Bob Brooks, with a photo of himself from World War II and the plank he was awarded when the USS Topeka was scrapped in 1975.
Plattsburgh’s Bob Brooks entered the navy in 1944, right out of high school. Just over a year later, he was part of the first detachment of United States ships to bombard the Japanese mainland from the sea.
He stepped aboard the USS Topeka, a Cleveland class light cruiser, in the Boston naval yard in August, 1944. It would be his home for the next 17 months. It was the first mission for the Topeka, whose construction had started in 1943. Brooks was part of the first crew ever to sail on the Topeka.
Being part of that first crew made Brooks a “plank owner” of the Topeka. When the Topeka was decommissioned decades later, Brooks would receive a part of the ship. That was the farthest thing from his mind in 1944.
Before leaving for the navy, Brooks received some simple advise from his father Owen, a World War I veteran.
“He put his hand on my shoulder and he said ‘do your job, do a good one, and then come home,’” said Brooks at his Plattsburgh home. “And that’s what I did.”
In the months he spent at sea, Brooks studied enemy planes, and got fairly good at identifying them. Soon he was directing anti-aircraft batteries on the Topeka. A small part, Brooks says, of the larger effort of the 1,410 men aboard the ship.
True to the form of most World War II veterans, Brooks shies away from any individual glory for his military service.
“I was part of the defense of the ship,” he said. “I was on the starboard side, forward quarter, and I was just a small part of the team.”
In July of 1945, just shy of a year after he had boarded the Topeka, American naval forces were operating close to the Japanese mainland in the vicinity of Okinawa. The Topeka was part of an aircraft carrier task force which was carrying out aerial bombing missions against the Japanese home islands, and ultimately against the mainland.
On July 18, with three other light cruisers and a small contingent of destroyers, the Topeka pealed off and headed for the entrance to Tokyo Bay. When they were between 15 and 25 miles from Tokyo itself, the order was given to bombard shore batteries. Immediately the Topeka and the rest of the ships launched a broadside attack.
“We watched the projectiles go, and then they came down. Well when that salvo hit land, I’m going to tell you, you talk about the Fourth of July fireworks here 100 times,” said Brooks about the historic raid. “We whacked them good, and so we left.”
They stayed in the Pacific and took part in other missions before the war ended, but none as memorable as that day in July when he was one of the first Americans to bombard Japan.
“I was honored to be part of a ship, a man-o-war, that would stand up to anything they ever had. They say we did 31 knots...when we went into that bay, we were doing 40. The little destroyers had trouble keeping up with us,” he said, his smile widening at the memory.
He left the Topeka in Tsing Tao, China in 1946 to return home and get on with his life. The Topeka went on with her life too, earning three battle stars for her service in Vietnam to go along with the two she earned in World War II.
He never totally put the Topeka, and especially her crew, behind him though, attending ship’s reunions around the country over the decades. Brooks finally received his plank when the Topeka was scrapped in 1975.
He was later honored to be part of the dedication of the new USS Topeka, an atomic powered submarine commissioned in 1989. He is a plank owner for that Topeka as well.
Brooks was aboard the first Honor Flight to Washington D.C. this past May, and cannot speak highly enough about the experience. He speaks of the Honor Flight veterans as lovingly as he does the crew of the Topeka.
“President Roosevelt after Pearl harbor said ‘This is a day, Dec. 7, 1941, this will be a day that will live in infamy,’ and I sort of looked at it that May 18, over in front of that World War II memorial, will be a day that will live in memory,” he said. “I have never met a finer group of people.”