A perfect day for Bruce T. Gilbert, 88, would be going to the home of one of his daughters, Nancy or Lynne, for a family picnic.
That’s what the Freedom Village resident will be doing today for Father’s Day.
His son-in-law, Andy Ulsh, says the family is planning to surprise Mr. Gilbert with visits by some of his nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren from around the United States.
One of those who won’t be able to be there, granddaughter Rebecca Romano of Virginia, will no doubt have her grandfather in her thoughts.
“He is incredibly nurturing, level-headed and wise. I feel like we have always had a connection,” Romano said by phone.
She remembers as a child he built her a bench for her bus stop, and another time found a rowboat for the grandchildren to use.
More recently, Jean Gilbert, her grandmother, was seriously ill with Alzheimer’s.
“He stood by her all the way through and never wavered. I know it was very hard for him,” Romano said of her grandmother’s illness and passing.
“He has always been this heroic figure because he has done so much,” she said.
When Romano was working on her master’s degree, she was required to interview someone she most admired. She chose her grandfather. That’s when she learned about his military past.
“I’ve never known him as a military pilot. I knew him as my grandfather. I had never heard those stories,” Romano said.
What she discovered was that her grandfather had fought in three wars: World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II, flying the B-25 bomber from the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea, bombing targets in Italy and southern France.
In all he flew 67 missions, attacking railroad yards, bridges and highways, often through thick anti-aircraft fire. On D-Day he and his crew attacked bridges in southern France.
“I had a lot of faith in that airplane,” he said of the twin-engine B-25.
It could take a lot of hits, and still get the crew safely home, sometimes on just one engine.
He has an ugly chunk of steel that exploded through the cockpit and missed him by inches. It’s a fragment of an anti-aircraft shell that embedded itself in the airplane and which a crewman retrieved and mounted for him.
Incredibly, he was never shot down, and never lost a crewman.
The Syracuse native married his childhood sweetheart, Jean, after graduating from flight school. They would be married 65 years and have a happy, successful marriage despite a military career that had them moving often.
“I talked to my wife and children all the time and asked them if they enjoyed this life. My children said they were having a good time, and my wife, too,” he said.
But he never imagined that the United States would be engaged in a series of smaller wars after World War II.
He flew cargo missions in Korea, and in 1962, became an Air Force adviser in Vietnam, working with South Vietnamese pilots.
Over the next decade, he flew many C-130 supply missions into Vietnam from Okinawa to places like Da Nang, Tan Son Nhut, Nha Trang and countless places with no control tower and no airport ... just a clearing in a jungle.
Andy Ulsh was an enlisted man serving in the Air Force on Okinawa when he met then Capt. Gilbert on the flight line as he prepared to fly one of his many Vietnam missions.
Gilbert’s day at the office was flying into a combat zone, while Jean and their two girls were back on Okinawa.
“I can remember him coming back to Naha with bullet holes in his C-130,” Ulsh said.
Ulsh met Lynne there, and had to work up the courage to tell a superior officer that he was interested in his daughter.
“It was very intimidating,” Ulsh said.
But Ulsh came to discover that Gilbert was a devoted family man.
“He adored his wife and he adores his daughters. The military service was always important, but his family came first,” Ulsh said.
“He is the nicest guy in the world. He walks down the hall and everybody knows him,” Ulsh said.
The Gilberts moved from Virginia to River Wilderness near Parrish in 2005 to be closer to family. But after Jean began showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the couple moved to Freedom Village.
He and his daughters have leaned heavily on each other in recent years.
“My two daughters are wonderful,” he said. “They do so much for me.”
Not surprisingly, when asked what’s most important to him, there’s no hesitation. It’s those two daughters and their families.
Today should be a perfect day for Bruce Gilbert. There’s that family picnic at Lynne’s house, and a few surprises.
“We are sneaking some people in that he doesn’t know are coming,” Ulsh said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.