Roy Andersen was determined to defend America from the air.
During the height of World War II in 1942, the then 18-year-old had his heart set on becoming a Navy pilot.
"I loved flying," he said. "I thought flying off [aircraft] carriers would be loads of fun."
Rebuffed by the Navy as too young to enlist, Andersen settled for the Army Air Corps, forerunner to the Air Force, and became a navigator/bombardier. While the long-time Lee resident didn't see combat during World War II, he returned to active duty for the Korean War and flew 55 night missions over North Korea.
After bombing trains, factories and other sites crucial to the enemy's war machine -- and one near-death experience -- Andersen temporarily lost his passion for flying.
"'I didn't want to think about the fact people were working down there," he said. "For the first year after I was discharged, I was very hesitant to set foot on a plane."
Andersen would eventually return to more friendly skies, primarily traveling across the country as a sales representative for several New England-based manufacturers, including two in the Berkshires.
Although the 88-year-old veteran is proud to have served his country and "glad to have lived through it," only in recent years has he been willing to talk publicly of his combat duty.
"I had enough scary times," he said. "I wasn't particularly anxious to talk about my experience.
This Veterans Day weekend, Andersen was very willing to share with The Eagle a military career that spanned two wars and helped shape a successful civilian life as a husband, father, grandfather, salesman and, briefly, radio personality.
During a two-hour interview, Andersen recalled names, places and events in great detail that amazed his second oldest son, Jim Andersen.
"Ask me when I graduated from high school and I can't remember," said Andersen. "My memory is nowhere near my dad's."
Born Dec. 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Roy Andersen grew up in and graduated from high school in Hanover, Pa. before joining the Army Air Corps. in early 1943. He remained stateside until he was deployed to Okinawa, Japan, serving with an air courier unit as part of the U.S. occupationforce after the Japanese surrendered in September, 1945.
Discharged in 1946, he returned home to attend New York University, graduating in 1950. While at NYU, he met his future wife of 61 years, Elaine, a nurse at a Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx. Elaine Andersen passed away two years ago. The couple raised four boys and two daughters who collectively gave them 11 grandchildren.
By 1951, Andersen returned to the military, this time to the newly formed Air Force, created four years earlier.
"I got a letter that year from President Harry S. Truman inviting me back," he quipped.
Andersen was immediately assigned to the U. S. Air Base in Kunsan, where he was a navigator/bombardier on B-26 aircraft, flying many harrowing missions, never once being shot down.
"Came close a few times; got hit a number of times," he said. "We had to fly as low as possible --sometimes 50 feet above ground -- as we targeted trucks, trains and factories."
Yet the one mission he didn't fly saved his life -- thanks to a toothache.
About 20 missions into his Korean tour, Andersen was briefly grounded after having a troublesome tooth pulled.
"The plane I was supposed to be on that night went down, killing everyone," he said. "All the guys on board, especially the navigator, I knew all those guys."
Once Andersen completed his required 55 missions, he was assigned to Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee and in 1953 -- when a cease fire effectively ended the Korean War -- he returned to civilian life for good.
Following a brief stint as a disc jockey at WMNB radio in North Adams, the veteran began a more than 30-year career as a sales representative for several manufacturers starting in Bennington, Vt. Andersen and his family eventually moved to Lee in 1971 where he worked at the former Kimberly-Clark Schweitzer Division, before moving onto Steinerfilm Inc. in Williamstown, until his retirement in 1989.
Despite company founder Ernst Steiner, having been a pilot in the German Luftwaffe during World War II, Andersen says he and the boss got along just fine.
"We were an interesting pair having come from different sides of World War II," he noted. "He was a great guy; at least one of my three mentors."
Steiner also gave Andersen carte-blanche use of the corporate jet for his sales trips.
"He told me the sales plane was mine and I decide where it goes," Andersen recalled. "Being on a private airplane, especially a corporate one, you get first-class treatment."
While Andersen proudly displayed his Air Force uniform and medals --including the Distinguished Flying Cross -- during the interview, he sees himself as no different than any other veteran who has risked his or her life to defend freedom.
Nevertheless, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox says Andersen epitomizes the importance of veterans for present and future generations.
"These stories need to be shared, because you won't read them in any history books," said Pignatelli, a long-time supporter of veterans.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233