Not until Kristen Pearson asked the question did Rolvin Allen consider what he had failed to do in all his 96 years.
Allen had told Pearson of his experience as a waist gunner on a B24 during World War II flying above the islands of the central Pacific. He had talked about his service to the U.S. Navy as an aviation machinist who first served on a PBY, a seaplane used to search out and torpedo submarines. He doesn’t recall how many missions were carried out over the waters of the Bahamas, but they never spotted any subs.
But action wasn’t lacking aboard the B24. In an interview outside his room at Greenwich Farms assisted living, Allen related how the crew flew a mission every three days. The rest of the time was spent patching up the aircraft to ensure it was safe to fly the next mission. Allen’s plane took many hits, it was riddled with bullet holes, but fortunately they always made it back to base.
“We flew cover for the Marines,” he said.
That took him into some of the hottest spots of the war. His squadron carried out bombing missions on the battle for Iwo Jima, a critical victory as it gave the Allies a runway long enough from which to stage bombing missions on Japan.
“It was a hot squadron,” Allen says of its success to sink ships and destroy other enemy targets.
Allen shot down a Japanese dive-bomber, which won him a medal. He was awarded two other medals during the war. In total, Allen estimates he flew 50 missions, although he’s not sure of the number. There’s no forgetting the squadron commander, who was awarded many distinguished medals.
Allen finds he is the last living member of the squadron, and when he visited Arlington Cemetery as part of an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. run by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association, he found his commander’s grave. He was surprised by how unassuming it was. He had thought it would be more prominent.
Allen said the squadron developed a tactic of flying in as low as 50 feet on a bombing run to avoid detection and then climbing to 200 feet as they approached the target. He explained instead of dropping bombs from a high altitude that fell pretty much in a line on the target, at 200 feet and at speeds of 220 mph the bombs would “skip” before hitting the target, enabling them to climb from the scene.
With his knowledge about aircraft, Allen figured he would have a job at Quonset reconditioning aircraft after the war.
“It’s Rhode Island,” he said when asked why he didn’t get the job.
He said he didn’t have the right connections. He ended up learning an all-new trade after running a job-wanted ad in the Providence Journal. The ad read, “Salary no object, future is.” Allen ended up working for a home heating oil company based in Pawtucket, where he learned how to install and repair the systems. He also started a family after leaving the Navy. His girlfriend had just completed nursing school at the same time. They married and had two children.
His son, Rolvin Jr., graduated from URI and went on to become a middle school teacher. He has since died from a form of lung cancer. His wife has also passed.
Allen smiles when he talks of his daughter. “She takes care of me like I took care of her,” he said.
Pearson is also looking out for Allen, and when he announced he had never flown in a helicopter and had always wanted to, she aimed to see that he would get a ride. She contacted Heli-Block in Westerly, discovering that a 10-minute ride would cost $49.
“There’s no way we can’t do this,” she said.
Pearson plans to accompany Allen, although she confesses she’s somewhat squeamish about helicopters. She was married on Oct. 11 and on their honeymoon trip to Las Vegas planned a ride there. She backed out.
Pearson had planned the trip for last Wednesday. At the last minute issues were raised about Allen’s health, so it has been postponed to next week.
After all his flying days, Allen is anxious to climb into a helicopter. He’s surprised by the stir he’s caused.
“I didn’t realize what a big deal that was,” he said.