Serving in the South Pacific

By JOSHUA CAMPBELL,

F.L. “Pete” Robbins had the luxury of never even hearing a gunshot during his time in World War II, but his service was invaluable just the same.

His job was to make sure the communications in the South Pacific remained secure and in working order. Robbins, who turns 104 in April, served in New Caledonia, a French territory about 750 miles off the coast of Australia across the Coral Sea. The island itself is about 100 miles long and 30 miles wide.

The second-class carpenter’s mate often built the structures that housed the communications and needed to make constant repairs with the crazy weather.

“It could rain there and the wind would be blowing then in 30 minutes the sun would be shining,” he said.

Robbins couldn’t let the transmitters get wet and would cover them up with tarps if the excessive wind blew the black felt roofs off. There were days where he would have to work all day and night, but when the sun was out and the weather nice he would get to have a good time. However, there were some days where he said it would be more than 110 degrees in the shade.

Robbins was drafted in 1944 and was in good physical shape so he had his pick between the different branches. He chose the Navy because he figured if he wasn’t under water he would have a bed, and if it was lunch time there would be something to eat because he fished all his life out of a pirogue. He said he had heard stories about soldiers going several days with only one can of food.

While he admitted he was scared of going to war, Robbins said he enjoyed the Navy even though it was hard work. When he was a student at Pearl River Community College, he was in the ROTC program so he was already familiar with military practices.

During his deployment he met a French man, Louis, whom he became best friends with. They would go deer hunting together, though Robbins was a novice hunter compared to Louis. He said Louis would get three or four deer in a day when he was just happy to get one. They also hunted for rabbits and would bring the meat back to the cooks because that was the only way any of them got fresh meat.

“The only thing we got was canned stuff. We’d have a good time. We’d break out those deer and have a steak fry.”

Robbins also helped build a place for them to play baseball, and he said they often played to have a good time.

New Caledonia had previously been a prison camp for the French, and at one point nearly two-thirds of the population was French prisoners. France stopped sending prisoners to the tropical paradise in 1897, and while a good amount were returned to France many were freed on the island and remained there.

Robbins said it was rough being away from family for that long and that you think about them much more than when you’re home with them.

“It’s almost unbearable when you get to thinking about it,” he said. “Of course I was old enough that I had a child (Paul) who was 2 years old, and I’m thinking there was someone else bringing him up and here I am out in the Pacific and can’t help him.”

Robbins served 25 months until 1946 and said when the war was finally finished most everybody got drunk because they were happy it was over.

“It was a great feeling,” he said. “There would’ve been a lot more lives lost.”

After a two-week journey back to America, Robbins landed in Seattle and was so excited to have fresh milk. He said he spotted a five-gallon can of milk and most of his lunch that day consisted of drinking “that good, sweet, cold milk.”

Robbins said he spent about a month at his parents’ house in Bunker Hill adjusting to being back in the United States before he went to work at a service station in front of the post office in Columbia. At that time there wasn’t any construction work because all of the materials were sent overseas to assist the military. After a few years he went back to work in construction on the Coast and remained in construction until he retired in 1986 before settling in Columbia. 

Robbins was born in Bunker Hill in 1916 to Luther and Ottis Robbins and was working at a shipyard in New Orleans when he was drafted. He did his training in Bainbridge, Md.

Robbins’ brother, Bennie, who died several years ago, wasn’t as lucky. A member of the Army, Bennie was driving a commander in Germany when they took fire and he got shot in the chest. Luck was on his side in that moment though. Benny kept a pocket Bible in his breast pocket at all times, and the bullet actually got stuck in the back cover.

“Until he died he kept it with him all the time,” Robbins said. “He would say, ‘This stays with me because it saved my life.’” 

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