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Granddaughter’s quest jogs WWII sailor’s memories

Robert King holds up a Navy photo of himself as his granddaughter Jennifer Dornbusch stands behind.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[11/11/04]Jennifer Gordon Dornbusch has always spent time with her grandfather, Robert King, and has many memories of childhood visits with him, but last spring she realized she never really knew anything about his life.

So King, 80, a Navy veteran of World War II, has spent about the last six months working with his granddaughter to compile his memories of war to be entered into the Veteran’s History Project of the Library of Congress.

“I found out about this just by doing some Internet research and decided to talk to him about it,” said Dornbusch, 32. “He told me he’d be glad to do it if I took the time to work with him on it.”

The nationwide project encourages veterans and their families to create a permanent record of their memories. King agreed to talk about the war years, largely because his own father fought in the Army in World War I and his records were lost in a fire.

“Our house burned when I was 8 or 9, and all his military papers and everything were destroyed. All I know is that he was in an Army battalion out of New York. I wish I knew more,” King said.

Dornbusch started jogging her grandfather’s memory through questions suggested by the Library of Congress, and King soon realized most of his memories were clear.

“I was 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, but I turned 18 on Christmas Day and joined the Navy. I left Vicksburg on Jan. 1, 1942, for boot training in Norfolk, Va.,” he said.

After training, King headed to New York to wait for the heavy cruiser, USS Vincennes, to which he was assigned, and then traveled along the Panama Canal to Long Beach, Calif., where they joined Task Forces 18 and 16 and served as support vessels centered around two other main carriers, the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet.

“Our first war assignment was to head to Japan to bomb them. We did, then came back to Pearl Harbor for a couple of days before heading off to the Battle of Midway, where bombs split the bow of our boat.”

Smaller ships served as screens for the carriers and battleships. “At one point our ship was to take a torpedo instead of it hitting Enterprise, but a destroyer got in the way first, so we didn’t get hit,” King said.

After repairs to the bow, the Vincennes headed to Savo Island off Guadalcanal where King would experience more combat.

“After hours and hours of fighting, a Japanese fleet snuck up at midnight on August 9 and hit us hard,” he said. “They sunk our ship and our sister ships, Quincy and Astoria.”

King remembered his ship’s guns firing as it sank, and then waiting for rescue. “We spent the next eight hours in the water, just staying afloat on the steel canisters the ammunition shells came in,” he said. “They were like buoys I had one under each arm.”

Just 18, King saw a lot of bravery and a lot of sacrifice. He attributes his safety to the Catholic medal his grandmother gave him the day he left for war. “I kept it around my neck the whole time I was gone and still have it today,” he said.

After the war, King returned to Vicksburg and worked as a diesel mechanic at LeTourneau until he retired 15 years ago.

King and his wife, Liz, have visited Pearl Harbor several times in recent years, and he said it always brings back memories both fond and not-so fond.

“That’s a lot to experience when you’re that young, but we all did it. I remember hearing my father’s war stories when I was young, and generations now just don’t take the time,” he said.

Dornbusch said she had several reasons for wanting to complete the project with her grandfather, but the main one was to keep the story alive.

“I’ve learned so much about his bravery, what he experienced and just all about him as a person in general. It’s amazing what all you can learn when you just ask. I never asked,” she said.