz-bombs were going to interrupt his pint in his favorite pub.”

The V-1’s were a pilotless, jet-powered aircraft that made a loud buzzing or whistling sound as it flew over England. When it went silent, you knew that its fuel had run out and it was time to take cover.

“Dad never lost his love for London and for the English, but not all of his war was lighthearted; he served in Graves Registration at the end, and his men reclaimed the battlefield remains of young lives cut short in fields and villages that led inexorably to the Rhine.”

Robert Gregory became the comptroller for Madonna Construction and was a founder of Mid-State Bank.

He was proud that his children graduated from college: “The young people now resting in military cemeteries above Omaha Beach, or the American Cemetery in the Ardennes — both beautiful and beautifully silent places I visited with my students — never got the chance. They merely made our lives as free Americans possible.”

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.