The snapshots in Robert Warren’s hand were glimpses into a bold life:
His F6F Grumman Hellcat departing an aircraft carrier in 1945.
His HRS-1 Sikorsky helicopter on the frozen ground in Korea in 1951.
His Douglas A-4 Skyhawk refueling over the Atlantic during a transoceanic flight in 1968.
“Sat for 7.5 hours in that little plane,” the 87-year-old said.
Warren needs a walker to get around these days, but those prized mementoes provide a portrait of an extraordinary, decorated Marine aviator who flew and fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and served in the Corps for more than 27 years.
“When it comes to wars, the Marines don’t discriminate,” he said. “We get to fight in all of them.”
Thus, Warren’s memories are many on this Veterans Day, a day after the 236th birthday of the Marine Corps.
n Night missions mopping up Japanese defenders on Okinawa.
n Retrieving wounded Marines under frigid conditions in Korea.
n Working with the Vietnamese people as a deputy for civil operations from 1967 to 1968.
“We built roads, reservoirs and schools for them,” Warren said. “We even transported elephants slung underneath our helicopters.”
Those light moments came few and far between during those tours of duty.
“I was very, very fortunate to have gone through three wars without getting shot,” he said. “I saw a lot of death, especially in Korea. You never get used to it.”
On the wall is a large shadowbox containing Warren’s many decorations, including three Distinguished Flying Crosses -- the last for rescuing a downed pilot from behind enemy lines in Korea.
“A miserable place,” he said. “It was so cold you’d come back and have to peel your fingers off the throttle.”
Like so many 18-year-olds who took up arms in World War II, flying was an escape from the farm for the Benton Harbor, Mich., native.
Warren worked his family’s 40 acres -- chickens, pigs, dairy cows, an apple and peach orchard -- tilling the farm behind a plow.
“I looked at the wrong end of a horse too many years,” he joked. “The greatest day of my life was when Dad bought a tractor.”
That is, until older brother Bill, who learned to fly at 16 and eventually became a commercial pilot, landed a trainer at the farm one day.
“I thought, that’s what I want to do,” Warren said.
As a young Marine pilot, he had his moments.
Like that carrier landing off Norfolk, Va.
Warren’s photo shows his Hellcat’s prop bent and twisted.
“My tailhook broke off and I thought I was going over the bow,” he said. “But I forgot about the barrier and hit it pretty hard. After I got through bouncing around the deck, the next voice I heard was the captain: ‘Pilot, report to the bridge.’
“I didn’t think he was inviting me up for lunch.”
Interestingly, despite his prowess as a fighter pilot, Warren transitioned into helicopters after World War II instead of jets.
“I knew helicopters were the way the Marines were going,” he said. “There weren’t going to be any more beach landings.”
Warren helped develop helicopter tactics for troop drop-off, resupply and medical evacuation. He also helped design sling hoists and quick-release cargo hooks, vital for helicopter operations.
“At first, troops were reluctant to ride them in Korea,” he said. “But pretty soon they learned it was a lot better than walking 14 hours down some snowy trail through the mountains.
“The Army claims Vietnam was the first helicopter war. They’re one war late. We did that in Korea.”
Warren’s accomplishments did not stop there.
n He is the only pilot to have commanded both a Marine helicopter squadron and a Marine jet attack squadron.
n He taught helicopter tactics at the Marine Corps Staff and Command College in Quantico, Va.
n He was one of six men inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame last May along with the late Eddie Rickenbacker, an American icon and World War I ace.
Select company, indeed.
“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference,” read the words of President Ronald Reagan on a plaque near the shadowbox. “Marines don’t have that problem.”
Marines such as Robert Warren.
“It’s been an interesting career,” he said.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.