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War veteran reflects on fortunate life

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 7:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
In this Oct. 10, 2013 photo, a scale model of a F6F Hellcat is displayed on a shelf at Roger Sorenson's home in Mattoon. In 1945, Navy Lt. (j.g.) Roger Sorensen found himself in the middle of the Pacific fighting the Japanese from the cockpit of an F-6-F Hellcat during World War II. (AP Photo/Journal Gazette, Ken Trevarthan)

MATTOON (AP) — Propped up on a table beneath his living room window, 90-year-old Roger Sorensen displays a black and white photo that brings back vivid memories.

In 1945, Navy Lt. (j.g.) Roger Sorensen found himself in the middle of the Pacific fighting the Japanese from the cockpit of an F-6-F Hellcat.

"That's me when I had black hair," he joshed as he held the photograph.

The picture was taken in 1944 during a routine flight out of the north end of Saipan — North Field, Tinian Island.

"It was a good plane; it got me back safely anyway."

Sorensen graduated from Mattoon High School on June 5, 1942, and started work at Texaco, Inc. the following Monday. However, with World War II continuing, he enlisted with the Navy to become a carrier-based fighter pilot.

"It used to be when you would go see a movie they would show the news, a comedy, then a movie would start, and during the news one time they showed this plane taking off from a carrier and I thought, 'Boy, I'd sure like to do that,'" Sorensen recalled. "I ended up doing it. I was very fortunate in getting to do what I did."

Sorensen took off to Evansville, Ind., where he learned to fly in a Yellow Cub. Then he was transferred to Dallas, Texas, where he flew bi-planes — "we called them the 'yellow peril.'

"I got there at night, and one of the guys said 'Robert Taylor is here,'" he said. "Sunday morning I was going to church, and I passed an officer who I saluted — I was a cadet at the time. After he got by I looked around and sure enough it was Robert Taylor."

Sorensen trained with Taylor, a television and film actor, several times and mentioned he was a "glamour boy, but he was nice fella."

From Texas, Sorensen transferred to Pensacola, Fla., where he got his wings. During his eye exam, he learned he had 20/15 vision, better than 20/20, which was typical for fighter pilots.

"They told me, 'There was one ahead of you that has 20/15 vision;' they said it was Ted Williams, the baseball player," he recalled. "I chatted with him later on, and he was taller than me, but he tried to convince me to go with the Marines but I knew I wanted to fly off carriers."

Once he had his wings, Sorensen headed to Daytona Beach, Fla., where he learned to fly the fighter jet — the F-6-F Hellcat.

"Under normal circumstances they would have had a carrier there but they were afraid the submarines from the Germans would sink one of them, so the Navy built a couple carriers in the Great Lakes," Sorensen explained.

He and several members of his squadron headed to Naval Air Station Glenview, where he finally learned to land on the carriers. Each pilot had to make five or six successful landings before they were considered fit for deployment.

He was one of the first pilots to pass his mandatory landings so he made it home for Christmas with his newlywed wife, Ruth, also a Mattoon High grad.

Though the duo went to high school together, they never dated until the December following their high school graduation — their first date was Dec. 10 at the Time Theater.

"One of my friends said he had talked to her, and she said she would like to date me," Sorensen recalled. "I thought well, OK, she was a very attractive girl and I thought OK, here's my chance."

While he was stationed in Daytona Beach in 1944, he called Ruth and asked her to marry him.

"She said OK," he recalled. "There were two other fellas getting married in the squadron on Oct. 12, and so I called her and said come down in October. My birthday was Oct. 8, and that made me 21. She was only 20, and they had a rule that you had to wait until you were 21 to get married.

"So I had to wire her folks who had to send a wire back saying it was alright that she got married at 20."

Shortly after their Christmas holiday at home, the Sorensens were sent to San Diego; however, he wasn't sent out with the rest of his squadron.

"While I was in Daytona Beach we had a basketball team, and I was on the team," he said.

During a game he stole a pass and dribbled down the court to go in for lay-up when a guy came from behind, hit his arm and broke his wrist.

"That set me back about six weeks so I didn't get to fly with the guys I'd been training with there," he said.

Shortly after arriving on the West Coast around 1945, he was sent to Seattle, Wash., where he helped teach pilots who had been flying the F-4-F's to fly the F-6-F's. That was when the Japanese started sending bomb-carrying balloons east.

"The balloons were coming over so our squadron had to make sure that any balloon that came over was shot down before it got to Washington state," he said. "That set us back from leaving the states some."

Finally, Sorensen got his call to head into the Pacific; however, he was told he wouldn't be heading to Iwo Jima or Okinawa.

"Some of the fellas that had gone out with me, they were shot down there before I could leave, so I figure maybe that broken wrist kept me from going there," he said. "I've always looked at it that way. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but nevertheless that might have saved my life, because some of the fellas I'd trained with before, they did get shot down."

He had couple of close calls, but overall he says he was "lucky" with his time enlisted in the Navy.

"It's things you never forget," he said.

When Sorensen returned to Mattoon with his wife, who had multiple sclerosis, he went back to work at Texaco, Inc. while attending Eastern Illinois University, where he became a tennis standout.

"He was rated as the Panthers' top tennis player immediately after World War II playing for Eastern from 1946-49," according to his entry in the EIU Athletic Hall of Fame. "He was No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles all four years at EIU and has established EIU scholarships in his name for tennis, golf and business."

Following EIU, he worked as an executive for Texaco, Inc. Ruth died in 1953.

"They say this plane is the cause of my not being able to hear, because this was a 2,000 horse power engine and that was pretty heavy," Sorensen said pointing to his treasured photo Thursday at his home on 13th Street. "But I was very fortunate."

The photo that now sits on display in his living was taken above the North Field air strip, where later the Enola Gay took off. On Aug. 6, 1945, during the final moments of the war, it became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb.

Last October at the age of 89, Sorensen saw the Enola Gay up close at the National Air and Space Museum during his Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C.

"It (the trip) was neat, period," he said. "The whole thing just really brought back memories. I had more people shake my hand during those two days than at any other time in my life. I'm just very fortunate to have had things fall out the way they did."

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