Robert Walter Conner
Posted By: J. Breen (email)
Date: 3/26/2019 at 10:39:50
Dead pilot served country in two wars; Robert Conner dreamed of flying
By Sheilah Klapp, Family Editor
Robert Conner was a boy with a dream. From the time he was small he read books about flying, made model airplanes and thought of being a pilot. World War II was to give him the chance to fulfill his dream — a chance that was to indirectly lead to his death.
His mother, Mrs. Irene Conner of Washington, one of the Gold Star Mothers honored recently by the American Legion Auxiliary, tells this story of his life and death.
It was July 11, 1942, and Conner’s 18th birthday. He had graduated from high school that May and with the U S. now involved in the war had decided to go to Des Moines to take the entrance exam for the Army Air Corps. He was worried; however, that he might not pass the test as most of the others taking it had two to four years of college. But he hoped that by taking the test he might at least be allowed to take the Civilian Pilots Training (CPT) being offered locally.
But instead of a score of 65, which he had hoped to barely pass with, Conner received a 96 and was immediately enlisted in the Corps.
He returned home about 9:30 that evening and his mother remembers, ‘‘He put his arms around me and danced us all over the floor. He said, ‘I’m not in CPT training. I’m in the Army Air Corps!’.
Conner had about three months before he was to report for duty so he used that time to take the local CPT class, entering a week late but soloing on his second day.
After reporting for duty in the Air Corps, Conner was sent to Texas for pilot’s training. What thoughts run through a mother's mind when her son goes off to war’ Mrs. Conner says, ‘‘Bob’s father had been in World War I and had stayed in the National Guard. When this country entered the war he was called out to train the boys. I had been to the camps and seen them training boys to go be killed. Now I thought, my Bob will be next.”
Conner was first trained as a glider pilot, much to his disgust, as his dream was to be a fighter pilot. His mother says, “He kept asking for it until finally they gave it to him. “So in 1944 Conner received his wings as a fighter pilot. “He was so happy that day,” Mrs. Conner says. "He had written me letters asking me to pray that he’d get to be a fighter pilot. Now his wish had been fulfilled.”
Mrs. Conner attended the graduation .ceremony held in Georgia and found it a proud but somewhat disturbing occasion. The main speaker was an officer who had just returned from the bombing action in Germany. Mrs. Conner says, “He told the graduating class that in most cases the fighter pilots never came back from their missions. I suppose he thought the boys needed to know this, but it was hard on the mothers. I was so upset that I had to leave.” So it was that Mrs. Conner told her son good-by, feeling that he would never return home.
But, instead of being sent overseas, Conner was named an instructor at an airfield in North Carolina. He greatly disliked this turn of events. He wanted to be sent overseas. “Every year he kept hoping he’d be sent overseas," Mrs. Conner says.
Finally his chance came. From 600 top-notch U S pilots about 30 were chosen to fly the Thunderbolt fighter planes. Conner went overseas in 1944 as part of this group.
These fighter planes flew from Okinawa over Tokyo to drop bombs on that city. The missions meant flying over 700 miles of water with barely enough gas to make the trip. Once, Conner's plane ran out of gas as it was landing after a successful mission. The plane rolled and Conner was injured, but not seriously.
The pilots flying these planes had to build their stamina to withstand a 1,500 mile trip. They wore no parachutes because the Japanese were torturing the captured U. S. pilots and the men decided they would rather be killed.
During one mission Conner's best friend was shot down by a Japanese ship disguised as a fishing vessel. Conner was so upset that he turned his plane around flew in low over the ship, and dropped a bomb directly into the hold, sinking the vessel.
But he never talked to his mother about these or other feats of bravery. It was only after his death that she learned of them from his wife. Conner always refused to brag about his part in the war. He’d say, “I wasn’t over there for medals. All I wanted to do was win the war.”
The war was won in 1945 and Conner came home in 1946. He had made plans to attend college but by the time he arrived in the U. S. the colleges were already filled with G. I.’s.
It was at this time that he made what was to be, for him, a fateful decision. He decided to stay in the service until he could get into college.
Conner never left the service. He spent two years in Japan and was due to leave the service at Christmas of 1950. In July of that year he came home for a few days leave. Before he had a chance to return to Japan the war in Korea had begun and he was sent there.
On July 28, 1950, General Douglas MacArthur chose six of his best pilots to go on a ground mission between enemy lines. They traveled in jeeps and were to go as close to the enemy lines as possible to give U. S. pilots there information as to where to bomb.
It was six in the evening. A terrible battle was raging over the hill. When Conner’s group arrived on the scene they found a whole army of young foot soldiers whose officers had been killed.
They were very young and confused. Conner got out of his jeep and walked over to the group to see if he could help them. He was hit by enemy fire and killed instantly.
Ironically, Bob Conner had always said that he wouldn’t be killed as long as he was in his plane. His mother says, “He always told me, ‘Don't worry, Mom. As long as I’m flying I’ll be all right. I'm lucky in my plane. ' ’’
Mrs. Conner says that she felt no bitterness after her son’s death “Only sadness,” she says. “But I felt proud that he wanted to protect his country. I knew what a close call it was that France, England and the U. S. weren’t taken in World War II. Bob knew that, too. Boys were more patriotic then. Korea and Vietnam have soured them on war. But, pray tell me, who likes war? Look how many boys we’ve had to give to save our country in the past. And we will have wars again.
“Nobody will ever know what our boys went through in the wars. But it was for the whole world that they did it,” she says with tears in her eyes as she looks at the picture of her dead son.
Conner loved flying. He often tried to explain why he loved it. “It seems like I could just put my hand out and touch the stars,” he’d say. Or, “It seems so close to God way up there.”
So perhaps he was one of the lucky ones. Unlike so many boys, who died in World War II and Korea with all their dreams unfulfilled. Bob Conner died having made his dream come true.
Source: Washington Evening Journal, September 21, 1977
Robert Walter Conner memorial on Find A Grave
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Washington Documents maintained by Joanne L. Breen.