Robert Winslow, a retired shipyard worker, was one of Nebraska’s last eyewitnesses to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He died Feb. 21 at a care facility in Beatrice at age 97.
He was born Nov. 10, 1921, in Blue Springs, Nebraska, the oldest of 10 children in what he described to The World-Herald in 2016as “a big family, and a poor family.”
He attended Union School and Wymore High School, where he played on the football team. But he quit in the fall of 1939 after a friend came home on leave from the Navy and persuaded him to enlist, less than three weeks after his 18th birthday.
He was aboard the destroyer USS Helm early on Dec. 7, 1941, as it tooled from its berth in Pearl Harbor to a nearby dry dock. It was the only ship underway that morning when Japanese planes launched a stunning attack on the Navy’s Pacific battleship fleet. Crew members saw the first bomb blow up a hangar ashore at Ford Island Naval Air Station, near where the battleships were moored.
“They sounded general quarters right after that,” Winslow told The World-Herald. “Pretty soon, planes started going by on both sides.”
The Helm reversed course and headed for the open ocean, zigzagging to confuse the torpedo bombers.
“We looked out, Ford Island was all blown to hell,” Winslow recalled. “The (Japanese) plane came after us. He made a run for us to drop a bomb. The skipper just turned the ship and went another way.”
The Helm’s gunners opened fire on the attacking aircraft and are believed to have shot at least one down. They also shot at a Japanese minisubmarine spotted near the mouth of the bay, forcing it to run aground. A month later, the crew was sent on a secret mission to rescue personnel on Howland and Baker Islands, two remote Navy outposts in the Pacific.
Winslow stayed in the Navy for the rest of World War II and was discharged in early 1946, earning the Asiatic Pacific Service Medal with four battle stars. His final posting was in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he remained there after the war.
He married his wife, Angelina Rondoni, in the 1940s, and they raised a son and daughter. He worked in container cargo ports until his retirement in 1981.
From time to time, Winslow met up with shipmates, but he said he didn’t care much for Pearl Harbor reunions.
“I’m not for celebrating these kinds of things,” he said. “It’s hard to think about it.”
Winslow retired to the Blue Springs area after his wife died in 2001 to be near family, and was involved in the American Legion in Wymore. His daughter, Pam Abronzino, died in 2004. He is survived by his son, Dan, who lives in California; a brother, Donald Winslow of Beatrice; and two sisters, Margaret Crawford of Wymore and Betty Slagel of Beatrice.
No services are planned in Nebraska. An inurnment will be held later in El Cerrito, California.
His death leaves just two known Pearl Harbor survivors in Nebraska, said Peg Murphy, who heads the state’s Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors chapter. They are Ed Guthrie, 100, of Omaha; and Melvin Kennedy, 95, of Grand Island.