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World War II just the beginning for pilot

Robert Kaplan ’49 remembers the moment when Uncle Sam called him to serve in World War II.

“I was sitting at a drawing board at Eastman Kodak when the telegram came,” he recalls. Months before he had signed up for pilot training in the Army Air Corps, so about 12 hours later he was on a train for pre-flight school at Maxwell Field, Ala. He finished his pilot training at the twin engine school at Freeman Field in Seymour, Ind.

Robert Kaplan '49 was a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II.

Kaplan was assigned to B-24s (“the Liberator” bombers) and was sent to China to serve with the famous Flying Tigers of the 14th Air Force under Gen. Claire Chenault. His crew’s motto was “Home Alive in ’45.” There was some doubt this would be possible, as his unit was sustaining very heavy casualties.

On their 46th mission, their plane was severely damaged by enemy fire over Hong Kong. Kaplan and his crew were able to nurse the plane along on three engines until they ran out of fuel.

“We were forced to bail out about 50 miles from our base in Changtu,” says Kaplan. “We walked 40 miles before we were picked up about 10 miles from base. The Chinese helped us, and the whole crew – 10 guys – survived. We carried the tail gunner, who broke his ankle when we bailed out.”

The exploit earned Kaplan a Distinguished Flying Cross. “That was our last mission.”

After the war, Kaplan returned to Kodak and graduated from RIT. He left the company about a decade later and went to work for the chemical division of W. R. Grace & Co. in Boston, then moved back to Rochester to work for Stromberg Carlson in the early ’60s. He worked for Itek, Bausch & Lomb and other companies in Rochester and Buffalo. Kaplan was awarded 14 patents before leaving the engineering field to become a manufacturers’ representative handling sales of steel and other product lines.

He and his wife, Diane, now live in Buffalo and Florida. They have three grown children. Kaplan says he “gradually retired” from his work. It took a little longer for the World War II flyer to leave the sky – he gave up his pilot’s license just about three years ago.

Veterans of World War II are honored each year at the Golden Circle Luncheon, part of RIT Alumni Weekend.