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.
Photo by Shawn Ryan.
Plattsburgh 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.