On September 22, 2013, I was fortunate to meet the Reverend Dr. Robert Bluford, Jr. '45 while attending the wedding of my head office assistant. The Rev. Dr. Bluford was officiating the ceremony that day at Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Chester, Virginia. Although he was 94 years old, I was about to get a peek into this gentleman's energy, his spirit of generosity, and his life devoted to the service of others.
Several weeks went by before we were able to meet, but I was no less excited to be breaking bread with someone I consider a true hero of our "greatest generation." I was essentially a stranger to Dr. Bluford, but I guess any doubts he may have had about me were dispelled when I told him that I was also a Tiger alumnus.
As many know, it is typically considered polite in the old Southern tradition to address even a contemporary by his surname until the parties are better acquainted. From the outset, however, Dr. Bluford insisted that I call him "Bob." His warmth and humility became even more apparent as we discussed his life and contributions to others.
When asked what drew him to aviation, Bob explained that he had always been interested in aircraft. When he was ten years old, his father took him and his brother to Byrd Airport (now Richmond International Airport) so that he could watch Charles Lindbergh fly "The Spirit of St. Louis." He remembers this as quite a thrill. Afterward, he simply enjoyed watching the aircraft take off and land and witness the old biplanes delivering the airmail.
After graduating from high school in 1936 in Richmond, Bob spent the following five years working wherever he could to earn money. "The country was still recovering from the Great Depression," he said, "and I can remember going door to door on Broad Street in Richmond, only to be turned away. No one was hiring."
Essentially living hand-to-mouth, Bob one day had the call to go into the ministry. Of course, to become an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church, one needed a formal education and a post-graduate study at seminary. Because Venable Hall was home to the first Presbyterian seminary in the South, the choice was clear that Hampden-Sydney would be the college for his studies.
After saving all he could by working wherever he could, Bob entered H-SC as a 22-year-old freshman in September 1941. "I was older than anyone in the senior class," he said, "and overall, I was the oldest student on campus!"
He recalls that on December 7, 1941, several of his classmates came running out of Venable Hall shouting that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Bob and some of his friends in his Sunday school class exchanged puzzled looks, each asking, "Where's Pearl Harbor?"
Days later he returned to his draft board to inquire on his draft status, now that the United States was at war. He was told to go back to Hampden-Sydney and get as much studying completed until he was called up for service. Bob lamented that at the time, "We were so totally unprepared for war as a nation, that it was no less than a miracle that we emerged victorious in 1945."
After ten months, Bob was called up for service and sent to Miami Beach for basic training. Since he had already been a military cadet for four years at John Marshall High School, which followed the same patterns of drill as those at The Virginia Military Institute, Bob felt he had learned more in high school training than he did in basic training at Miami. He had had better instructors, as well. He spent several months in Miami until they sent him to a college training detachment. Then he was sent on a two-day train ride to Cleveland, Ohio.
Bob laughed about how he and his fellow officer candidates all had suntans while in Ohio, all courtesy of Uncle Sam from their time in Florida. During the brutal wintery months of February and March in Cleveland, the 300 bronzed cadets marched down "Millionaires Row" while a light snow was falling. He also remembers with fondness the top-class quarters on Euclid Avenue in which they stayed. They were also fed well during this phase of their training.
Once his training was completed in Cleveland, Bob went to Nashville, Tennessee, where he developed an interest in flight navigation. So passionate was his interest that during training his commanders misconstrued it as a possible fear of piloting an aircraft. He was actually sent to the base psychiatrist for evaluation to see if he was fit to act as pilot in command. He recalls that one of the questions the psychiatrist asked was whether he enjoyed sports, to which Bob quickly shared an account of playing lightweight football at Hampden-Sydney, where the Tigers beat UVA that year in Charlottesville in the lightweight division.
Bob traveled to nine different cities in the contiguous United States for various aspects of training to command the Consolidated B-24D Liberator, a long-range heavy bomber used in the European and Pacific theaters of operation during the war. This training would take approximately a year and a half, which was typical for all B-24 and B-17 pilots.
Bob finally arrived at Attlebridge, also known as Army Airbase 120, near Norwich, England, on the east coast of the island nation. There he served with the 466th Bomb Group, 784th Bombardment Squadron of the 8th Air Force under the command of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle. In his B-24D Liberator, which he named "Parson's Chariot," he was responsible for the lives of nine other men. He recalls sitting down and writing personal letters to the families of each of these men with promises that he would do whatever he could to return them safely home after the war.
The 466th Bomb Group flew 232 combat missions from March 1944 to April 1945. They flew 5,762 sorties and lost 47 aircraft in combat. The group operated primarily in strategic bombing, with targets including aircraft plants at Kempten, a synthetic oil plant at Misburg, and aero engine works at Eisenach. They also hit German communications and transportation during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944, later bombing the airfield at Nordhorn in support of the airborne assault across the Rhine in March 1945. Bluford arrived in December 1944 and flew a total of 18 missions over Germany, of which the last six were flown as lead crew pilot for the squadron.
One of his most memorable missions involved his having to fly through a barrage of flak as he was headed to his assigned target. "I recall the Germans had ground-based 88s, which could be set to deliver the flak bombs at a certain altitude, and with their skill at ‘bracketing' the Allied bombers, they were able to shoot their targets with a remarkable degree of accuracy. Between the flak bombs and German Messerschmitt B-109 fighters, it was a wonder we were ever able to reach our objectives. It is hard enough holding a heading and altitude, but when you have several dozen enemy fighters trying to blow you out of the sky, in addition to the flak bombs, it can make life interesting."
Bob said that the P-51 Mustang escorts made things a little easier as far as keeping the German fighters busy, but he still had to worry about the flak bombs. "There were times that the flak was so thick you could hardly see the sky, and since we were relying on dead reckoning without any navigational beam to follow, we had to try to hold things as straight and level as we possibly could."
Bob shared that once during a takeoff a B-24 crashed directly ahead of him, killing all 10 men on board the plane and creating a great deal of thermal updraft at the departure end of the runway. He was forced to fly his B-24 through this fire and smoke in order to join the rest of the squadron for the mission over Augsburg, Germany. The explosions and heat from the downed aircraft could very well have caused his plane to catch fire, but fortunately he was able to join the other Liberators in formation. Of course, he could not take the time to grieve the loss of his friends and comrades, for the mission was at hand.
After the war, Bob returned to his studies at Hampden-Sydney, where he eventually received a B.A. in liberal arts studies. While enrolled he played lightweight football for two years, was secretary-treasurer in his sophomore year, student body president in his senior year, served on the student assembly, was a member of Theta Chi Fraternity, Eta Sigma Phi National Honorary Classical Fraternity, and Omicron Delta Kappa Honor Society. He graduated in 1947 summa cum laude and was his class valedictorian. At that ceremony, he also received the Fred N. Harrison Leadership Award and The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Medallion.
Amazingly, he accomplished all of this while maintaining a loving marriage to June, his wife of 73 years, having a son, Bobby Bluford '65, and holding down several campus jobs to make money to meet his obligations. He picked up trash on the College grounds, worked part-time as a clerk in Dean Wilson's office, and had a variety of tasks in the old library that had been restored following the fire of 1941.
After completing a successful stay at Hampden-Sydney, Bob entered Union Theological Seminary in Richmond where he earned a B.D. in 1950, graduating cum laude. He also earned a Th.M. in 1954 and a Th.D. degree in 1957. He began his ministry as minister to Presbyterian students at Virginia Tech and later served as pastor of the Western Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. In May of 1960, he was named director of the Department of Campus Christian Education, where he coordinated programs for students at over 200 colleges and universities in the South. He also supervised the work of the Presbyterian Faculty Christian Fellowship, an organization of more than 6,000 Presbyterian and university college professors. Since this area was so large, he utilized the skills learned in the military and purchased a single engine Swift aircraft to get him where he needed to be more quickly.
In the early 1970s he was co-founder of the pioneering Fan Free Clinic in Richmond. In Hanover County he was responsible for the preservation and development of the Polegreen Church site and its designation in the National Registry of Historic Places. He was elected to the United Indians of Virginia board of directors in 1995 and is the only non-Native American to be recognized as a board member.
With all of his many projects and countless hours of community service, Bob has managed to author several books. Living on the Borders of Eternity tells the story of Samuel Davies and the struggle for religious toleration in colonial Virginia; The Battle of Totopotomoy Creek tells the story of Polegreen Church in a prelude to the Civil War.
In April 2011, the Virginia Press Association honored Bluford as the Virginian of the Year for his lifetime of achievements and service to the community.
In November of 2010, Bluford took control of the last airworthy B-24D Liberator, "Witchcraft." Bob held the flight controls straight and true from Lynchburg Airport to Chesterfield Airport. As always, he was very grateful for the experience he had been given.
Never at a loss for energy, Bob's latest project is to raise money for a documentary recognizing the 16 fallen Virginia pilots who gave their lives prior to the start of the United States entering World War II. These men volunteered to train in the Canadian Air Force so that they could be sent to England to serve as pilots in Halifax bombers over Germany. This documentary will eventually be featured at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond.
Bob does not feel that he would have been able to accomplish what he had after graduating from Hampden-Sydney if it had not been for some important role models during his time on The Hill. He remembers Dr. Graves Thompson '27, of course, but also Dr. Edgar Gammon, and Dr. James Buckner Massey, affectionately known as "Snapper." It has been said that the measure of one's life is not what they take or earn while on this Earth, but what they leave behind and the lives they have touched. Indeed, Bluford attributes his own happiness to helping others. He is now a role model himself, and he continues to be a good friend to the many thousands he has known and helped.