RIPLEY — There are approximately 4,000 veterans living in Brown County, but it’s likely that only one of them served in two of the biggest conflicts the United States has taken part in.
Robert Bechdolt, 91, is a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, serving in the United States Marine Corps in both conflicts as a torpedo-man. Bechdolt served for more than a year in the Pacific Theater in Guadalcanal, in the Soloman Islands, during World War II, and then later served around six months in Busan, and Seoul, South Korea during the Korean War. He even carried the Olympic Torch during the days leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A self-made man, Bechdolt worked in the construction industry for 42 years, helping to build much of downtown Cincinnati, the I-275 belt around the city, as well as I-75 between Cincinnati and Dayton. He later purchased property in Adams County, raised horses, before finally settling down in Ripley.
Bechdolt’s roots aren’t in Brown County though. He was born in March 1924 in Wapakoneta, Ohio – the birthplace of astronaut Neil Armstrong – and his family eventually settled in Montgomery, Ohio. He attended high school at Sycamore High School, where he met his future wife Jean Mae, but dropped out around his 18th birthday to join the Marine Corps in 1942.
“We had a great big war going on and I wanted to get into it,” Bechdolt said, sitting in a rocking chair in the living room of his home.
Bechdolt said a big reason he, and likely so many others volunteered to join the military was the dire financial straits that was facing the USA in the years following the Great Depression.
“There was little chance of making a living in this country at that time,” Bechdolt said. “You’d eke out a little bit here or there. One job, I had (as a youngster), I worked 10 hours and got paid two dollars. For a while I was working for Uffelman Baking Company down on York St. in Cincinnati, wrapping bread, and I made 35 cents an hour and I was in heaven. I would work down there on weekends and in the evenings.”
After he joined the Marine Corps, he was sent to Parris Island, South Carolina for basic training. Once he completed boot camp in South Carolina, the Marine Corps gave Bechdolt a choice of what job he wanted, and he asked to be a tail gunner in an airplane.
Bechdolt was given a sound test to be able to decipher Morse code at high speeds, but he failed it, ruling out his career in the skies.
“I couldn’t pass that and I’ve never been able to pass it since,” he said with a laugh.
Bechdolt’s second job selection was to be a torpedo-man. So he was sent to Naval Base Great Lakes, on the shores of Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. At the time, the Marine Corps didn’t have a submarine division, so Bechdolt joined up with thousands of other U.S. Navy Midshipmen in training. He spent nearly a year learning to build torpedoes in Illinois with 20 other students.
Then he was sent to San Diego, Calif. for six months to put his training into action in building the torpedoes.
“I found out when I got to Guadalcanal, here they are all piled up. They never any of them,” Bechdolt said of the torpedoes he helped build.
In 1943, Bechdolt was deployed to Guadalcanal, the largest island of the Soloman Island’s which is about 1,300 miles northeast of Australia. The island was of strategic importance to the Japanese during World War II in their bid to expand around the Pacific Rim, and so it became of utmost importance for the U.S. and the allied forces to take over the many Pacific Islands and use them as bases to deploy strikes against Japan and Japanese controlled territories.
The U.S. had just captured Guadalcanal by the time Bechdolt was stationed on the island, but he was still subjected to nightly bombings from the sky and the occasional artillery from nearby installations or Japanese ships.
Bechdolt worked on building torpedoes for submarines, though he admits it was such a complicated process that many of the torpedoes didn’t work when fired.
“Some were 16 feet long. But the ones that went in the submarines were way longer than that,” said Bechdolt. “There were lots of parts and screws, and that’s what was wrong with them. It was too complicated.”
At that point, the military began adopting the tactic of skip bombing, or flying a bomber low enough that you can fire a missile out and it could be propelled skipping along the water before hitting its target.
After 18 long months in Guadalcanal, he was given the choice of serving out the rest of his military service on the east coast or west coast. He picked the east coast and settled in Cherry Point, North Carolina, where he worked on B-25s, and then he was sent to Bogue Island, a Marine Corps landing field, to train pilots on brand new dive bombers. Bechdolt was then returned to Cherry Island before being discharged.
Bechdolt became married during his time in the service to his first wife, Jean Mae, but he struggled to adjust to civilian life. He worked as a house painter but didn’t like it very much, so he decided to re-enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1950.
“I did that in March and in August I’m sitting in Korea,” Bechdolt said.
Bechdolt was in the 14th Signal Company in Cincinnati with around 400 or so reserves, according to him. The whole company was sent to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina before being split up, and according to Bechdolt, he was the only one to be sent overseas.
He worked on an airfield in Busan and then another one in Seoul before he was discharged and sent home, leaving as a Staff Sargent.
Once he returned home, Bechdolt says he caught his big break when he joined the International Union of Operating Engineers, working as a crane operator for 42 years.
“I ran cranes on mostly building and road construction,” Bechdolt.
He claims that he helped construct I-75 through Cincinnati as well as its extension from Sharonville to Dayton, Ohio, as well as the I-275 belt around the city. He also claimed to help construct some of the skyscrapers in downtown Cincinnati.
Bechdolt lived in Loveland, Ohio for much of his adult life, but he moved to West Union, Ohio in the 1990s to settle down with Jean Mae in a quieter area. Jean Mae passed away due to cancer in 2001, leaving Bechdolt with just his home and horses to take care of.
Not long after, he was nominated to carry the Olympic Torch on its route through the USA to Salt Lake City, Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“I thought I was going to run a mile or so. I got in good shape and everything but I ended up running about two blocks,” laughs Bechdolt.
It was also around then when he was introduced, through current Brown County Juvenile/Probate Judge Danny Bubp to Lucy Kinnett, an active Republican in Brown County political circles.
It wasn’t long before the two started dating, and they’ve been married 11 years since.
Although Bechdolt is still as smart as a whip, his advancing years means his health is starting to falter. He said he has been diagnosed with bone cancer, and his wife Lucy struggles with mental health issues of her own. Worse yet, he doesn’t feel like there is much that he can do to get help from the local government unless he puts Lucy Bechdolt in an assisted living center, which would likely force them to sell their home.
But even at the age of 91, Bechdolt still tries to remain active in veteran events, attending the veterans ceremony each year at the Brown County Fair and taking part in events with the Marine Corps League in Adams County.
If you see Bechdolt this week, be sure to go up to him and thank him for his service, and ask him about his time in Guadalcanal.