Three Rivers residents Mark Robb and Greg Meis will soon be enjoying an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. It is a somewhat belated thank-you for their wartime military service of decades past. They will depart from Fresno Yosemite International Airport — Greg this coming Monday (Sept. 12) and Mark on October 24 — one of eight such hubs in California, 130 nationwide.
The Honor Flight concept originated with Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many of Morse’s patients were World War II veterans and were excited by news of a WWII memorial that was planned to be installed at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2004.
As time progressed, however, Moore realized that many of the veterans would not be able to visit their own monument without assistance. Being a pilot as well, the good doctor sought to create a volunteer organization that would use public donations to facilitate transportation and accommodations to allow these former soldiers to pay tribute to their fallen comrades while contemplating their own service.
Among the 662 veterans honored on such flights by the Central Valley Honor Flight hub have been two other Three Rivers residents, Clancy Barlow and Jim Barton. Nearly 160,000 veterans, mostly from WWII, have flown with Honor Flight throughout the United States since 2005.
With the passage of time and fewer WWII veterans among us, the flights have recently become available to those who served during the Korean War. Greg, 86, and Mark, 91, are perfect examples of this transition, Mark having served in WWII, and both he and Greg having served in the same unit in Korea.
Mark Robb was just out of high school when he left his home town of Wentworth, Mo., to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was 1943 and “we were going in one way or the other,” he said.
Boot camp was in San Diego (his first Christmas away from home), then on to Oklahoma for training as an aviation mechanic. After much additional travel, Robb was assigned to the Essex Class carrier USS Bennington.
“The first time out, we were 30 miles off the coast of Japan,” said Mark. “Our planes were bombing the main island.”
All the while, notorious propagandist Tokyo Rose was to be heard on the radio saying, “You Bennington boys are going home in rubber boats!”
Robb added, “It was probably a good thing it was so foggy. We didn’t have kamikazes.”
That would soon change. From there, Robb’s carrier went to Iwo Jima where his aircraft supported operations, bombed and strafed. It was at Okinawa that the kamikazes were up close and personal. As a plane captain, he was stationed to a specific aircraft to have it in a state of readiness for its pilot.
“One of them [kamikaze] headed straight for the first two rows of planes [where Robb was], which were loaded with napalm bombs,” he recalled.
“Our guys shot them down well enough that he hit below deck, just above the waterline, and didn’t cause much damage,” he continued.
During the battle, spent bullets, shrapnel, and debris fell around Robb “like it was hailing.”
Leaving Okinawa, the Bennington encountered a typhoon so severe that it bent the carrier’s foredeck. At the Philippines, scuttlebutt was that Robb’s unit was scheduled to invade mainland Japan.
While back in San Diego to pick up the rest of their unit, word of VJ day arrived. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
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Greg Meis, a Burbank, Calif., lad of 16, had just graduated junior high school in 1946. He joined the U.S. Army.
“They had a new deal where you only had to sign up for a year and a half,” he said. “The usual hitch was four years.”
Greg served his peacetime duty at Fort Lawton, Wash., where as an MP he rose to the rank of Sergeant First Class. From 1946 to 1948, Greg was back in Burbank giving little thought to his active reserve status.
In the meantime, Mark Robb decided he liked California, so 1948 found him back in Los Angeles rooming with an old buddy who had a swell cousin.
“[My roommate] went and enlisted in the National Guard in order to beat the draft,” he said. “Like an idiot, I went and signed up with him. Thing is, he got married in ‘49 and they discharged him. Dot [the swell cousin] and I were married in July 1950, and when my unit was activated in September they wouldn’t let me out.”
It turned out that Robb’s mechanical skills were in high demand. He was sent to a mechanic’s school in Atlanta, Ga., where he was “honor student of the whole school. They wanted to keep me as an instructor, but the 40th wouldn’t release me.”
While serving with the 40th California in Korea, Robb was promoted as rapidly as protocol would allow. His role as instructor often found his students to be of higher rank than he.
“They couldn’t have that,” he recalled. “I went from PFC to Sergeant in about four months and was in charge of the repair section of the motor pool.”
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Greg also received a letter in September 1950 calling him to active duty with the 40th Infantry, California National Guard. “We often didn’t know where we were,” Greg said of Korea. “We’d be on a hill someplace watching people move around.”
“At one location, there was some sort of river between us,” he continued. “The North Koreans would come around 8 or 10 in the morning and do their laundry. They’d go back, there’d be about a one hour free zone, then we’d go down.”
He recalled being shot at twice.
Mark Robb’s recollections include “Bed Check Charlie,” an outdated North Korean plane that would make low passes semi -regularly at about 11 p.m.
“He never dropped anything, but we’d go general quarters every time,” said Mark.
There was a more serious incident when U.S. Navy aircraft strafed vehicles and dropped a 500-pound bomb a quarter-mile from Robb’s location.
“It made a pretty good sized hole,” said Robb of the damage. “There was a MASH unit a quarter mile down the road, big red crosses and everything. We had an AA gun on a hill and they wanted to shoot that plane down. I yelled, ‘No! Those are F4Us [American planes]!’”
In 1952, Sergeant Mark Robb was among the first to be discharged from the 1950 deployment of the 40th California. His time was up and he was going home to raise a family with Dot.
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Mark and Dot had actually grown up in the same tiny town but had never met until Mark had roomed with Dot’s cousin in L.A.. After military service, Mark stayed busy owning automotive repair shops, working for the California Highway Department and the California Highway Patrol, from which he retired in 1986. That’s when the Robbs moved to Three Rivers.
When Greg’s hitch was almost finished he was offered a deal. Although he only had a junior high school diploma and a GED, he would be advanced to the rank of Second Lieutenant if he would sign on for two more years.
“I liked the Army,” said Greg. “Everyone wanted to be an officer.”
He would stay on until 1955.
After mustering out, citizen Meis set about the business of suburban life, getting married and starting a family in the then-new community of South El Monte in Southern California. By 1960, he had entered public life, and over the years held a plethora of positions for the City.
Several buildings bear his name on plaques, and he was instrumental in attaining All American City status for South El Monte in 1986, helped to form the Commission on Ethics, sat on the Business Council, was vice president of Contract Cities for Southern California, was regional director for the Boy Scouts of America-San Gabriel Council, and was even the international president of Tall Clubs America where he and his wife, Barbara, met.
Greg made the acquaintance of some celebrities during his career and whenever campaigning would call on Clayton Moore for an endorsement. With a photo of Meis and Moore on his flyers, “From 1968 to ‘78, I never lost an election,” he said. “How could you fault a guy who knows the Lone Ranger?”
In 1987, Greg and Barbara moved to their cozy “Rancho Costa Plenty” in Three Rivers. Now good friends, Greg Meis and Mark Robb had not crossed paths while both served in the 40th California National Guard. They did not meet until fate had them both retiring to the same Kaweah River Drive neighborhood within a year of each other.
Mark and Dot Robb have been very active with community and charity work in their retirement years. Mark keeps all the Comfort for Kids sewing machines humming, a position he ‘retires’ from yearly. As he and Dot both advise, the secret to longevity is… don’t worry.”
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The Central Valley Honor Flight was selected by Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) as the Central Valley Nonprofit Organization of the Year for 2016. Founded in 2013, the all-volunteer Central Valley Honor Flight organization has raised more than $1.5 million, providing nearly 700 veterans with the journey of a lifetime.
According to Paul Loeffler, the vast majority veterans who take the Honor Flight are seeing the war memorials for the first time and might never have the opportunity to see them without the nonprofit’s help.
Anyone can help ensure future Honor Flights for veterans by donating financially or volunteering as a guardian. For more information regarding the above as well as upcoming flights, visit www.cvhonorflight.org or phone Paul Loeffler, (559) 285-5975.