'Mr. Western' goes to Washington: Bowling Green veteran, 100, prepares for Honor Flight trip
A few of Kentucky’s last remaining World War II veterans will get a “thank you” in first-class style on Wednesday.
The non-profit Honor Flight Bluegrass will fly eight of them to Washington D.C. to visit the national memorial to the war. Eleven Korean War and 63 Vietnam War veterans will also be on the flight and visit their respective memorials.
Lee Robertson will be in good, but rare company. He’s one of less than 2,000 living World War II veterans in Kentucky.
“Ole Tom Brokaw called us the greatest generation," Robertson said in an interview with WKU Public Radio. "That might be, but it seems a little selfish to promote that, but we didn’t have much choice.”
Robertson grew up on a farm in the McLean County town of Calhoun, near Owensboro. He wasn’t a particularly good student and not sure what he’d after high school.
“All of us, all 32 of the graduating seniors in our class, we knew each other well." he recalled. "I can remember the day after our commencement we were sitting around talking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Most of us didn’t know.”
The U.S. government would soon make that decision for him. Six months later, Pearl Harbor was bombed and Robertson was drafted into the Army.
“That was the crew, and I was closer to that bunch than I was my brother because we were together every day," recalled Robertson as he sifted through black and white photos. "There I am sitting up on that tank sitting somewhere bogged down, it looks like.”
Robertson served as a driver in the 44th tank battalion in World War II from 1942-1945. With beach landings in New Guinea, Morotai Island in Indonesia, and the Philippines, Robertson recalled his three years of service and how it changed his outlook on life.
“I grew up in there. I was a big baby. I was 18 and not very mature for my age. It taught me to live one day at a time, especially when you were in combat, that’s how you felt. Three other guys in my tank crew, one of them was killed in a night tank battle, and two of them was wounded. I didn’t get a scratch in all that time.”
At the end of his service, Robertson enrolled at WKU on the GI Bill and played baseball for the university.
He went on to become a teacher and coach at Park City High School and later principal of Livermore High School in his native McLean County. After that, he became superintendent of Barren County schools.
Then he returned to WKU, serving 25 years as Director of Alumni. He’s never left. Affectionately known as 'Mr. Western', Robertson still works part-time in the Office of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement.
“The day I got to Western, there was something about that just felt good. I said 'man, this is a good place to be, good place to work, good place to go to school, good place to pull for'. It’s been a big part of my life ever since. I think if I went home, retired, and twiddled my thumbs, I’d be gone.”
Days earlier, he had traveled to Louisville to meet with a prospective donor to the university, and yes, at a century old, he still drives. Just don’t email him.
“I haven’t got a computer. I can’t turn one on," laughed Robertson. "They said, 'Don’t you have email?' I said I’ve got 'Lee-mail'. It’s a long legal yellow pad and long handwriting.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Western goes to Washington. Honor Flight will take him and seven other Kentuckians from the Greatest Generation to visit the memorial built as a tribute to their sacrifice.
When he’s not swapping war stories with fellow comrades, Robertson will be making special memories with his son, Steve Robertson, who will accompany him on the trip.
“Of course, he doesn’t show emotions, but he loves his dad and he’d fight to the end before he’d let someone mistreat me," Lee Robertson said. "I think we’ll have fun out of it.”
The veterans will get a special send-off at Louisville International Airport, a police-escorted tour around Washington D.C., and a hero’s welcome home that many never received.