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    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    Waterford veteran's 100th birthday celebrated

    Chief Torpedoman´s Mate Chase Rivers shows retired Navy Chief Machinists Mate Roy N. Robinson a shadowbox with his service ribbons and patches from the ships he served on during his 100th birthday celebration Saturday, June 25, 2022, at his home in Waterford. Earlier Culinary Submarine Specialist Chief Brian Khader, left, presented Robinson with a framed letter from Capt. Kenneth M. Curtin Jr., the commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. Robinson joined the Navy in 1942 and served on the battleship USS Texas, the destroyers USS Witek and USS Harlan R. Dickson during his 20-year career in the Navy. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

    Waterford — Roy Robinson was working in a steel mill in Carnegie, Ill., when he and his best friend decided to join the Air Force. Robinson was just 19, and the two men were looking for adventure.

    “We wanted to be paratroopers. We thought that was exciting,” Robinson said, so they marched to the Air Force recruiter.

    As it turned out, his best friend had flat feet and was not eligible. Luckily for the Navy, there was a Naval Recruiting Station one block down the road, and the rest is history.

    Quite literally.

    At his home in Waterford on Saturday with a large group of family members and friends, he celebrated his 100th birthday with all the fanfare such a milestone deserves. Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule and Selectwoman Jody Nazarchyk were present to celebrate a man who has been witness to massive technological innovation and cultural change and served his nation through two wars and intense geopolitical upheaval.

    “Living to 100 is a blessing, and we are all thrilled to celebrate the blessing we have in Roy," Brule said. "What a privilege it is for all of us in Waterford to have you here today; what a treat it is to know you, and what a joy it is to honor you.”

    He presented Robinson with an official citation of recognition from the town and an official citation from the Connecticut General Assembly in honor of his 100 years, introduced by state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, and Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme.

    Also on hand to pay homage to retired Chief Machinist Mate Robinson’s 20-year Naval career were two U.S. Navy chief petty officers, who hand-delivered a congratulatory letter from the Naval Submarine Base commanding officer, Capt. Kenneth M. Curtin Jr., wishing Robinson a happy birthday. It read, in part, “we Sailors of today know that we follow an extraordinary legacy of courage, compassion, and commitment. A legacy forged by Navy veterans like yourself.”

    They also presented him with a shadow box containing patches from three of Robinson’s four boats, a ribbon rack with all of the service ribbons he'd earned in his career, and a photograph of him wearing his dress blue uniform, more commonly known as “Crackerjacks.”

    What's chapters in history to most people lives fresh and vivid in Robinson's memory.

    He was born on June 28, 1922, in Brushy Township, Illinois, to a preschool teacher and a World War I veteran who died when Robinson was 7. One of three children, he grew up in what he describes as “hard times.”

    Indeed, when the Great Depression began in 1929, the world tumbled into economic crisis. Robinson says the time period was “terrible — actually terrible. I mean, we didn’t know it, but, looking back, it was. I can imagine what my mother had gone through — you know, lost her husband — but she kept us together,” in a house she bought with a $500 bonus from her late husband’s military service.

    When he was in his early teens, there were still Civil War veterans in his town, and he specifically remembers a neighbor who had been a sharpshooter in the Civil War. “His stories were really interesting,” Robinson said.

    In 1942, he joined the Navy looking for excitement. “At that time, we didn’t care what they offered — we wanted action, we wanted to get into the fight,” he said.

    As a machinist mate, his job was maintaining and operating engines. Back then, engines were powered by steam, and he found himself working on boilers in rooms where the temperature could exceed 130 degrees.

    He did not see much of the action he was looking for on his first boat, the USS Texas, and transferred to the USS Venango, an attack cargo ship that took him around the globe to Honolulu, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Saipan — “we saw a little bit of action there,” he remarks. In fact, the crew members often found themselves unloading cargo amid air raid sirens warning of Japanese bomber and kamikaze attacks, or withstanding typhoons. Robinson recalls a kamikaze plane crashing next to the Venango, “it might have scraped the side of the boat.”

    In China, he rode in “rickshaws and all that, just like you’d see in the old movies,” he says. “It was also a lot of fun.” He helped fight a warehouse fire in the Bahamas that threatened Nassau, and in Venezuela, he attended a presidential inauguration.

    In Boston, he met the love of his life.

    In 1946, Robinson found himself in Boston for the commissioning of his third boat, the USS Witek. He and a crewmate entered a restaurant and spotted two women sitting at the bar. Robinson said he "went over and introduced myself, and asked if we could join them, and that was that.”

    Gloria Grant of Maine, 22 and just out of the Navy Medical Corps, was one of the women, and Robinson spent the next year and a half courting her, paying $5 to travel to Boston by train every chance he got.

    In 1947, Robinson received a reenlistment bonus of $360 and 60 days of leave. He and Gloria borrowed a car with questionable brakes and drove to Illinois to visit his family and then to Kentucky, where they married Nov. 16, 1947. They were married for 55 years, until her death on Valentine’s Day in 2002.

    They moved to southeastern Connecticut when he was stationed at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton in the late 1940s, and bought their Waterford home in 1957.

    Over his 12 years aboard the Witek, he spent a great deal of time at sea, away from his wife and growing family. It was a difficult time for them all. Phone calls were a rarity, but they had letters. "Letters were free then,” Robinson recalls.

    It was the Cold War, and the Witek, a retrofitted, experimental destroyer, hunted Russian submarines. “When you went out to sea, you never knew what was going to happen, so naturally, you worried, but it got to the point where it was just, every day, living day by day. That was the main thing," he said. "I remember submarines scared the hell out of us, you know?”

    His thoughts were never far from his family, and he said Gloria "must have had a heck of a lot harder time than I did, because we had three kids.” The three, Roy Jr., Tommy and Judy, were eventually joined by a fourth, Greg, two years before Robinson retired from the Navy in 1962.

    But he did not actually retire. He spent the next 22 years in engineering at Pfizer before retiring again and going to work at his wife’s business, Gloria’s Gift Shop in Niantic. He ended his working years helping in one of Greg’s businesses, Campus Spirit Shoppe in New London.

    While he did stop working for a paycheck, he did not stop working. This past winter, he split two cords of wood with an axe, though he says he has slowed down since he had to get a pacemaker in late March.

    He says he does not know what to attribute his longevity to. “I never even gave that a thought as the years went by. I never even thought you could get that old. I just kept plugging along and didn’t realize until I was 90 years old.”

    Though he claims not to know how he made it to 100, he does offer some advice. “Don’t smoke, and don’t booze it up too much,” he counsels. “Not saying that I haven’t done that; I have. When I was a youngster, I had my parties,” but these days, he is content with one ice-cold beer each afternoon.

    With luck, the new pacemaker will allow his three surviving children, six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren to continue to see history through the eyes of the man who lived it.

    Editor's note: Chief Torpedoman's Mate Chase Rivers is related to the reporter.

    Culinary Submarine Specialist Chief Brian Khader reads the framed letter from Capt. Kenneth M. Curtin Jr., the Commanding Officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, to retired Navy Chief Machinist Mate Roy N. Robinson, center, during his 100th birthday celebration Saturday, June 25, 2022, at his home in Waterford. A moment later Chief Torpedoman's Mate Chase Rivers, right, presented Robinson with a shadowbox with his service ribbons and patches from the ships he served on. Robinson joined the Navy in 1942 and served on the battleship USS Texas, the destroyers USS Witek and USS Harlan R. Dickson during his 20-year career in the Navy. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Retired Navy Chief Machinist Mate Roy N. Robinson, center, shakes hands with Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule, left, after Brule and Waterford Selectwoman Jody Nazarchyk, right, presented him with official citations from the town and a General Assembly on Saturday, June 25, 2022, during his 100th birthday celebration at his home in Waterford. Robinson joined the Navy in 1942 and served for 20 years. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Family members and friends, right, gather to listen while retired Navy Chief Machinist Mate Roy N. Robinson, center, talks to Chief Torpedoman's Mate Chase Rivers, left, and Culinary Submarine Specialist Chief Brian Khader, not shown, from the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, about Robinson's time in the Navy during his 100th birthday celebration Saturday, June 25, 2022, at his home in Waterford. Rivers and Khader attended the party to deliver a framed letter and a Connecticut's Submarine Century coin from Capt. Kenneth M. Curtin Jr., the commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. Robinson joined the Navy in 1942 and served on the battleship USS Texas, the destroyers USS Witek and USS Harlan R. Dickson during his for 20-year career in the Navy. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Retired Navy Chief Machinist Mate Roy N. Robinson, right, talks to Chief Torpedoman´s Mate Chase Rivers, left, and Culinary Submarine Specialist Chief Brian Khader, not shown, from the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, about Robinson's time in the Navy during his 100th birthday celebration Saturday, June 25, 2022, at his home in Waterford. Rivers and Khader attended the party to deliver a framed letter and a Connecticut's Submarine Century coin from Capt. Kenneth M. Curtin Jr., the commanding officer of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton and also a shadowbox with his service ribbons and patches from the ships he served on. Robinson joined the Navy in 1942 and served on the battleship USS Texas, the destroyers USS Witek and USS Harlan R. Dickson during his for 20-year career in the Navy. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
    Roy Robinson Sr., a World War II, veteran who lives in Waterford, is turning 100 this month.

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