NORFOLK, Va. — This past July, Martinsburg resident Robert E. Lee thought he was only sharing a bit of history with family.
Little did he realize that a copy of an Unsung Heroes column from The Journal would result in an amazing journey to the bottom of a sub.
Bob Lee was interviewed by The Journal in 2011 as a 90-year-old Navy veteran of World War II, having served in the Pacific from 1940-1946. In the article, he had commented about how fantastic he thought the modern submarines were and he wished he could go for a ride on one.
When a Montana niece of Lee’s read the article, she caught the sentence about a submarine ride and considered what could be done to get her uncle aboard one of the boats. Speculating that a ride might be a stretch, she explored tour possibilities for the former sailor.
HITTING THE JACKPOT
Robert E. Lee grew up in humble circumstances in landlocked Montana. Working on neighboring farms and ranches was not what Lee wanted for the rest of his life. Hoping for more excitement in life, joining the Army Air Corps seemed like the right option for him.
The day that he planned to enlist, he headed down the street to the recruiters office in Great Falls, Montana. As he tried the locked door, he was greeted by an “Out to Lunch” sign.
As he turned to leave, a cheerful voice next door called out and invited the young man in for a “cup of Joe and a chance to chew the fat.”
Two hours later, Lee stepped through the office door of the Navy recruiter and into a totally new life. He had hit the jackpot. His would not be the ordinary enlistment of four years. He now had six years to see the world.
He was the first of the five Lee brothers to enlist. During WWII the other boys went into the Army, Marines, Army Air Corps and the OSS. The family was fortunate to have all five young men return home with honorable discharges.
While on duty in the Pacific, Lee served on sub tender USS Holland and submarine USS Sailfish. During a port of call in Melbourne, Australia, Bob met a delightful young lady named Ruby Watson. She was to become his wife and one of the 10,000 Australia women who married foreign service men during the span of the conflict.
In 1944, Ruby made a bold and nerve-wracking decision. She crossed southern Australia by train, alone, under an assumed name and with false ID papers in order to marry Bob in Perth.
1945 found Ruby on her way to the United States with their first child, Betty Jo, on a ship which carried 300 war brides and 600 dependents of US service men.
GETTING HIS WISH
The Lees moved to Martinsburg in 2003. Their marriage spanned 59 years with three children, four grandchildren and eight great-grand children. Widowed in 2004, Bob now lives with daughter Sharon of Martinsburg and near son Bruce and wife Diane Lee of Harpers Ferry.
To complete the recent tour, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., a former Navy Commander was contacted. He then sent a request to the Atlantic Submarine Force, asking to find a sub for this sailor to tour.
Capt. Matthew J. Hickey, chief medical officer for the Atlantic Fleet responded to daughter Sharon. Usual protocol was followed. Once that was completed, final plans for boarding a nuclear submarine resulted.
Oct. 16 was a day filled with eager anticipation, as former Radioman Third Class, Lee and his family prepared to meet Navy personnel at the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia. The “USS John Warner SSN 785,” the twelfth ship of the VIRGINIA class, would be the submarine toured.
Lee couldn’t help joking about “greeting The Old Man, from an old man.” However, he did mention to the security guards at the dock gates, that he and his buddies never actually called the captain “The Old Man” to his face.
Lee said he was unprepared for the greeting that he received from Capt. Burt J. Canfield, the commanding officer of the newest nuclear submarine in the Navy. The sailors of today wrapped that sailor of yesterday in sincere thanks and appreciation for his service to a grateful nation.
Such strides have been made in submarine warfare today that Lee said it was truly mind-boggling to try and make comparisons between his days and what he was witnessing.
One thing that he emphasized strongly, is that submariners remain as vigilant and responsible today as they did all those decades ago. He was proud of the crews he served with decades ago and very proud to have met this new crew.
Making the day even more special for this United States Navy veteran was the fact that this tour brought together four generations of his immediate family. Lee was joined by his son Bruce, a Navy veteran who served on the Intrepid Air Craft Carrier and daughter Sharon, as well as his grandson Jason Lee and grandchildren Logan and AnnaRuby Lee.