Owen Roberts recalls WWII, Korea service

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Owen Roberts flew 82 missions over Europe and Asia during WorldWar II and Korea, practiced law for more than a half century andbecame a Brookhaven civic leader.

The Cleveland, Miss., native, who will turn 87 this week, wasrecently honored during the fourth annual Veterans Parade onMemorial Day.

Roberts volunteered in 1942 for the Army Air Corps. It wasn’tuntil February 1944, however, until he was called to duty. He wassent to Thurleigh Royal Air Base, five miles north of Bedford,England, and attached to the 306th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Forceand flew his first of 32 combat missions on May 11, 1944.

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At Thurleigh, the 306th Bomb Group operated primarily againststrategic targets initially in occupied France and the LowCountries, then later in Germany. The group struck locomotive worksat Lille, railroad yards at Rouen, submarine pens at Bordeaux,shipbuilding yards at Vegesack, ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt,oil plants at Merseburg, marshalling yards at Stuttgart, a foundryat Hannover, a chemical plant at Ludwigshafen, aircraft factoriesat Leipzig, and numerous other targets, according to a unithistory.

The 306th Bomb Group flew its 342nd and final mission on April19, 1945, the most of any Eighth Air Force B-17 unit except the303rd Bomb Group. It compiled 9,614 sorties; dropped 22,575 tons ofbombs; and had 171 B-17’s fail to return from missions, accordingto the history.

Bomber pilots were initially required to complete 25 missionsbefore they were discharged from the active mission roster. Thatwas later extended to 30 missions and then 35 before Roberts wasdischarged from the mission roster.

Roberts flew 32 missions with the 306th Bomb Group, includingtwo on D-Day, in a B-17 the crew named How Soon?

“We had a crew member who was always getting on the intercom andasking ‘How soon?’,” Roberts said. “‘How soon ’til we see Englandagain? How soon ’til we get over Germany? How soon ’til we get overthe (mission) site?’ So that’s what we named her.”

Roberts said the crew had a few close calls, including whenshrapnel from flak cannons went through the aircraft and barelymissed him, but not one of the 10 crew members was killed aboardHow Soon?.

One crew member volunteered for a flight aboard another B-17,however, and did not return.

Roberts was taken off the duty roster after his 32nd mission andreturned to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas, where hehad received his preflight training, to become a navigationinstructor. He taught there until the end of the war.

Following the war, Roberts joined in the Air Force Reserves andattended law school at the University of Mississippi, graduating inAugust 1946.

He moved to Brookhaven a year later to practice in the office ofTom P. Brady. When Brady was elected circuit court judge in 1949,Roberts started his own practice in the same building.

He was activated again for the Korean War in the fall of 1951and reported for training as a navigator/bombardier in B-26bombers.

He flew his first combat mission as member of the 17th Bomb Wing(Light), 95th Bomb Squadron on June 20, 1952. By October 1952,Roberts had flown 50 missions over North Korea.

“It was different there,” Roberts said. “In Europe we flew informations, but in Korea was flew alone.”

Roberts was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and sevenAir Medals during his combat career.

The Air Force officer returned to Brookhaven after 21 months ofservice in the combat zone and resumed his private practice. In theAir Force Reserves, however, he was transferred to the JudgeAdvocate Corps, where he was admitted to practice before the U.S.Supreme Court.

Roberts retired from the Air Force Reserves in July 1968 as alieutenant colonel, but continued to practice law here. He was anattorney for more than 60 years before deciding to retire. Hestayed active in civic organizations for many years.