A 95 year-old WWII veteran returned this month from the trip of a lifetime to see the mast of his ship, the USS Oakland. It was a simple wish to remember the past that ended up becoming so much more.
“I had the best time of my life out there,” said Robert Almquist, who lives in Wisconsin Rapids. “They really took care of us. There were more people than I ever thought would be there.”
The trip was made possible after a successful GoFundMe campaign and plenty of support from residents of both Wisconsin and California who chipped in funds, airfare, and accommodations.
On January 8, Robert embarked on a 10-day trip with members of his family, first landing in San Diego to visit Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial and see a plaque commemorating his service.
Alongside a photo of him, the plaque reads “Robert Wayne Almquist, Mess Management Specialist 1/C, U.S. Navy, World War II,” above a list of medals and commendations received.
The family toured USS Midway, an aircraft carrier commissioned right after WWII, and the Maritime Museum in San Diego.
From there the itinerary took them to Oakland, and the primary reason why Almquist wanted to head out west – to set eyes on his ship’s mast for the first time since leaving service in 1946.
Upon their arrival at City Hall, the mayor of Oakland honored Robert with an official proclamation in front of a full room.
“Everybody was full of tears,” said son, Simon.
“She even bent over and kissed me on the cheek,” said Robert. “Very few mayors do that.”
The next morning, the family returned to see the mast, which was gifted to the city of Oakland and is now displayed at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park.
Robert made his way dressed in his reserve uniform and solemnly gave a long salute to what was left of his ship.
It had seen its own share of action during the war, earning nine battle stars. When the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, the USS Oakland was anchored in Tokyo Bay. Robert served as a baker from 1943 to 1946, and also loaded ammunition to gunners.
Though the USS Oakland was scrapped in 1959, its name will be resurrected when a new combat ship for the US Navy is completed later this year. A plaque detailing these plans was presented to Robert.
The family proceeded to a lunch on the USS Hornet with the local chapter of the VFW. A USS Oakland researcher presented them with special hats that named the years Robert served and a homemade loaf of bread his sons, who are professional bakers, had made. Robert had a good time talking with a fellow WWII veteran, who is 93 years old.
“All in all, I couldn’t believe the hospitality of the Californian people. Wherever we went, they were just wonderful,” Simon said.
Robert was especially thankful for the man who chauffeured the group to their destinations throughout the day. “He was just like an angel. He took us every place and was right with us until we got to the hotel,” said Robert.
Thanks to airfare donated by the Oakland visitors bureau, the next phase of the trip took the family to Hawaii to visit Pearl Harbor, ride aboard the Admiral’s Boathouse, and see the USS Arizona and Missouri Memorials. The skies were clear and temperatures were above 80 degrees. Although Robert had been to Pearl Harbor more than once, it had been many years since his last visit – everything had grown.
While at the Admiral’s Boathouse, a woman was impressed with Robert’s visit and called her husband, Admiral John Aquilino, commander of United States Pacific Fleet, and said he had to meet the veteran.
The 4-star admiral agreed and invited Robert to come have coffee with him at his office that day.
“That was a total surprise,” said Simon. “If the admiral’s wife hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have gotten to meet him…That was quite an honor. ”
“He was wonderful,” Robert said. For him, the meeting was one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
The family returned after three days in Hawaii to Wisconsin on January 17, full of memories and laden with photos, plaques, and tokens from a jam-packed trip.