Robert C. Senko, 90
War zones: Europe, Pacific, Korea
Years of service: 1944-46, 1950-52
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, United Nations Service Medal for Korea, Combat Infantryman Badge
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
Robert C. Senko wanted desperately to get into the action of World War II, but the mother of the 17-year-old Kaisertown resident was having none of it.
“She told me, “You already have two brothers and a sister serving,’ ” the 90-year-old veteran recalls. “My brother Michael was in the Marine Corps, and my brother Edward was in the Army. They both served in the Pacific Theater. My sister Mary served in the Women’s Army Corps and stayed here in the States.”
So with his mother, Mary, refusing to sign papers for early enlistment, Senko waited until he turned 18 on Jan. 15, 1944, and the very next day, he went to a military recruiter’s office. The Navy rejected him because he was colorblind. Undaunted, he went to the Army’s office and was promptly welcomed into the service.
Following basic training at Fort Wolters, near Dallas, he was assigned to the 86th Blackhawk Infantry Division at a base in California but was soon rushed over to Europe to bolster the ranks of Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s 3rd Army, which had prevailed at the Battle of the Bulge and was in need of troops to continue pushing back the German army.
Barrages of 88 mm artillery rounds often showered the advancing American soldiers, but the GIs soon discovered that the enemy had lost the will to fight, Senko says.
“We were in Bavaria and Austria fighting, and the regular German soldiers were ready to surrender. They wanted to get it over with. The SS troops wanted to keep fighting. They weren’t ready to give up,” Senko says. “We took a lot of prisoners. They would come to us with their hands up and no weapons.”
At age 19, he says, he did not think too much of what he witnessed, though he added, “I was glad to see them surrendering.”
When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the Blackhawk Division still had work ahead of it. The war against Japan was continuing, and the division was given a monthlong break back in the United States before reporting for duty in San Francisco. There, the division boarded troop ships bound for Japan.
“We were going to land in Okinawa, which was already in our hands, and then participate in the invasion of the rest of Japan,” he recalls. “Halfway across the Pacific, they dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima. We heard rumors on the ship that the war might be over. Then, after they dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki, that put an end to us going to Okinawa.”
Rather than continue on to Japan as part of the occupation army, the division was shipped to the Philippines to deal with the last of the Japanese resistance.
“We anticipated fighting, but we never ran across much actual combat,” he says. “Some of the Japanese prisoners couldn’t believe they had lost the war. They probably didn’t know about the atom bombs.”
In May 1946, he returned to the United States, making it home safely, along with his two older brothers.
But unlike his brothers, Senko decided to continue in the military as a member of the Army Reserve.
“I got married in 1950 and then became an inactive reservist. But the Army called up 120,000 inactive reservists. I didn’t make anything out of it,” he says of returning to active duty. “My wife, Millie, accepted it as something that had to be done.”
Assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, Senko fought on the 38th parallel of the Korean Peninsula.
“The weather was like what we have in Buffalo. I remember Easter Sunday 1951. It was freezing rain and snow,” he says. “We were stationed up on the hills. That’s all it was: hills, hills and hills, up and down, up and down.”
When asked which of the two wars he fought was worse, he did not hesitate.
“The Korean War. I had to engage in hand-to-hand combat. It was just going after one another and trying to survive,” he says. “There were shells flying all over. It just wasn’t good.”
It would be an understatement to say Senko was happy when he finally returned home for good in 1952.
He and his wife raised three children. He supported the family as an auto mechanic, running Bob Senko’s Gulf at South Park and Reading avenues, in the heart of an Irish neighborhood, where Senko, of Slavic ancestry, flourished for 35 years.
Perhaps, relatives said, because he was known for his generosity and honesty.
These days, Senko bowls and plays cards at various senior citizen centers.
As for the two wars in which he fought, he says, he rarely thinks about them.