Hidden Treasures: Robert K. Oswald Memorial Endowed Scholarship
Through the thoughtfulness of an old friend, a student scholarship fund honors the life of University of Nebraska alumnus and WWII veteran Robert K. Oswald of Aurora, Nebraska, who lost his life at age 23.
By Jolie Berrier
Both of my parents were of the “greatest generation.” My mom worked in a bomber plane in Nebraska during the war, and my dad was an Army Air Corps officer with the 442nd Troop Carrier Division, stationed in England and later in France and Germany.
In 2012 my elderly parents in California finally agreed to move from their house into assisted living. Mom was in hospice, and Dad’s memory was starting to falter. While moving furniture out of their home, my mother asked me to store and keep her father’s World War I footlocker. When I asked about the contents, she brushed my question aside and moved on to other issues. Eventually, the footlocker was put on a truck, contents and all, and shipped to my home in Washington state.
Approximately six months later I decided to open the chest and examine its treasures. Little did I realize that doing so would allow me to create this narrative.
Buried among the reams of sewing fabric were photos of a serviceman from World War II as well as letters, maps and photos of B-24s. Scanning the contents, I learned that an airman who died in the war was a friend of my mother’s from the University of Nebraska, and that my mom researched the story of his loss nearly 50 years later. His name was Robert K. Oswald.
In early 2013 I visited my ailing mother; although weak from a lung infection, she was still quite sharp. Quietly I asked, “So who was Bob Oswald?” She realized I’d found the items in the trunk and promptly hung her head in a sheepish sort of way. My mom looked up and said, “Oh Bob. Bob could light up a room when he walked into it.”
She told me that Bob Oswald was a navigator on a B-24 that crashed in 1945 in Southeast Asia only a few months before the end of the war. One of the letters she received from her research indicated that Bob decided at the last minute to fly an extra mission (not with his normal crew), so that he could get home sooner to be with his sweetheart. I think I asked mom if she was Bob’s sweetheart. “No, but I wish I had been,” she replied wistfully.
I asked no more questions knowing my mom was very tired and ill and that I’d uncovered a private sadness in her past. This was the only opportunity I had to talk to my mother about Bob; a week later, she passed away.
By late 2015 my unconscious 94-year-old dad was in hospice, so I was back in California sorting through paperwork and making decisions about my parents’ belongings and his care. Going through his file cabinet, I discovered a red folio with a big “N” on it. I was about to put it in the discard pile but something compelled me to open it. Inside it was a recent letter addressed to my mom from a graduate student at the University of Nebraska thanking her for the Robert K. Oswald Memorial Endowment Scholarship.
In my weary state, I suddenly remembered the old footlocker and its contents. My mother never told me about the scholarship, and the thought crossed my mind that in my mother’s search for answers to Bob’s passing, she took her sorrow and loss and used it for a good cause. And by doing so, she created a legacy for herself and for the memory of Robert K. Oswald. I don’t know whether my dad ever knew of Bob Oswald or the scholarship that my mother created in his name; my dad passed away within the week of my finding the red folio.
Over the past few years, I’ve thoroughly examined the contents of the footlocker. I learned that my mother first began researching the loss of Bob Oswald in the late 1980s by writing to Tommy Thompson, then president of the Flying Circus Association. He helped contact others who provided the names and addresses of Bob’s original flight crew.
My mother apparently wrote to some of them. Beautiful letters received from Bob Oswald’s fellow crew members gave her insight into why Bob took that last and fateful mission. Her research included letters to and from the State Department and eventually led her to a grave marker in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, where Bob Oswald was buried with other crew members who died alongside him. Apparently my mother went to Kentucky to put a flag on his grave, as evident by a photo of Bob’s gravestone among her papers.
Robert K. Oswald was a Second Lieutenant with the 380th Bombardment Group, 5th Air Force Division. On June 12, 1945, he was reported missing in action over Saigon French Indochina after the B-24 he was navigating was shot down. In December 1945, he was reported dead and in April 1946, his parents in Aurora, Nebraska, received his posthumous Purple Heart. There is a plaque honoring his memory in Aurora in addition to the one where he is buried in Louisville, Kentucky. Bob was 23 years old upon his death.
Without the initial help my mother received in connecting Bob’s former crew members to her 25 years ago, there would probably be little record of Bob’s life and passing. And had it not been for these few letters, photographs and clues that my mother saved in her father’s footlocker, I would never have known or been able to share this remarkable story. It’s the story of Robert K. Oswald’s sacrifice to our country and the lifelong regret over his loss that inspired my mother to learn more about him and honor him with a generously endowed scholarship at their alma mater – more than 50 years after he died.
This scholarship has never had a story behind it until now. I hope that every recipient of the Robert K. Oswald Memorial Endowed Scholarship at the University of Nebraska will now hear this story and give thanks to Bob for his service and to my mother for her admiration of Bob and her desire to honor him in this way.