Wednesday, December 6, 2023

3 tornadoes, 2 sunken Navy ships and 73 years of love: Purple Heart recipient turns 100 in Williamsburg

In 100 years, neither tornadoes nor torpedoes have phased Robert Edwin Anderson.

From a tornado in the streets of Gainesville, Georgia on April 6, 1936, to the deck of the USS Hornet as she was torpedoed by Japanese planes during the Battle of Santa Cruz Island in 1942, Anderson has lived — and survived — through many treacherous situations.

Tuesday, Anderson, a Purple Heart recipient and World War II and Korean War veteran, turns 100 years old at his apartment at Spring Arbor Senior Living in Williamsburg.

“I feel good,” Anderson said Monday while eating lunch at Shorty’s Diner in Williamsburg. “I’m gonna stay here. I’m not going any place.”

Growing up

Born Aug. 13, 1919 in Talmo, Georgia, Anderson said it was “pretty good” growing up in the Gainesville area. His father traveled for work with a hardware company and had several children, including Anderson.

The family was forced to move from Gainesville to Athens, Georgia after more than a dozen tornadoes ripped through the Deep South in 1936, including one multi-funnel tornado in Gainesville that is now known as the fifth-deadliest tornado to date. All of Anderson’s father’s coworkers were killed — the patriarch survived — and Anderson escaped with a wound on the back of his head.

In Athens and after graduating high school, Anderson opened two Texaco gas stations with the help of his father’s financing. A hopeful businessman, Anderson began buying gas from independent companies to save some pennies instead of buying gas directly from Texaco. 

Robert Edwin Anderson in his official U.S. Navy photo. Anderson turned 100 years old Aug. 13, 2019. (WYDaily/Courtesy of David Greene)
Robert Edwin Anderson in his official U.S. Navy photo. Anderson turned 100 years old Aug. 13, 2019. (WYDaily/Courtesy of David Greene)

It worked for a while, he said, until Texaco discovered what Anderson was doing. The gas company pulled their pumps from Anderson’s two stations, leaving him with just one full-time mechanic at one station, and no gas.

The wars

Anderson ran the service station until he enlisted in the Navy at 21, in November 1940.

The World War II draft began Sept. 16, 1940, about a year after the war began with Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland. Within a few months, Anderson was in Navy bootcamp in Norfolk.

His mechanic took over the service station in Athens after Anderson entered the Navy.

Why enlist so quickly?

Robert Edwin Anderson's service record is held in a narrow. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Robert Edwin Anderson’s service record is held in a narrow. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

“To keep out of the Army,” Anderson said. “They had the draft going, and I was the right age to be drafted. Thirty days after I joined the Navy, I got a call to join the Army.”

Anderson spent some time on battleship USS New York for his first assignment. He was then assigned to the first USS Hornet when it was first commissioned in 1941 — about a year after it was launched by Newport News Shipbuilding. 

In October, the Hornet — the aircraft carrier that launched the Doolittle Raid in a “first punch back” at Japan, according to the U.S. Naval Institute — was sunk in the South Pacific in he Solomon Islands.

“I was on the Hornet when I went swimming,” he said. “The nearest land was five miles down.”

Anderson later served as the “primary officer’s speaker” aboard the USS Princeton, which was lost in action in 1944 off Luzon in the Philippines. He was in the aircraft carrier’s tower and fell at least 30 feet onto the flight deck during the attack, injuring his legs and back.

After he got into the water, he and other sailors were rescued, ironically, by a Navy destroyer named Anderson, he said.

It took him weeks to recover, but was able to gain back function in his legs, keeping that mobility until about a year ago, in his late 90s.

Anderson was awarded a Purple Heart after he was injured in the attack on the Princeton.

The best part of Anderson’s time in the military: “Getting out,” he said.

Anderson’s son-in-law, David Greene, joked Monday that Anderson is like a cat — he has nine lives. Anderson also survived two more tornadoes in Gainesville in 1936 and a third in Wisconsin.

A photo of the aircraft carrier tower on the USS Hornet, which was sunk in 1942. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
A photo of the aircraft carrier tower on the USS Hornet, which was sunk in 1942. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)


Anderson went to work at the Navy Pier in Chicago and transitioned to the Navy Reserve in 1946. 

Anderson married his wife Rosamond in 1946, commencing 73 years of marriage. Rosamond is 93 years old and also lives in the dementia care unit at Spring Arbor.

Anderson visits his wife about once a week.

Anderson put his Navy management and bookkeeping skills to the test after fighting in the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. He slowly worked his way up with construction company Campbell-Lowrie-Lautermilch, going from timekeeper to the vice president and owner of the company.

The construction company built numerous large factories, including facilities for General Electric, before it shut down in 1993. Anderson worked for banks — checking on job site progress and authorizing payouts for contractors — until he was about 90 years old.

“I didn’t need the money — I just liked what I was doing,” he added.

He also invested in stocks throughout his life in companies like Microsoft and Walmart; His most successful stocks have been with Apple.

After 73 years, Anderson calls his marriage with his wife his greatest accomplishment. Together, the couple raised four children, built a cottage along the Wolf River in Wisconsin and lived in the same house in Illinois for 55 years.

With so few people living to 100 years old, a common question is “What’s the secret?”

The 2010 census by the U.S. Census Bureau counted just 53,364 centenarians in the United States, or about 1.73 100-year-olds per 10,000 people.

“It’s probably in your genes,” Anderson said. “I never did anything to … I never abused my body. I always worked.”

Anderson is feisty and independent — and plans to “keep going.” He currently has two Bichon Frise dogs named Pierre and Jessica and keeps numerous orchids and house plants.

“I’m just not going to quit, I’m not going any place,” he said.

Clarification: A previous version of this article said Anderson survived three tornadoes, one in 1936 in Gainesville, another later in Georgia and a third in Wisconsin. The first two tornadoes were both in 1936 in Georgia. The article also said Anderson’s father worked in construction, but he actually worked for a hardware company.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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