TOWN OF BELOIT - Although it took 70 years for U.S. Navy veteran Robert Jackson to set sail in a fire engine red convertible, it was all worth it.
Jackson, 94, was honored during the July 4 parade in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A World War II naval veteran, Jackson was aboard the USS Missouri during the Japanese surrender ceremony in 1945. Although most of the 2,700 servicemen who witnessed the historic moment aboard the battleship are gone, Jackson remembers it like yesterday.
For someone like Jackson, who grew up in a rural area near Monroe, his Navy days were a grand adventure. With looks like Clark Gable and a bit of a survival instinct, Jackson was able to always land on his feet. Whether fixing a rangefinder or avoiding a kamikaze attack, Jackson always made it through - sometimes clinking a glass to celebrate.
As World War II was ramping up, Jackson said he didn't want to be a foot soldier, preferring to take his chances swimming. He volunteered to sign up for the Navy and got called up in January of 1943. Although he had hoped to go to the Great Lakes region, he was sent to Idaho, which puzzled him.
With fears the United States could be subject to coastal attacks he was trained on a lake, otherwise known as a mud hole. After basic training he went on to San Diego and then Mare Island in Vallejo, California to work at a submarine repair base. He bided his time, training on the stereoscope to learn depth perception. He could recognize an enemy ship coming into view or what a woman was wearing at the pool.
With every evening off he would usually hop a bus to San Francisco after it unloaded shipyard workers. He then found a job with a company shipping aviation gas.
"It sounded like a barrel of money," he said.
However, Jackson's holiday abruptly ended when he was transferred to the East Coast. He was ordered to report to pier 92 in New York. It turned out he was to catch the USS Missouri in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The USS Missouri was the newest battleship with the latest equipment. Jackson was to be in charge of the optical repair shop - maintaining the periscopes, range finders, binoculars and spotting scopes.
However, once on board he discovered his shop was only about 120-square-feet, with his bed on the side. He found 50 pairs of binoculars and hand tools and was unsure how he'd repair much of anything.
"In October of 1944, we got it ready to go. We took her to islands for a shakedown and found out which screws were loose," he said.
The USS Missouri was then on her way to the South Pacific. When she arrived she was surrounded by destroyer escort ships. One of the battle wagons rammed into her cutting a hole 50 feet from the bow. She had to head back to San Francisco for a patch. Jackson was assigned to shore patrol where he usually had a good time.
After getting some radar upgrades in Pearl Harbor, the USS Missouri was back on the high seas in January where it would remain until the war was over. The best of times were over as the ships in the task force struggled to survive kamikaze attacks being launched daily. With planes up on deck full of fuel and ammunition, one stray bomb could have marked the end for a battleship.
"Anybody who told you he wasn't worried wasn't being truthful," he said.
The attacks were usually early in the morning when the sun would hide their view. The kamikazes would try to fly low, sneaking along the water. Or sometimes they'd fly high to distract the task force from a low attack.
"It wouldn't be unusual to have five planes at a time over the task force," he said.
With 25 U.S. ships at sea, it would be dangerous to start shooting once the kamikazes came in low.
Jackson saw one kamikaze hit the USS Franklin, a class A carrier, ending with a sad tow back to Pearl Harbor.
Another time a kamikaze had collided with the USS Missouri during the Battle of Okinawa on April 11, 1945.
"He dropped his bomb before he hit the ship. We saw a big explosion on the river," Jackson said.
The kamikaze struck the gun mount of the USS Missouri, tearing its wing forcing the plane down.
"We got the fire out in a hurry," Jackson said.
On Sept. 2, 1945, Jackson was thrilled when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, signed the Japanese surrender document aboard the USS Missouri in the presence of crew members and other dignitaries.
It wouldn't be until 70 years later when he would be invited to ride in a restored 1956 Chevrolet convertible for a July 4 parade in Oak Creek. He was able to ride with his friend and Vietnam Marine veteran David Keller, who had worked with a canine unit.
The reception from the crowd was overwhelming. Jackson also joked how his convertible was driven ahead of that of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan.
It was a far different scene than marching in mud in boot camp.
"It took me 70 years to move up to the convertible," he said.