Batavia man marks 100 years, recalls serving during WWII on historic battleship

Robert Larson, Musician 2nd Class, laid down his horn to support D-Day invasion

Bob Larson laughs with family and friends after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake for his 100th birthday celebration at Covenant Living at the Holmstad in Batavia on Wednesday, May 29, 2024. Larson was in the Navy on the USS Texas when the ship was assigned to Omaha Beach on D-Day to do bombardment of Normandy to support the Allied invasion in World War II.

Robert Larson was a young man with a horn, just 18 and graduated from high school when on Nov. 22, 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy to play in the band on ships.

Larson was a Musician 2nd Class, assigned to the band on the USS Texas, a 27,000-ton battleship launched in 1912.

“Every ship or shore station in the world, if it had 1,000 men or more, rated a chaplain and the band,” Larson said.

Larson, a resident of The Holmstad in Batavia, celebrated his 100th birthday May 29. He recalled serving on the USS Texas in World War II.

The Texas was called to Omaha Beach for a 20-day bombardment in support of the D-Day June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, France.

“President [Gen. Dwight] Eisenhower came aboard our ship and he walked right by me,” Larson said. “He gave a talk. Something like, ‘We need you. We want you to do your best.’ We didn’t know everything we were going to go through. We sailed that night.”

The dreadnought

The USS Texas was a New York class battleship, considered “the front line of innovations in gunnery, aviation, and radar” according to the USS Texas Foundation.

It was considered a dreadnought because it was built to carry big guns.

The USS Texas carried 10 14-inch 45-caliber guns in five turrets with a range of 13 miles. Its projectiles were 1,500 pounds each and could pierce armor. Smaller ones, 1,275 pounds each, carried high explosives. Rounds could be fired every 45 seconds, according to the Battleship Texas Historical Site.

If that wasn’t enough, its secondary weaponry was six five-inch 51-caliber guns. Its anti-aircraft weapons were 10 three-inch 50-caliber guns, 10 40mm four-gun mounts and 44 20mm guns, according to the site.

“We got to Normandy about 4 a.m., before dawn, before the troops hit the beach. We were softening up targets,” Larson said.

To soften up a target means to kill the people who were shooting at them, he said.

The Texas also became a hospital, taking on D-Day wounded.

“I had three jobs. When the ship was in port, I was a musician. When we were underway, I was a surface lookout. And when the ship was engaged in battle, I was working with a doctor and a corpsman,” Larson said. “We started to take wounded rangers – the soldiers – aboard that the Nazis shot.”

Larson and others did anything that needed to be done for the wounded, carrying stretchers, even assisting in surgery.

‘Go take those guns out’

After Normandy, the Texas went to the German-occupied city of Cherbourg, France, to retake the city and open the port to the Allied powers.

“The Germans had fortified the cliffs with big guns. They had them embedded in the cliff sides with sliding doors. And the doors would open and they would fire, then the doors would close,” Larson said. “And they had mined the harbor ... so we could not use the port. ... And we could not get in and sweep the harbor of mines because of those guns. So they told us, ‘Go take those guns out.’ ”

The Texas and a couple of other ships engaged those guns and the Texas was hit twice by return fire.

“We had one shell land on the port side of the bow, just above the waterline. But it didn’t explode. We used it later for War Bond rallies,” Larson said.

“The other one hit the conning tower, which is right under the bridge on the ship. It did devastating damage to the bridge. ... I remember the chaplain describing to the crew what was happening. And he said, ‘Shells are flying all over the place, they’re bouncing on the wall, on top of the water’ and we were trying to evade them,” he said.

The Texas knocked the guns out, swept the harbor and removed the mines.

After Cherbourg, they went on to support the invasion of southern France in the Mediterranean Sea, then to the Pacific to support invasions at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

They were there for 50 days during which they had to deal with Japanese kamikazes – suicide pilots.

“They would come at night,” he said. “We had no rest.”

They managed to hit every suicide plane.

The Texas then went to Subic Bay in the Philippines to wait with the rest of the fleet for the invasion of Japan.

“While we were there, I received orders that my sea duty was ending,” Larson said.

Musicians are supposed to be at sea two years and two years on the beach. By that time, he had been at sea two years and two months.

“I was coming home to the states. I was on my way home on another ship and I heard about a bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima,” Larson said. “It was an awesome bomb, but ended the war. By the time I got home, they were signing the peace treaty.”

It started with a cornet

Larson’s parents were Swedish immigrants who settled on Chicago’s South Side. His father was a machinist.

When Larson was about 10, his father handed him a cornet, similar to a trumpet but more compact.

“He said, ‘Here. Learn to play this.’ ”

Eventually, young Larson began taking lessons from a French horn player in the Chicago’s Women’s Symphony, Elsie Engelmann Blank.

To pay for his lessons – a dollar, which was worth a lot more back then – his mother did housework for Blank and his older sister did babysitting.

“I was learning to play and enjoying it,” he said. “She was a real teacher. I learned to play but also to love music. That love of music, that was vital. I was in love with music all my life.”

Larson spent his last four months of service in the Navy Music School.

He was in Washington, D.C., for Christmas that last year and was a spectator for the tree lighting and the Navy Band of about 100 musicians were on duty.

“I remember the trumpet player. Edward Masters,” Larson said. “He played a solo, ‘O Holy Night.’ It was unforgettable and perfect. Absolutely perfect.”

Pastor Larson

After the Navy, Larson became a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, the same religious affiliation as the Holmstad, where he now resides. He attended North Park Junior College – now North Park University – for eight years and was ordained at age 29.

He served congregations in Manistee and Ishpeming, Michigan, in Whitehall and Ridgway, Pennsylvania, Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and in Cranston, Rhode Island.

In Ishpeming, he married a widow with a daughter, whom he adopted, and they had two more children, a boy and a girl. He returned to Illinois. His wife died in 2012 of Alzheimer’s.

“I took care of her as long as I could,” Larson said.

Recalling the details of his wartime service, Larson said he longs for peace in a world that seems to be constantly at war.

He looks to his faith for guidance.

“We believe if you choose to have Christ in your life, you’ll have a better life. Your life will be full of love and not warfare,” Larson said. “I know in my own heart that when you have Christ in your life there’s an unaccountable love that’s there. It helps you to love people more than you would otherwise.”

He paused.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” he said.