Voices of Veterans: Bob Penney

Bob Penney turned 100 years old earlier this year. Although he did not see combat, he flew airplanes during World War II. —Sam Houghton

Bob Penney is one of the last surviving veterans of World War II on Martha’s Vineyard. He lives on Oak Bluffs Harbor, and turned 100 on August 21. He enlisted in the Navy, but never left the U.S. during the war. 

I was a freshman at Tufts University when Pearl Harbor came along. I figured my college career was over.

A friend of mine, who turned out to be a lifelong friend, said, Why don’t we join the Navy and they’ll let us finish out the year? What I didn’t know at the time, we didn’t have much choice. They didn’t have enough space for us, so they let us finish our first year.

My first night in the Navy, someone committed suicide by jumping out of the fourth-floor window, and I thought to myself, “What did I get myself into?”

But it got better from there. It’s a terrible thing to say, but World War II was the best thing that happened to me. We were winning the war, and they just had too many guys they didn’t know what the hell to do with us. So they switched from one training area to another, from one plane to the next.

I was flying mostly multi-engine planes. I started out in Piper Cubs, then to double-wing. We would do confidence maneuvers and simulated carrier landings. And then I got into multi-engine planes, and then from there to Catalinas and seaplanes.

I never left the U.S. [during the war]. I liked to tell people, “Not one Japanese plane got past Key West when I was stationed in Florida.” A small joke.

I was in the U.S. when the war ended in Europe. We flew from Jacksonville to Key West about 200 feet from the land, and caused a lot of noise. That was our celebration.

Why I wasn’t called back into the Korean War, I will never understand. A lot of guys I knew did, but I didn’t.

Interview by Sam Houghton.