Profiling a war hero

On Steady WingsFrom escorting Bob Hope on USO tours to participating in the Normandy Invasion, this war hero has played a role in modern U.S. historyBy Liesel Schmidt

Robert Gates doesn’t need to talk about his life as a military hero — it is written all over his walls in the hundreds of photographs, drawings and awards that cover nearly every inch in the halls and living room of his Fort Walton Beach home. Faces recognizable from Hollywood history smile for the camera, caught forever behind glass, immortalized in black and white. Faces glow in appreciation for the pilot who stands beside them, a younger version of the patriotic retiree who has spent a lifetime faithfully serving his country.

Among the many photos, one famous face stands out from all the rest, repeated countless times in pictures spanning more than five decades — actor, comedian and beloved supporter of the U.S. armed forces Bob Hope.

Gates met Hope during the first United Service Organizations tour in 1941.

“My eyes just about fell out of my head when I saw who it was: Bob Hope — the king of radio, Mr. Pepsodent himself,” the retired U.S. Air Force colonel remembers of his first meeting with the entertainment giant and ad pitchman. Charged with flying Hope and his fellow entertainers around Alaska, Gates — then a young lieutenant — was given the rare opportunity to begin what would become a lifelong friendship.

“We were fast friends,” Gates says of his relationship with Hope. That friendship was solidified over the course of more than 50 years as he piloted Hope and his troupe on other USO tours throughout Europe and the United States.

Gates’ flying duties weren’t limited to the relatively safe confines of those USO tours, however. As one of the pilots dropping the first round of paratroopers for the Normandy Invasion, Gates was in the heart of battle during D-Day, witnessing historic events as they unfolded beneath the wings of his troop carrier. Invasions of Holland and Germany also were deftly navigated as he flew the skies of war-ravaged Europe, helping to reshape history even as it was being written.

His 31 years in the Air Force covered three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — all of which called on his skills as a pilot.

After World War II, Gates returned to the United States, where he stayed until the Korean War summoned him in 1951. Tours in Vietnam and Thailand kept him in Asia from 1965 to 1968. He was then transferred to Hurlburt Field.

“It’s the best place in the world, Fort Walton Beach,” Gates declares without hesitation.

Once he reached his post at Hurlburt Field, Gates was tasked with setting up the 1st Special Operations Wing.

“It’s gotten to be the darling of the Air Force,” he says. Acting as its very first wing commander from 1968 until 1972, Gates worked alongside such military heavyweights as “Air Commando One” himself, the late Brig. Gen. Harry “Heinie” Aderholdt.

“He was a great American,” Gates says of the man he long called a friend. “A true warrior.” Those four years he spent at Hurlburt were, in Gates’ estimation, the best of his life, and the elite group under his command won award after award for its accomplishments. Gates is, as a result, a member of the Air Commando Hall of Fame.

Life lost no momentum for Gates when he retired in 1972. Serving as mayor of Fort Walton Beach from 1969 to 1973, he had already gained the attention of both the military and the civilian community in the area. He next made his mark in real estate, opening Wayne Patton Realty and spending the next 30 years in the ever-shifting market scene.

It was, in part, this business acumen that gave him an edge in developing his plans for the retirement communities he so passionately established in an effort to honor the men and women who had once faithfully served their country. Inspired by Bob Hope’s own work with the USO and military veterans over the course of his career, Gates was determined to give back in his own way.

The 79 acres of Bob Hope’s Enlisted Widow’s Village and Theresa Village near Eglin Air Force Base were built on Gates’ vision, funded largely by 12 USO tours that he organized alongside Hope. Gates’ ongoing dedication to the charities and causes he champions was recognized when he was given the Spirit of Hope Award in 2007 for his work with the USO in its service to the men and women of the U.S. military.

For his many contributions to his country, he also earned two Legions of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Silver Star, the French Croix de Guerre, eight Air Medals and a Presidential Citation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as other commendations that now accompany the many photographs on the walls of his home.

These days, Gates spends his time working in his own version of a hangar — his garage — where he works on model planes. There are scaled-down replicas of some of the planes he flew over the course of his career, and others that simply caught his interest for their historical or tactical appeal. They litter worktables and shelves in his small garage, parts and pieces and tools collected and stored as they await his hands. Hands that, by his own admission, will soon no longer be steady enough for the detailed work. Hands that, once upon a time, controlled planes large enough to carry troops over war zones.

Gates’ first wife died in childbirth, and his second marriage ended in divorce. Now he enjoys time with his five children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, though the family of friends he has gathered over the course of his life seem innumerable. Among them, of course, he counts Bob and Delores Hope — a relationship that was maintained and strengthened until Bob Hope’s death in 2003. Many of his former comrades still stay in contact with Gates, calling regularly to catch up with the man they so greatly admire.

His watery blue eyes look into the distance as he speaks, watching some invisible reel of memories. Handpicked stories have tumbled out in a low grumble, a fond smile tugging at the corners of his mouth as they were recalled, moments of history treasured for more than 60 years. Gates seems to have lost no passion for his country. He has watched the world change in ways he never imagined — and left his own marks along the way.

“There you are, a man (who is) 91, working on 92, enjoying life like he did when he was 20,” he says at last, his eyes twinkling. “God has really blessed me, all my life.”