Much has been written of the Greatest Generation and how World War II impacted our country. It was a defining moment for many people. Not to mention, marriages that occurred between couples who met during the war. Robert J. Schoeck’s experience was typical.
Bob Schoeck was born on June 11, 1917. His own father had died when he was a young boy so he was raised by his mother and grandmother. He was educated at good schools, like Kew Forest Academy and became classmates with kids like John Meyer who became an air force ace and four-star general. As a boy, he would hang around local airfields and in his Kew Forest textbooks there are many doodles of airplanes.
Dad was very intelligent and could have easily attended college but decided to work for the Royal Insurance Company in Manhattan. He later regretted this decision and encouraged all his children to attend college, which we did.
He was 24 when he enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, but had an edge as he had been in the National Guard’s famous 69th “Irish” regiment. He was accepted as an aviation cadet and initially assigned to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. During the war, he was stationed at technical training centers in Missouri, Alabama, Florida, California, New Mexico and South Dakota before being shipped overseas. As Stephen Ambrose has written, decisions were made at the highest levels early in the war to ensure that Americans, including air crews were the most highly trained in the world. If this meant fighting defensively in the first months of the war, so be it.
Due to a pneumonia outbreak, the aviation cadets who were being processed at Jefferson Barrack’s were ordered to remain in place until things were resolved. One evening, he went to a USO dance and met a local gal named Vivian Treinen. The thunderbolt was instantaneous and despite Dad’s numerous war time assignments they became engaged a year or so later. And they became true life-long soul mates who had five children.
My father documented many of his experiences in the war through letters and photographs. For example, he was on a transcontinental troop train in early 1943 and pointed his camera out of the Pullman window to show the steam engine chugging across the Mississippi River at New Orleans, making a rest stop in Baird, Texas and entering the Mojave Desert in California.
He was initially assigned to flight training in Ocala, Florida but was “washed out” late in the program. He then headed to the Santa Ana training facility in California for Bombardier pre-flight training and then advanced flight training at Kirkland Field, NM. At the time, Bombardiers were assigned to each bomber but in the middle of my Dad’s training course someone figured out that only one Bombardier was needed per flight or squadron so most of the class was re-assigned. In my Dad’s case, he completed Radar training in Sioux Falls, SD and Boca Raton, Florida. He then received orders to report to the 20th Air Force in Guam and left on a troop ship from Seattle in January 1945.
As you know, Guam was headquarters for the 20th, AF but the island was not completely secured and pockets of Japanese had not yet surrendered. My Dad recalled that one night he heard gunfire from the nearby latrine. Long trenches had been drilled into the coral for outdoor facilities and GI’s were instructed to take their carbines to the can at night in case the enemy approached. That particular night a small group of Japanese, who were probably starved, approached a sleepy GI with his carbine. The guy who was sitting on the latrine was so frightened that he fired an entire clip in the air.
My Dad was on some B-29 missions but not over the Japanese home islands. After the Japanese surrendered, the Air Force asked for volunteers to fly some support missions that included working with the Russians in Japan. However, by that time he was only interested in returning home to get married and not extending his tour.
After the war, my Dad became an insurance executive but was always interested in flying. In 1955, my parents took my infant brother on a trip to St Louis. In those days, you had to fly on propeller driven airliners like the TWA Constellation. My Dad commented as we were leaving LaGuardia airport and passing the Connie, “She started out this morning in San Francisco, stopped in St. Louis to pick us up and now she’s here in New York this evening.” Today, this is commonplace in shorter time periods.
My Dad was a true patriot and remained interested in the Air Force. He encouraged me to obtain my commission and also enjoyed visiting Air Force bases for annual air shows. We lived near Suffolk County AFB on Long Island, which was an Air Defense Command installation in the late 1950s. Dad would always talk with the pilots and aircrew and I recall such a conversation with a KC97 pilot on the tanker’s evolution from the B29. Another was on Labor Day 1965, when Colonel Francis Gabreski was the 52nd Wing Commander. He was signing autographs under the nose of an F101B and I remember Dad’s expression of surprise and delight upon meeting him. At the time, Gabreski was the top US ace from WWII and Korea and a legend within the Air Force.
In the early 1960s, my Dad’s job required him to travel on the early jetliners like the B707 and DC8 to cities like Dallas and San Antonio where he was responsible for his company’s South Central offices. In those days, business executives flew First Class and he would describe the great service and thrill of flying in those early jets. .
Bob Schoeck was about as close as one could be to a renaissance man in the mid 20th century and excelled at almost everything he did; sailing, fishing, woodworking, gardening, painting, restoring antique flintlock rifles, building Lionel train sets, model airplanes, student of Greek and Roman history, rare stamp and coin collector. He was an amazing story teller and his yarns were always instructional and laced with humor so his audience was always “with him”. And he always had an interest in aviation. Not long before he died, we were talking while the TV was on in the background. A Navy commercial came on showing a jet landing on a carrier. Dad briefly interrupted the conversation and said, “Hold on for a second, I want to watch this guy land.” When the F-4 was trapped on deck, we resumed our talk.
Robert Schoeck with a Stearman similar to the one he flew in training
Taken: Oct. 1972
Photo Courtesy of David Schoeck, son
My Dad died suddenly of a heart attack in May 1973. As his funeral service was starting, a flight of Air Guard F-102 jet fighters took off from Suffolk Air Base and flew over his flag draped casket. This was not part of the ceremony, but I turned to my Mom and said, “They’re up there for him.”
In 2002, the Cradle of Aviation Museum opened at the historic former air corps base at Mitchel Field, NY. I chartered Dad in their memorial wall with the following words,
“ROBERT J. SCHOECK (1917-1973) was a lifelong resident of Long Island and involved in aerospace activities for forty years. He served in the Air Corps from 1942 until 1945. His final assignment was as a B29 air crew member with the 20th Air Force in the Pacific Theater. As an insurance executive, he continued his interest in air transportation and was recognized in 1963 by two airlines. He was commissioned by CR Smith, founder of American Airlines as ‘Admiral of the Flagship Fleet" for, ‘consistent and meritorious service’. United Airlines also presented him with an award citing his, "valuable contributions to air transport progress."