Henry Rubner, a decorated World War II Naval aviator, dies at 98

By BONNIE L. COOK | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: March 20, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Lt. Cmdr. Henry Rubner, 98, of Newtown Square, a decorated World War II Naval aviator and later a manufacturer’s representative, died Saturday, March 7, of a heart attack at White Horse Village.

Known as “Hank,” he had a distinguished career piloting the Douglas Dauntless Dive Bomber and later the Curtiss Helldiver.

Initially, he was stationed on Green Island in the South Pacific. Early engagements with the Japanese included battles for Guadalcanal. In one such battle, he returned to base with a hole so large in his wing that he could sit inside it.

Mr. Rubner chose to fly the dive bomber, an early aircraft that dove directly at a target, released bombs at low altitude, leveled off, and flew away. Its occupants were in constant danger.

“After releasing the bombs, your entire plane is exposed to intense antiaircraft fire for a few seconds, which could seem like an eternity,” Mr. Rubner said in a 2003 oral history at White Horse Village, a senior facility in Newtown Square.

In 1942, the Jersey City, N.J., native enlisted in the Navy with the aim of becoming an aviator. He trained at Cornell University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, before earning his wings in Pensacola, Fla., in October 1943.

In his first combat mission, Mr. Rubner attacked Japanese positions on islands in what is now Papua New Guinea. Antiaircraft fire was withering; the squadron lost one of the six pilots in Mr. Rubner’s training class.

In September 1944, Mr. Rubner was assigned to Air Group 20 aboard the Lexington, an Essex Class carrier nicknamed the “Blue Ghost.”

Its mission in the South China Sea was to cut off the enemy’s supply routes. Early in January 1945, his plane sank a Japanese cargo vessel.

Mr. Rubner led the first airstrike on Okinawa, and then successfully attacked a Japanese light cruiser later in January 1945. He was piloting a Curtiss Helldiver when he saw the cruiser escorting a convoy. The gunner dropped three bombs. One went down the smokestack and exploded, sinking the ship.

But the most hair-raising moment came later that month when Mr. Rubner’s group was leading 60 planes on a mission. The group commander had to opt out when his plane’s wing flaps got stuck. Mr. Rubner, a relative rookie, would lead the airstrike and the flight back to the carrier group.

“Flying on dead reckoning, trying to find a moving carrier group in a very large ocean, made it a white-knuckle return trip,” he said. “When we arrived where I had calculated the carriers’ position to be, I saw nothing for three minutes and had visions of 60 splashdowns in the ocean.

“Just then, I spotted two destroyers ahead of the fleet, and I can still remember my sense of relief.”

On returning from the South Pacific, Mr. Rubner was assigned to Wildwood Naval Air Station, where he met Mary Day, who served in the Waves as a disbursing officer. They were married in 1946 and spent 57 years together until her death in 2003.

After the war, Mr. Rubner considered a career as a commercial pilot but settled down with his family in Ohio, first in Shaker Heights and later in Solon, where he had a successful career as a manufacturer’s representative for engineered products.

He was known for his bright smile and lively blue eyes. He enjoyed golf, tennis, gardening, singing, playing the harmonica, and watching baseball.

He was a Cleveland Indians fan but after moving to Newtown Square in 2003, he became a Phillies fan.

Mr. Rubner received many honors including the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with one Silver Star and four Bronze Stars, the Silver Medal, and the Air Medal with one Gold Star.

In 2016, as a special honor, Mr. Rubner went aboard the Lexington, which is dry-docked in Corpus Christi, Texas.

He is survived by daughters Betsy Rubner, Penny Rubner, and Nancy Rubner-Frandsen; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A life celebration will be held at White Horse Village, 535 Gradyville Rd., Newtown Square, once the coronavirus pandemic has abated. Service details will be posted on www.FamilyFuneralCare.net.

Memorial donations may be made to the Paoli Hospital Foundation via www.mainlinehealth.org/ways-to-give/paoli-hospital-foundation/, or the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, Corpus Christi, via https://www.usslexington.com/support/.

©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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