Thursday, January 31, 2008

Old Bob has passed away

My friend, Bob passed away a week ago. I'm a little bit sad I didn't spend more time with him, esp. when I got back. But he lived rather far away, over 30 minutes drive, and I'm not good at managing my time to see him.

I had the honor to give him a eulogy at his funeral. This is it.

Eulogy for Chief Petty Officer Robert S. Wilkins (Ret) 25th January 2007.

I had the honor and pleasure to become a friend to Mr Wilkins, whom we affectionally knew as Bob. We met at the ACCF church in 1995. He was very surprised that I knew so much about military history and we spent long hours talking about World War Two, the Royal Navy and his part in it.  This is his story which I recorded during my time with him.

Robert Stanley Wilkins was born, July 28th, 1912, in a small English village called Tisbury in England. He came from a large family – 4 brothers and 4 sisters. His father was an ordinary laborer but an exceptional gardener who turned their backyard into a veritable Garden of Eden and grew all their vegetables and fruits – and according to Bob they lived like kings on the produce. His mother was a school teacher; a highly educated woman. Despite their social class mismatch, they married out of love.

 Virtually all his brothers had joined the Navy. All up, his family served a total of 72 years in the navy service. Bob was good at school but his father was too poor to send him to higher education, much to his mother’s dismay.

So Bob joined the Navy in 1928, age 16 years. He didn't do it out of love for King and Country, he just wanted to see the world. Back then, only the rich could afford to travel. He spent 12 months as a boy seaman on board the training battleship, Emperor of India which used coal as its main fuel. He actually had to haul sacks of coal onto the ship and hated it. At 18, he went to the battleship, Royal Sovereign and then joined the Revenge with the 1st Battle Squadron in the Mediterranean. He served on 6 battleships including the Barham, Nelson and Vanguard and two aircraft carriers the Courageous and the Ark Royal – not including time spend on a minesweeper and destroyers. He preferred serving on the bigger ships – they were more sturdy, stable and safe.

He was very proud to serve in the Royal Navy. Everyone in the ship, from admiral to seaboy, was literally in the same boat and shared the same fate. It wasn’t like the army where the general sat hundreds of miles away in safety ordering his soldiers over a phone to attack the enemy. The Navy wasn’t a cake ride but Bob said he had the time of his life. He got to travel to Malta, Gibraltar, Israel, various parts of the Mediterranean and even to North America.  Discipline was extreme but they were all volunteers so they didn’t complain too much.

 He met his future wife Elsie on October 4th, 1930 – 8.30pm Saturday evening. He was 18 years, 2 months old. He was serving on the battleship, the Royal Sovereign then. Whilst on shore leave, he met Elsie. It was very romantic. They walked pass each other in the street and glanced at each other for a brief moment and kept on walking. Then both of them turned back and gave each other a second glance. When Elsie saw Bob looking back at her, she got shy, and quickly walked away.

 It was love at first sight. So he ran up to her and being a true gentleman he politely asked her, “Excuse me, may I please escort you home and if you don’t mind, to extend our time together, might we walk a little slow?”

 After spending sometime with her, he liked her so much that he asked “If I may be so bold, and since you know your way around here – is there a longer route so that I may spend more time with you.” And she agreed.

 Finally, when it came time to say goodbye, he asked, “Let me write to you – but if someone you fancy comes by, you can go, but let me know.” And so they wrote to each other virtually every day. And one year, 5 months later – in May 1932- they had their first kiss.

 Bob had to write to Elsie often because his navy duty kept him at sea and foreign shores for many months. Years later he found that she kept all his letters – treasuring them and would read them repeatedly.

 He was the happiest man on earth when he was with Elsie. He took her to his parents for approval. His beloved mother loved her because Elsie had beautiful manners. Unfortunately, he felt he was a too poor to get married.

 Eight long years after they first met, Bob married Elsie on the 17th December 1938- both were age 26. Soon after, he was posted to the big aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and it had to go to the Mediterranean for 3 months training. Elsie was angry when she heard about this and said - "Three months? What's that? A weekend?" It wasn’t a nice way to start a marriage. But he knew that war between Germany was close.

In 1939, war broke out with Nazi Germany and the Ark was sent straight to the Arctic to help the Norwegians. It was, one of the worse times in Bob’s life. The weather conditions were hellish and they were constantly under heavy air attack from the Luftwaffe and had many narrow misses. There's the photo with four big bomb splashes all around the Ark. Bob reckoned that one hit and the Ark would have probably blown up. The experience made Bob very religious.

One of the good aspects about the war was the faster pace of promotion. Soon after war broke out - one of the officers beckoned to Bob and asked him whether he wanted to get promoted. He said yes, sat for the exam and became a petty officer. By the end of the war he made senior petty officer - and he received his pension - indexed - since 1956, a nice tidy sum.

The Ark would play a vital role in the war – sailing to South America, the Arctic, the Atlantic, and the Med for various naval ops. Bob was very proud that his ship’s torpedo planes helped to sink the Monster Battleship Bismarck which you can see in this painting.  I bought it for Bob when I first met him. When he saw this picture, he was very touched.

Bob took part in Operational Pedestal in August 1942 which was an important convoy expedition to supply the important garrison at Malta with vital supplies. It was a horror. They were under heavy enemy attack and they lost eight ships out of 14 that took part. He saw things you wouldn’t believe, the funnels of merchant ships shooting out flames after they had been hit, warships on fire.

 The most frightening thing Bob saw was the sinking of the big aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. Bob saw the Eagle take four torpedo hits which caused it to immediate tilt heavily to one side. Sailors were jumping off the decks and desperately trying to swim away before the ship sink. In less than 8 minutes, the big warship had completely disappeared. Bob was horrified - the people under decks - in the engine room were trapped in the sinking ship. He worried it might be his turn next.

Bob was on board the Ark Royal when it too got sunk. They were on another trip to Malta and it was smooth sailing. They weren’t bombed. The weather was good. Unfortunately, out of nowhere they were struck by a torpedo from a German submarine, the U-81. For a moment, it looked as if the Ark was going to sink straight away. A lot of people jumped over the side, but the carrier seemed to recover.

 A destroyer came along side and evacuated the crew. Everyone eventually got off, except for the one casualty from the torpedo blast. A tug boat also came out and started towing the damaged Ark Royal. But after several hours, the flooding increased – and it sank.

 Bob loved the Ark Royal of all the ships he served on.  The Ark Royal throughout its short career was considered a lucky ship – it had been attacked many times, had many near misses and close calls with 1000 pound bombs and torpedoes, and the Germans and Italians claimed to have sunk it many times. This time however they did. But he told me: She was a real lady. When it was her turn to go, she waited until all her crew got off before she sank. The sea was calm, as flat as a pancake and the weather was beautiful. When I got to port, I telegraphed Elsie with the message, "Safe. Feet not wet."

For his service in the war and the navy, he was awarded these medals which I got professionally framed for him. Bob liked me a lot and we had a great time talking about his experiences in the war. He felt I should keep the medals because I would treasure their historical significance.

In the 1950s Bob was seconded to the Australian Navy and he found life so pleasant that he decided to migrate. He had to convince Elsie’s mother first. She was worried that Elsie would get eaten by the Aborigines. Elsie was also hesitant. But he told her- if she didn’t like it after the first year, they would pack their bags and go home.


However, she liked it and so they stayed on. Bob worked hard and saved enough money to buy Elsie a beautiful house in Ashburton, and they even got to travel around the whole of Australia. They loved each other dearly. It was a great shock to Bob when Elsie died in 1995. She was his soul mate and he mourned her deeply. He couldn’t get over her loss and cried a lot. Thankfully, God directed good people into his life to befriend him at his time of need and to help him cope. You know who you are.

1 comment:

Kathleen Ang said...

Thank you for telling his story. What a man, and what a life well lived.