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Humble World War II veteran turns 100 in Gulfport. 'The Lord has blessed me.'
Sun Herald - 3/2/2021
Mar. 1—George Roberts, 100, didn't particularly want this article to be written.
As March 1 and his 100th birthday approached, his family planned a party. They proposed inviting media to honor not only the birthday (only about 0.02% of Americans are 100 or older) but also Roberts' lifetime of service.
He served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a radio operator during World War II, completing 31 bombing missions over Germany and winning the Purple Heart.
He coached youth baseball for years, refereed basketball, helped found Trinity United Methodist Church, raised money for World War II memorials in the U.S and in Europe, served in the 8th Air Force Historical Society, and delivered blood for the American Red Cross.
After Hurricane Katrina, when he was in his late 80s, he helped feed volunteers who had come to rebuild the Coast.
At first, Roberts rejected the suggestion of contacting the press, on the grounds that he had discussed his World War II service in the media before (including in this paper) and that he didn't want to give the impression that he thought he was important for turning 100.
"I said, 'You may not feel that you want to say that you're important, but other people feel that you're important,'" his daughter Ellen Roberts said in an interview. "And for a lot of reasons. We want to honor you for the life of service that you have lived, for the kind of man that you have been."
Eventually, he relented.
On Sunday, the day before his 100th birthday, his two kids, three grandsons and four great-grandkids, as well as other relatives and friends, all gathered at the home where he has lived since shortly after his family moved to Gulfport in 1958.
Signs in the front yard spelled out "Happy 100th Birthday George!" Four generations gathered among the letters for a family photograph.
"The Lord has blessed me with a beautiful day," Roberts said.
World War II service in Germany
Roberts, who emigrated to Pennsylvania from England with his family as a toddler in 1924, was drafted into the Air Force during World War II.
From his base in an English village, Roberts flew 31 missions over Europe in 1943 and 1944.
He recites the first few missions as a litany: Oct. 8, Bremen, Germany; Oct. 9, Gdynia, Poland; Oct. 14, Schweinfurt, Germany. The last, a raid on ball bearing factories, became known as Black Thursday because Allied airmen suffered such heavy casualties.
The 367th Bomb Squadron, to which Roberts was assigned that day, was nicknamed the Clay Pigeons.
"Something that gets shot down— that was us," he said.
The possibility of death was omnipresent.
Roberts and the other airmen slept in a corrugated metal structure called a Nissen hut. They kept a gallery with small photographs of each man living in the hut. When an airman was shot down, his picture was removed. Then another man would move in, and a new picture would go up.
"I was afraid every mission," he said during an interview a few days before his birthday. "I said a prayer when I stepped on that airplane."
Roberts also flew on D-Day in the lead group over the beaches at Normandy. By then, the German Luftwaffe was stretched thin and assembled only 400 aircraft to respond to 13,000 from the Allies.
"It was easy," Roberts said of D-Day. "We had command of the air."
By spring 1945, Roberts was back in the United States. On May 8 of that year, he was home in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on leave.
He was watching a baseball game when it was announced over the speakers that Germany had surrendered.
"I cried like a baby," he remembered. "Everyone cheered. You lost a lot of good people, close people."
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, Roberts is now one of an estimated 325,000 who are still living.
Coaching and volunteering
Roberts met his wife, Norma, when he was stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois; she lived nearby with her family. They married the week after she graduated from high school.
"That was the smartest move I ever made," he said.
After the war, Roberts worked at Scott in electronics. When the Air Force electronics school was moved to Keesler in 1958, the Roberts and their two children, Gary and Ellen, moved to Gulfport.
The couple became charter members of Trinity United Methodist Church, and George still attends services.
He started coaching Little League baseball because his son, Gary, was playing. Then he just kept coaching after Gary aged out.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1976, Roberts helped open the Herbert Wilson Recreation Center near his home.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Coast, volunteers flooded in from around the country to help rebuild. Some of them came to Trinity United Methodist Church for meals.
Regina Stewart, evangelism coordinator at the church, stopped by the party to recall how George Roberts showed up six days a week to serve the drinks to volunteers. He only took off on Wednesdays for lunch with a group of fellow veterans.
"He's a World War II veteran, and he's also a wonderful disciple of Christ," she said.
In the years before she died, Norma Roberts lost both her legs, and George served essentially as her full-time caregiver. But he recalled how even then she took care of him, too, doing household chores in her wheelchair.
"She didn't want me doing any of her work," he said.
When she passed away in 2018, they had been married for 72 years.
'Please don't play me up'
Roberts now lives alone in the home he shared with his family for so many decades. Once a week or so, he likes to go for a drive to "see what the country looks like." He goes to dinner at Waffle House or Cracker Barrel, where he often orders the pancakes.
About every three visits, the waitress tells him his bill is already paid. She always refuses to say who paid, and he doesn't push.
"You can't argue because it gets embarrassing," he said.
And, as it turns out, you can't argue when your family wants to throw a party for your 100th birthday.
His guests included his 19-month-old great-grandson, George.
"My namesake," Roberts said by way of introduction.
The younger George's mother, Morgan Roberts, first met the older George almost 20 years ago, before she married his grandson Haydn. Her grandfather-in-law, she says, is "one of my favorite people."
"We are so thankful for George and want our son George, as he grows up, to know that his great-grandfather is a man who exemplifies the Christian character qualities that we are trying to foster in Baby George and in all of our children," she said. "That self-giving love, kindness, faithfulness, courage, leadership, and service."
After cake and ice cream, the World War II veteran, Purple Heart recipient, Little League coach, church member, husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather sat down in a chair in his front yard to receive a pandemic-friendly parade of well wishers.
"Please don't play me up," Roberts said during the interview a few days before his birthday. "That's not the purpose of reporting. The purpose of reporting is to tell what happened."
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