An old army trick by a Yank in the RCAF

Warren Neubauer with his mother, Eva, in Allentown during World War II.

Warren Neubauer with his mother, Eva, in Allentown during World War II.

It was the fall of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered World War II. A teenager from Pennsylvania ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He wanted to come home for Christmas, but apparently because of the urgent need for pilots to take up the fight against Germany, the trainees had to remain at the base in Canada. He wrote to a friend back home in Allentown, asking him to play a trick that might allow the budding flier to see his family and friends over the holidays.

Did they pull it off?

I’ve written before about Bob Riedy. The 1938 Allentown High School graduate studied aircraft maintenance at the Curtiss-Wright trade school near Los Angeles and worked as an engineer at the company’s plant in Buffalo, New York, before signing up with the RCAF. This year, Ernie Neubauer of Barnesville, Georgia, saw my February 2011 post and wrote to me that his father and Riedy were best friends in high school. Neubauer’s father, Warren Neubauer, died in 1999, and his mother, Dora, died last March in Neenah, Wisconsin.

“As we were going through her things,” Neubauer wrote, “we found two letters that Bob had written my father while he was in basic training in Canada. My father was never much on keeping things, but he did keep these. They were just letters from one friend to another but are interesting.”

I asked Neubauer to send me the letters. The first one, on RCAF stationery, was dated Nov. 27, 1940.

Dear Warren,
… You should see the classy uniform they’ve given me. It’s much more attractive than that Boy Scout uniform which I once wore. The darn trouble is that there are several thousand more like it right here in Toronto; so, I haven’t been able to make much of an impression. I am working for a commission (so are several hundred other gentlemen here) which would be awarded at the completion of my course. If I don’t get that they will give me a sarg. [sergeant]-pilot’s stripes. Right now they have us drilling, marching, kicking a rifle around and on rare occasions shooting it on the range. We’ve also been given bayonet drills. At the rate we have been going, they must be giving the army flying lessons. We will be doing this for several weeks yet after which we go to initial training school. There we are put in a decompression chamber and given another stiff physical exam. We’ve had two already. If that physical is passed, OK, I’ll be on my way. There isn’t much likelihood of the latter though….”

Saying “Now to get away from myself,” Riedy goes on to ask about a mutual friend. “How is Iacocca (How does my spelling compare with his?) making out? Tell him to give my affectionate regards to Hollywood Boulevard.” He closes with “Yours till the cows come home. — Bob”

Riedy spelled the name correctly, but Neubauer wrote it’s not clear whom exactly Riedy is referring to. Neubauer said his dad knew Lee Iacocca but was a few years older than the future Chrysler Corporation chairman and didn’t hang around with him.

“I assume it was Lee’s cousin or brother. I do know my dad worked at Yocco’s Hot Dogs while he was in high school.” (Yocco’s was an Iacocca family enterprise. Theodore Iacocca, Lee’s uncle, founded the Allentown eatery in 1922.)

In the second letter Warren Neubauer kept, Riedy hatches the plot for a Christmas getaway. It’s dated Dec. 8, 1940, again on RCAF stationery, with a return address of No. 1 Manning Depot, Toronto.

Dear Warren,

It’s not often that I write before receiving a reply from you, but in this case it is different. I want you to do a favor for me.

Here is the story. All Christmas leaves in the RCAF have been cancelled for aircrew members – that is pilots and observors. Why I don’t know, for the weather is too bloomin bloody lousy to fly in anyhow. Well yours truly figures on spending Christmas Day at home as long as I am stationed in Toronto. Now you’re going to help me play the old army trick. On the Sunday morning just preceding Christmas please send me the following telegram:

Dear Bob,
Mother needs you. It is imperative that you try to come home immediately.
Dad

Please be sure that you include the above in its entirety. I shall reimburse you for all expenses incurred, I promise you. It is also very important that you mention this to no one. If I can possibly make it, I want to surprise my parents. If I can’t, I don’t want them to be disappointed. There are so many things that can go wrong that it is not too likely that I can make it: I may be transferred, I may have difficulty getting across the border, etc. But in any case, I’m going to try my darndest.

I wish you’d acknowledge receipt of this letter as soon as you receive it; so, I’ll know whether or not to expect your telegram.

Thank you my dear sir
Your pal,
Bob

Ernie Neubauer found this letter “hilarious.” After Riedy sent it, according to his RCAF personnel file, he was transferred Dec. 17 from Toronto to Debert, Nova Scotia, site of a training camp and staging area for Canadian troops bound for the European Theater.

It isn’t clear whether Neubauer’s father followed through on the ruse, but Riedy did get home to Allentown that Christmas. A photo in the Dec. 24, 1940, issue of the Allentown Call-Chronicle shows Riedy with a former Allentown High classmate, Martin Schulte, both with big smiles. They’re in uniforms, but Schulte’s is that of the U.S. Army Air Forces. The caption reads in part, “Today the two school pals, who haven’t seen each other in a year, were chumming around Allentown on their Christmas leaves.” According to the newspaper, Riedy arrived in Allentown from Nova Scotia on Dec. 23 via United Airlines and Canadian Colonial Airways.

On Dec. 30, the Call-Chronicle reported that Riedy, 19 years old, would be flying that day back to Debert.

Maybe the RCAF changed its mind and allowed aircrew trainees to go home for the holidays. Or maybe Warren Neubauer did as his friend asked, and they got away with using “the old army trick” to spring Riedy for a one-week interlude.

Sgt. Bob Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force in England a few weeks before his death.

Sgt. Bob Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force in England a few weeks before his death.

Whatever it was, Riedy did not have much time left. He completed his training in Canada less than a year later, ferried an American-built bomber to England and was assigned to No. 15 Operational Training Unit. On Feb. 12 and 13, 1942, he might have participated in a large Royal Air Force effort to stop two German battleships as they dashed across the English Channel for home. Riedy appears with five other grinning fliers in a Times of London photo under the headline, “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.” But it’s not clear whether Riedy was actually in on the chase.

The next month, Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy of the Royal Canadian Air Force was killed in a training accident. It happened March 18, 1942, at the RAF’s Mount Farm airfield in Oxfordshire, near Oxford. The 20-year-old pilot was in the cockpit of a twin-engine Wellington bomber. Another sergeant was in the pilot’s seat, and there was a gunner on board. Roaring down the runway for takeoff at 1:25 p.m., the Wellington clipped a twin-engine Hudson bomber parked on the edge of the fire track. The Wellington rose vertically to 200 feet, then plummeted to the ground. It crashed and burned. Riedy and the pilot died instantly; the gunner was seriously injured.

Riedy was memorialized as the first Allentown serviceman to die in Europe during the war. He was buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery at Surrey, U.K.

Neubauer’s father, Warren, who was a tire re-capper after graduating from Allentown High School, grieved over the loss of his friend.

“When he was initially drafted,” Ernie Neubauer said of his dad, “he failed his physical because he was legally blind in one eye. Bob Riedy’s death affected him so much that he tried to enlist in the army again and passed his physical by memorizing the eye chart. He passed his infantry basic training but was transferred to the Medical Corps and served in the Pacific Theater with the 31st Station Hospital in New Caledonia, Okinawa and Korea.”

Ernie Neubauer said that after the war, his father used the GI Bill to get a college education and had a successful career of over 35 years with Kimberly-Clark Corp., working in the U.S., Europe and Africa for the maker of health and hygiene products. Warren and Dora had four children — Ernie, Kristina, Frederick and Cynthia. Warren’s brother, Glenn, was a Lutheran pastor for 40 years, the last 35 in the Lehigh Valley at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Wilson. He died in 2015 at age 97.

Warren Neubauer did not forget his friend’s sacrifice in the war. To honor Riedy’s memory, he gave Ernie the middle name Harvey – the same as Riedy’s.

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