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'They're the heroes': Auburn WWII veteran shares story of his service
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'They're the heroes': Auburn WWII veteran shares story of his service

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

AUBURN — People have been telling Robert Strohm he's a hero for more than half a century. He still insists that he's not.

The 98-year-old Auburn resident served in the Navy during World War II, invading Nazi territory four times. He saw things that scare him to this day — things he sometimes can't talk about.

But, as Strohm explained to The Citizen at his Nelson Street home on Nov. 4, many others saw the same things. And some of them never had a chance to talk about what they saw.

"To me, the hero is the guy left laying on the beach, not the one who came back," he said. "They're the heroes."

Strohm may insist he's not a hero, but in Auburn, he's revered anyway. He's one of the few surviving World War II veterans in Cayuga County, and the last of the local ones he knew personally. The National WWII Museum estimates there are about 325,000 surviving American veterans of the war, a number that is expected to drop sharply over the next decade.

In addition to his service, though, the life Strohm has lived after the war also makes him revered in his adopted hometown.

Often wearing his "World War II veteran" baseball cap with pride, Strohm is one of the community's more recognizable figures. For decades, he was active in a litany of local organizations. And anyone who's been in the Auburn Wegmans before noon on a weekday has likely seen him ordering coffee or scratch-offs, chatting up friends, employees and even strangers.

Many of them, in a show of appreciation to Strohm, gathered across the street from his home on Oct. 12 to wish him a happy birthday. Some drove by with presents, including 98 scratch-offs from Wegmans, and the Auburn Police Department sent a small parade of cruisers to salute the veteran. Another 250 people sent cards, Strohm beamed on Wednesday.

"I just can't believe what people have done for me," he said. "There's so many people I gotta thank, but I just can't name them all."

The cards were piled in a corner in Strohm's living room a week before Veterans Day as he shared the story of his service with The Citizen.

Born in Kansas City, Strohm was 19 years old and working in a steel mill there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He tried to enlist the next day, he said, but was delayed by a kidney issue. It wasn't until Jan. 2 the next year that he was able to. After training, Strohm was assigned to the USS Oberon, an attack cargo ship, as a pharmacist's mate 3rd class.

The ship transported supplies and troops across the war's European theater. On Nov. 8, 1942, it delivered both to the beaches of Morocco during the invasion of northern Africa. Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, "The Big Red One," were the first casualties Strohm saw in person. Treating them was the first of many visceral memories he formed over the next few years.

After a shipment to the South Pacific, the Oberon again crossed the Atlantic to prepare for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.

The second day of it, July 11, the ship was under heavy German fire outside the city of Gela. As planes swarmed above, antiaircraft guns on the Oberon and others began firing into the sky. Unbeknownst to the ships, though, the planes were American C-47 Skytrains and C-53 Skytroopers — with thousands of paratroopers aboard. More than 300 died in one of the worst friendly fire incidents in American history. An order to the ships, notifying them that the planes would be above, was not received. Poor training and gun systems were also blamed.

Veterans HOF 6.JPG

U.S. Navy World War II veteran Robert Strohm listens as state Sen. Pam Helming reads his service history during a New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame ceremony in Auburn in November 2019. 

That day off the coast of Sicily is one of the harder memories for Strohm to revisit, he said.

"You see all these guys getting knocked off, blown out of the sky, getting killed on the beach, you don't like talking about it," he said. "Sometimes I just can't seem to come out with it."

An even harder memory is Salerno.

In September 1943, the Oberon was again bombarded by German fire outside the Italian port city. The invasion had no air support, Strohm said, making it "a slaughterhouse." Casualties were suffered not only on the beaches, but the ship itself. In all, more than 3,000 Americans died or went missing at Salerno. Another 3,000 were wounded, overwhelming Strohm and fellow medical staff.

"Them damn Germans had a damn picnic," he said.

The Oberon continued supplying the war effort through the end of the year. Stops included Bizerte, Tunisia, and Belfast, Ireland. In December, the ship encountered a storm on the Atlantic that "caused more damage than had enemy actions," according to its official Navy history. The only thing Strohm would say about the storm is that it still gives him nightmares.

The fourth and final invasion of Strohm's Navy career took place on Aug. 15, 1944, when the Oberon landed troops and supplies at St. Tropez in southern France. Operation Dragoon, as it was called, was originally supposed to take place at the same time as Operation Overlord in northern France, otherwise known as D-Day. But a lack of resources delayed the second invasion by two months. 

"People don't realize there were two invasions (of France)," Strohm said. 

Early the next year, with the Nazis driven back to Germany, the Oberon was reassigned to the Pacific theater. By then, though, Strohm had earned enough service points to be sent home.

The veteran went back to work at the steel mill in Kansas City, then found his way to Auburn shortly thereafter. He started a family that would include four children — Sandra, Diane, Paul and Robert — and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Meanwhile, he worked at International Harvester and, for 35 years, the American Locomotive Co.

But Strohm didn't just live his postwar life in Auburn, he became part of the community's fabric. For years he was active with the Polish Falcons, St. Hyacinth and Holy Family churches, Swietoniowski-Kopeczek American Legion Post No. 1324 and youth baseball, including the Babe Ruth League. He's also made Wegmans his "second home," the site of hours of friendly conversation every morning.

Many of those conversations are with fellow veterans. Over the years, Strohm has gotten to know ones from other wars, particularly Vietnam. And he'll never forget Operation Enduring Gratitude, the 2017 trip he took with a bus full of area veterans to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C. He's tried since then to find more surviving World War II veterans in the area, but to no avail.

COVID-19 has made that even more difficult than it would normally be. Strohm said he feels good these days, and credited a new doctor from the Syracuse VA Medical Center he's been seeing. He's also grateful for the regular care he gets from his daughter Sandra and friend Tom Wild. But the veteran wants to be back in the community — back where he's revered, even if he believes he shouldn't be.

"I want to go out. I hate sitting around," he said. "I'm 98 years old. I gotta be moving around."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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