World War II veteran Robert (Bob) L. Berry of Edgartown says he has never been an enormous devotee of the Veterans Day holiday.
“When it first started, it seemed like such a rudimentary promotion, of stores and shops, and to spend money,” Mr. Berry recalls.
A holiday that means little more than another sale at local department stores to some people doesn’t really warm his heart, he admitted in a telephone interview with The Times.
“To answer your question, what does Veterans Day mean to me, well, it obviously means that I lost a lot of very close, personal friends in World War II, all by the time they were, what, 23 or 24 years old?” Mr. Berry explained.
For an 89-year-old who once spent time as a twenty-something in charge of a troop ship, Veterans Day brings back mixed memories of wonder, sorrow, and thankfulness.
“I think a lot of World War Two veterans have the same feeling,” Mr. Berry said. “I did my bit, I’m glad I did, I profited by it, I lost a lot of friends, I saw a lot of tough-looking stuff. The bottom line to me and the whole capsule of my military career is, I had a great experience in World War Two, and I came out a young man.”
Navy genes and Island roots
Mr. Berry was born in Newark, N.J., in 1921 with saltwater in his veins and roots on Martha’s Vineyard. His great-grandfather, who was from Kentucky and fought for the south in the Civil War, settled on Martha’s Vineyard in a home on Indian Hill. His father grew up on the Island and he spent childhood summers there.
Mr. Berry’s father, Robert L. Berry Sr., was a career naval officer who graduated at age 16 from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1900 and served as the skipper of a destroyer in World War I.
As a close, personal friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, Mr. Berry Sr. attended FDR’s presidential inauguration in 1933 with his then 13-year-old son.
“We both sat out in the rain — it poured rain — he caught pneumonia and died within three or four weeks,” Mr. Berry said. “My mother had died 10 years before. And that kind of framed my future, because I was sort of a cast-about, going to various public schools, visiting with various relatives, and becoming sort of an orphan of the storm.”
Although he hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps at the Naval Academy, Mr. Berry wasn’t accepted. He attended Yale University instead. With the war going on, he knew he might soon be drafted, so he enlisted in the Navy.
“The Service let me graduate from Yale, which was the biggest thing they could have ever done for me, because it stood me good in later life,” Mr. Berry said.
Although a member of the class of 1942, his graduation was moved up by six months because of the war. Mr. Berry graduated with a “plain old B.A., a hurry-up degree,” in 1941.
War’s reality soon impacted his life. “I lost five members of the class of ’42 at Yale, within five months of graduation,” he recalled.
Safe in harm’s way
Mr. Berry was immediately sent to the U.S. Navy’s Northwestern Midshipman School (Tower Hall) in Chicago for four months to complete his naval education. He then became an aide to the rear-admiral that ran the school, who had been his father’s classmate.
About eight months later, in April 1943, Mr. Berry married Margaret Wight, his high school sweetheart.
Despite the admiral’s attempt to talk him out of it, Mr. Berry said, “Immediately after that I thought it was time to be a hero, so I said I was ready to go to sea.”
He was assigned to the fleet that carried all of the troops into the most dangerous battle zones. “Normandy, the Philippines, we did them all, and each one with debilitating results on the people you knew; men all around me getting killed, that’s something that’s lived with me forever,” Mr. Berry said.
Fortunately, he added, although he went to some horrific areas, he remained unharmed.
“My flotilla of ships was in the Philippines just before the war ended, getting ready to invade Sasebo, Japan, the site of the Japanese naval academy — I don’t even want to think about how many people would have been killed,” Mr. Berry said. “The Japanese homeland — are you kidding me? We would have been blown out of the water. But we went in with a Japanese pilot we picked up and he carried us in there safely through the minefields. I was the exec on an APA, that’s a troop carrier, and we carried 12,000 U.S. Marines, waiting to go ashore in Japan. I think about it, and I wonder, I got through that alive? Tell me how.”
When the war ended, his discharge was delayed from late 1945 until late 1947, because he was assigned as executive officer of a ship that carried troops home, 10,000 to 15,000 at a time.
Mr. Berry returned to his wife in Newark, and their family grew to six children. He spent a career working for independent oil companies. He and Margaret moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1981, when he retired at age 60. She died in 2007.
Mr. Berry now has 17 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren, with a sixth on the way. Although he never attended the Naval Academy, he is proud that two of his grandsons did. One-hundred years after Mr. Berry’s father graduated from the academy, Robert L. Berry IV, his son Jon’s son, and Mason, his son Andrew’s son, entered its ranks in 2000.
Robert is a civilian but remains in the naval reserves. Mason, a naval lieutenant, currently serves as a flight instructor at the Naval Air Station, Naval Base Coronado, in San Diego. His parents Peyton and Andrew, an interim assistant principal at the regional high school, live in Vineyard Haven.
“My war experience, I’ve got to tell you, was the greatest thing in the world,” Mr. Berry concluded. “What a wonderful disciplinary lesson for me as a young kid, who wasn’t worth a damn at age 19 or 20. You know, it’s true. It was the making of my generation.”