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With clarinet in hand, Ohio veteran, now 100, saw official end of WWII

Veteran Robert Burns Wheeler Jr. of Upper Arlington, who turned 100 in July, played his clarinet with a military band aboard the USS Missouri as the Japanese signed the Instrument of Surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, ending World War II.

COURTNEY HERGESHEIMER, COLUMBUS DISPATCH/TNS

By DEAN NARCISO | The Columbus Dispatch | Published: September 2, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — When he got the orders to quickly assemble a military band for an important ceremony 75 years ago, Robert Burns Wheeler Jr. did what anyone else might have done: He rolled his eyes and sighed but then quickly got to work.

"I remember the executive officer calling me and saying 'Bob, I've got an assignment for you. You're to take four men to the (USS) Missouri to augment their band.'

"I said, 'Can't you get someone else? I've been here for a year and a half, and I want to go home.' "

His ship, the USS West Virginia, had been damaged by a kamikaze attack and its ranks thinned. But Wheeler, a musician first class in the Navy, gathered the other musicians, including a bass drum player and brass.

Wheeler, who turned 100 on July 2 and lives in Upper Arlington, is part of a commemorative ceremony Wednesday that saluted his service aboard the USS Missouri for that historic assignment at the Sept. 2, 1945, formalization of Japan's surrender in Tokyo Bay. The coronavirus pandemic prevented him from attending the commemorative event in Honolulu.

Wheeler spent the rest of his life playing clarinet, in jazz clubs throughout the country, and later teaching in K-12 schools in Cincinnati suburbs.

And most recently, he has played for residents in First Community Village in Upper Arlington, where he lives.

And he's good. Really good.

Earlier this month, wearing a red-white-and-blue shirt, he navigated the Armed Forces medley with dexterity, perfect timing and pitch, hitting all the high notes with a rise of his head.

"I think that's what's keeping him alive," said Carol Wheeler, his youngest of three daughters who lives in Olde Towne East.

Robert Wheeler on Wednesday recalled that, three-quarters of a century ago, he was aligned near the gang plank of the USS Missouri as military leaders from Japan, the U.S. and several other countries boarded the ship to sign the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.

"I could have touched them with my clarinet," he said of Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, other commanders and dignitaries who passed by. "I didn't realize at the time that it was going to be such an important memory."

Today, he said, "I think of all the good things about the experience, how it seems to be very important."

Carol Wheeler said her dad, a lifelong Democrat, is disillusioned by the political nature of events leading up to this year's pivotal election.

The patriot who lived through two pandemics, military conflicts and the Great Depression, and who saw comrades gunned down in the Battle of Iwo Jima, has simple wishes for how he and others from the Greatest Generation can help.

"He just wants the world to come together. He's not liking what he's seeing now," she said. "He wants to world to be a peaceful place."

©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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