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After seeing devastation of A-bomb, WWII vet offers caution on nuclear arsenals

The news first came over the radio and it was a shock to the East High School senior and his family.

The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor earlier that morning: Dec. 7, 1941.

Robert F. Wiedemer, who was 17, said he immediately informed his father he was enlisting in the Navy.

"But my father wouldn't sign the early enlistment papers. He wanted me to graduate high school first," Wiedemer said.

In July 1942, weeks after graduation, Wiedemer made good on his intentions to defend the country in World War II.

"I was still 17 but my father signed the papers," he said.

His hope was to serve on a Navy destroyer, a swift moving ship capable of knocking out aircraft with its multiple guns, sinking other ships with its deck-launched torpedoes and putting submarines out of commission with depth charges.

Wiedemer got his wish.

"They put me on the USS Anthony and that was my father's first name," he said of the pleasing coincidence.

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Robert F. Wiedemer, 93

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Navy

Rank: electrician mate 2nd class

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: enlisted July 1942 – December 1945

Most prominent honors: Pacific Campaign Medal, 7 battle stars; Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Unit Citation

Specialty: electrician and damage repair

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But there was yet another reason he wanted to serve on a destroyer, a class of warships nicknamed "tin cans" because of the thinness of their hulls.

"If you were on a destroyer, you were in the real Navy. It wasn't all spit and polish like the battleships. We were the 'Tin Can' sailors. We had a crew of somewhere around 270 and you knew all the people in your section," he said of the battle-buddy camaraderie.

The USS Anthony surpassed his expectations.

In the Pacific Theater, the ship participated in six island-hopping bombardments and invasions, starting in the Solomon Islands in 1943. The Anthony was credited with shooting down 11 enemy planes at Bougainville in the Solomons.

But some of the most intense fighting, Wiedemer said, took place in the Battle of Okinawa, starting on April 1, 1945.

"We were part of what you call picket stations. There would be two or three destroyers in each station and we would alert the bigger ships when the Japanese were launching massive air attacks.

WWII Navy vet Robert F. Wiedemer earned a variety of medals and his ship earned a Unit Citation for its heroics in the Pacific. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"The Japanese were desperate at this time. We were only some 500 miles from their mainland. We were fighting kamikaze pilots. It was a one-way trip for them," he said of the suicide pilots. "We were hit by a kamikaze and the plane flipped upside down on top of the deck, but the bomb didn't go off."

Crew members, he said, shoved the wreckage into the sea.

By the time the Battle of Okinawa ended in late June 1945, the USS Anthony had shot down 12 more enemy planes. In recognition of all the ship and its crew had accomplished, the Navy awarded the destroyer a Unit Citation.

And while Wiedemer and his fellow sailors had succeeded in punishing the enemy, he came to realize that it paled in comparison to what had brought about the war's end –  atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

When the USS Anthony arrived at Nagasaki, Wiedemer and crewmates boarded a bus and drove through the devastation.

"Oh my God, everyone should see that. There were little kids with blisters of their faces. There were steel columns that were bent like spaghetti and everything else was flat," he said.

The images remain so powerful that he says countries in today's world trying to create nuclear arsenals have no idea what kind of trouble they are potentially inviting.

"If they were to get a nuclear bomb and drop it on someone, the response would be that one would be dropped on them," he said in offering a warning that such bombs are not worth the risk.

As for his own life after the war, Wiedemer found work right away at Wildroot, the former hair tonic factory on Fay Street off Bailey Avenue.

"I was an electrician there and then I went to Ford as an electrician," he said.

But wanting to advance in life, he attended night school at the University at Buffalo for eight years and became a licensed engineer.

That served him well. He worked at Bell Aerospace for more than three decades and retired as the manager of facilities engineering.

In his personal life, Wiedemer also succeeded. He married his high school sweetheart, the former Florence David, in August 1946 and they raised two children. Married for 63 years, his wife passed away in 2009.

And while his days as an engineer are over, Wiedemer continues to work part time at the Paddock Chevrolet Golf Dome and the Town of Tonawanda's Sheridan Park Golf Course.

The 93-year-old Wiedemer says he's "got a secret" for longevity and he's willing to share it:

"Don't ever retire completely."

 

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