As the pandemic fades, 2021 is offering a lot of promise: people are traveling again, visiting their loved ones and returning to cherished routines. World War II Army veteran Robert Pryor is looking forward to all of those things, of course, but something else, too – his 100th birthday!
Pryor has seen and done a lot over the past century. Nowadays, though, he's enjoying the little things in life. He still lives in Macon, Georgia, in the home he built for his family several decades ago. He's an avid reader of the Bible and has said his belief in God and righteous living have been the keys to his longevity. But life hasn't always been so laid-back.
Pryor was born on Dec. 14, 1921, and grew up in Dudley, Georgia. He had three sisters and three brothers, and they all lived on a large farm where they grew cotton, peanuts and vegetables and raised pigs and chickens.
As a Black man from the South, Pryor unfortunately had to deal with segregation and the racial inequities that came with it. He and his siblings walked nearly two miles each way to their one-room schoolhouse because they weren't allowed to ride the bus. Pryor said the bus drivers purposely hit big puddles to splash them, so they often ran for cover when they would see buses coming.
"I didn't have education like we [have] now," Pryor recalled. "We had one teacher, and she'd teach from the 1st to the 6th grades – that's the highest we could go."
Pryor's family said that if Black families wanted their children to attend school past that, it would no longer be free. Pryor's parents were reliant on his help for harvesting; that and the cost of furthering his education forced him to leave school after the 6th grade to work on the farm. Over the next several years, he taught himself mechanics so he could work on farm equipment, cars and trucks.
World War II
Pryor was drafted into the Army on Feb. 17, 1943, at the height of World War II. Before shipping out, the 21-year-old had to say goodbye to his girlfriend, Johnnie Bell Foreman, who he'd known his whole life.
"That day I told her, 'Don't worry. I'll be back,'" Pryor remembered.
He started his military journey about two hours from home in Columbus, Georgia, but soon his training took him all over the country. Pryor traveled to Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina. By July 1944, the young corporal had made it to San Pedro, California, where his unit, the 1327th Army Air Forces Base Unit, set sail for a month-long, stuffy journey to Bombay [now Mumbai], India.
"It was hot," he remembered. "There was so much smoke on the ship, I couldn't stand it."
The 'Hump' & Ledo Road
The 1327th was part of the 10th Air Force and serviced a B-24 bomber base in the China-India-Burma Theater. Stationed at Tezpur Airfield, India, the unit was tasked with ferrying supplies to troops based in nearby China. One way they did it was by helping to build the Ledo Road, which re-established the land supply route from India to China. The original route, Burma Road, had been blocked in 1942 when the Japanese invaded. Without a land route, the Allies were forced to fly supplies over the treacherous "Hump," which is what soldiers dubbed the Himalaya Mountains.
Pryor worked as part of aircraft support, often loading tire-chain trucks with supplies to build Ledo Road and inspecting gasoline drums for leaks before they were loaded onto the aircraft that flew over the Hump.
"I was in charge of the drums and fastening them down [on the plane]," Pryor said. He also remembered watching as one cargo plane that didn't fly high enough crashed.
Pryor's daughter said her father was a good soldier who didn't drink or smoke, so he was also recruited to work part-time at the base canteen. Pryor said the people of India were very friendly and that he got a chance to travel around a bit.
"I liked Calcutta and Karachi," he said. "We were even in the Himalaya Mountains. I never could see the top of those."
When the war ended in 1945 and the Allies declared victory, Pryor said there wasn't much celebrating where he was – they were all just in a hurry to get home.
"All the transportation we had over there we left – cars and everything else. I don't know what they did with all of them," he remembered.
As Pryor's Navy ship pulled out of the Karachi harbor, he remembered throwing the local currency into the water and watching as the natives dove in to fetch it.
"They would come up and show it to us," he said, smiling.
While the Allies were fighting as one, the inequality of the times followed Black service members overseas. Pryor said while everyone was treated the same on the transit ship as it crossed the Pacific Ocean, Black soldiers were once again separated from white soldiers once they got back to land.
Pryor's daughter, Barbara, said that when they returned from war and were traveling cross-country via train to return to their homes, the Black soldiers had to get into a segregated car once they reached the Mason-Dixon Line.
"We had to go back to the same rigamarole," Pryor said.
Moving on With Life
Pryor finally made it home in February 1946, fulfilling his promise to his girlfriend. The couple eloped after his honorable discharge, and they went on to have three children. After working for two more years on his family's farm, Pryor and his wife moved to Macon, Georgia. He got a job with Bibb Mill Manufacturing Co. and eventually built his family home, where he still lives today.
Pryor continued his career as a trade worker at Armstrong World Corp. before retiring at 62. In his later years, he's enjoyed traveling the U.S. and the world, including going to France, England and the Bahamas. Photography and carpentry are two of his favorite hobbies. He's now the oldest living member of Macon's St. Luke Baptist Church, takes care of his two dogs, and enjoys spending time with his five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In the twilight of his life, there's probably a lot of advice Pryor could give the upcoming generation of soldiers. But the one thing he wanted to stress was this: enjoy life, and slow down.
Coming from someone who has lived through a lot, those are some words of wisdom!