WWII sailor, 95, wants one last look at the USS Oakland

By DAVID DEBOLT | East Bay Times | Published: October 19, 2018

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Robert Almquist has fond memories of his time on the USS Oakland during World War II. His home in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin is a testament to that; it’s a museum of sorts filled with figurines, military citations and plaques from different war ships.

But one thing is missing for this 95-year-old veteran — a final glimpse of where he spent those critical years of his life. His legs are weak and his memory fading, but Almquist’s dream is to travel 2,000 miles to Oakland, specifically Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, for a look at the USS Oakland’s mast — all that is left of the ship.

“I might have a buddy there too,” he said in an interview. “He’d be 97 or 98. But I think he died.”

Most have. Almquist may be the last of the 800 or so sailors who served on the USS Oakland still above ground. The ship was his home from 1942 to 1946.

The Almquist family has started a GoFundMe page to raise money to bring the World War II Navy veteran to the West Coast, where he hopes also to see a plaque bearing his name at the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial in La Jolla. As of Thursday, the site had raised $1,310 toward the $2,500 goal.

A teacher at a Wisconsin Rapids elementary school said her class organized a fundraiser and wants to deliver the donation around Veteran’s Day. His son, Simon Almquist, said the money is for travel, lodging, car rental and other expenses.

Growing up around the lakes of Wisconsin, Robert Almquist always wanted to be a sailor. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and after boot camp was sent to Treasure Island. He was part of the first crew of the USS Oakland, even though it was not yet commissioned. He recalls taking a train to the Bay Area and a ferry from “Frisco” to Oakland.

The USS Oakland, named for the city, was sponsored by Mills College President Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, and launched Oct. 23, 1942. A light cruiser built by Bethlehem Steel Co. in San Francisco, the Oakland was approximately 542 feet in length and capable of speeds up to 32 knots.

Keith Hedley, who runs the research library at the USS Hornet museum in Alameda, said the ship’s primary role was protect other ships from enemy aircraft.

“It came to be very important in World War II,” Hedley said. Despite its medium-sized guns, “they could put up quite a wall of shrapnel that the Japanese would have to fly through,” he said.

During battle, Almquist said he helped load ammunition to gunners. Otherwise, he was a baker. The four years took him around the Pacific, from Guam to Okinawa. At the war’s end, the vessel was anchored in Tokyo Bay, not far from where the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri. It had earned nine Battle Stars.

Even though Almquist served 30 years in the Navy, retiring long ago, it’s as if he’s never left the service. A father of six, he has three children who have served in the military, including Simon, now 67.

“I’m pretty proud of it,” he said with a laugh. “I have a granddaughter in the Army. I’m proud of my family.”

Upon leaving the Navy, he worked for 30 years in a Wisconsin paper mill. He likes to joke that he spent “30 years in the Navy, 30 in the mill and 30 in retirement.” His twilight years were filled with reunions with his shipmates. They were once held every couple of years, becoming less frequent as the Oakland crew aged. When the reunions stopped altogether, Almquist wrote letters to the few who remained — “one guy from here, one from Marshfield (Wisc.) and one from Beaver Dam (Wisc.).”

He hasn’t received a letter in some time, he said. “They’re all dead now, I guess.” Locally, Hedley said only one World War II Navy veteran visits the Alameda museum these days.

“If a guy served in an active duty capacity in World War II, he has to be at least 95 and that’s just the 17 and 18 year olds,” Hedley said. “There’s not very many of them left.”

The dream of returning to Oakland became more urgent for Almquist after his his wife, Ruth, died in March, two weeks shy of her 89th birthday.

“He has been thinking about it more heavily ever since,” Simon Almquist said.

The USS Oakland was sold for scrap in 1959. The mast is all that is left for a reunion and the 95-year-old wants his family there with him.

“My legs are getting a little weak. I’ll have to take a walker, but I can still get around,” he said.

To donate, visit https://www.gofundme.com/sendbobtocalifornia.

©2018 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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