Bus travel has been very important in the life of World War II veteran Robert Greene, so the fact that this weekend’s Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. is by bus doesn’t bother him one bit.
A Navy Seabee during the war, Greene afterwards logged 3 million miles during almost 38 years as a professional bus driver. He even met the love of his life on a bus.
Now 88, Greene, who lives in the Eldora area of northern Bryan County, is one of 24 veterans Honor Flight Savannah is sending by luxury motor coach to see the World War II Memorial and other sights during a one-day, two-night excursion.
“I’ll just tell the driver, if you get sleepy, I’ll take over a little while and let you rest,” joshed Greene.
Even his wartime enlistment began with a bus trip out of Pembroke, although he and his family were by then residents of Savannah. He has since bought back land at Eldora that his grandparents first purchased in 1882. But in 1942, his father suffered a debilitating stroke and his mother sold the farm and moved the family to Savannah.
Greene, who had left school in 10th grade, had already taken a job welding at Savannah’s Southeastern Shipyard. But his registration was still with the Bryan County draft board when he was called up in February 1943. The bus ride took him to Fort McPherson in Atlanta, then a processing hub for draftees.
Although his draft notice was for the Army, Greene raised his hand when a Navy man showed up with a bullhorn and announced that the Navy was short on recruits. He hesitated when he heard another call for volunteers, this time for just six men for the Seabees. The now famous Navy construction battalions had been authorized just one year earlier.
“I didn’t know what it was and nobody else did either,” Greene recalls.
But after hearing more explanation, he signed up.
His training, with both Marine and Navy instructors, included the use of rifles and mortars as well as construction tools. His first working assignment was to Attu Island, in the Aleutians off Alaska. The Japanese had occupied two islands, Attu and Kiska, in June 1942. U.S. and Canadian forces retook Attu in vicious, often hand-to-hand fighting in May 1943, and the Seabees were sent in immediately afterward to turn the island into a naval and air base.
Although the Japanese were gone, the Aleutians’ brutal cold remained. Greene remembers battling the frozen tundra as the Seabees built an airport with two runways, barracks, roads and a breakwater in the harbor, all in a matter of months. After starting out with a literal pick and shovel, Greene learned to operate another kind of “shovel,” a big, diesel-powered one that would now be called an excavator.
Later the battalion was shipped to Okinawa, the island south of the Japanese homeland that was so savagely contested in the spring of 1945. While the U.S. Marines were still fighting Japanese forces in northern Okinawa, the Seabees built warehouses and other structures in the south, facilitating the air campaign and the planned invasion of Japan.
The use of the atomic bombs on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9 averted that invasion, and Greene was on Okinawa when the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945. Three months later, he sailed home in a cargo hold, sleeping in a rescue basket for the eight-day voyage to San Diego because all of the bunks were full.
He was honorably discharged from the Naval Reserve as a machinist’s mate 2nd class on Dec. 1, 1945.
Among the 10 children of William Luther Greene and Violet L. Greene, he was the youngest son. Brothers Joe, Harold and Seaborn also served in the war. All three lived to be 80 or older but are gone now.
After coming home, Greene took a job driving a bus with Atlantic Trailways. After seven years, he went over to Greyhound, and drove a bus for another 30 years and eight months, retiring in 1983.
One day in 1947, passengers were boarding in Savannah when a beautiful, tall young woman in a big pink hat and high heels got on. When she sat near the driver to talk to him, he knew it was a blessed day. She was going to Columbus to visit her brother, and when the bus arrived in Columbus late that night, he made a date for breakfast with the lady and her brother.
Mildred Cook and Robert Greene were married three months later, Oct. 25, 1947. They had two daughters, Irene and Carolyn, and he now has five grandchildren and eight great-grands. Mrs. Greene died in 1985.
Mr. Greene is one of 24 veterans, including 23 World War II vets and one Korean War vet, who took the weekend trip with Honor Flight Savannah. As with Honor Flight organizations all over the country, the veterans pay nothing. They were to see the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial Wall, plus the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
“I’m going to enjoy it. It’s a great honor, I think, to be able to go,” Greene said. “I thank the Honor Flight people and the people who are giving, and I’m glad they’re doing it.”
Since October 2009, Honor Flight Savannah, Inc. has sent 108 veterans to Washington, and if nobody cancelled, this trip brings the total to 132, noted Larry Spears, the nonprofit’s founder and treasurer. Of the previous six trips, three were by air and three by train. The chartered bus ride is the group’s latest attempt to steer clear of high air fares while making veterans comfortable.
Another bus trip is slated for September, followed soon by a flight being planned from the Charleston airport. Special volunteers called Guardians assist veterans, many of whom use wheelchairs. On this trip, they range in age up to 94.
For information on signing up a veteran, donating, or becoming a Guardian or other volunteer, visit the website www.honorflightsavannah.org.