WWII vet returns 66 years later

Sometimes memory lane is a long and winding road.

For Robert L. Maase of Alhambra, California, the road has taken 66 years and thousands of miles.

Mr. Maase was in the US Coast Guard as a pharmacist mate first class — they called him “Doc” — stationed on Grand Cayman from January to August in 1945.

For his 88th birthday on 18 January, he decided to bring his wife Leno — a doctor of philosophy, florist and writer — to the Cayman Islands on a trip to “reminisce.”

“We were right across from where the clock tower was and the town hall at that time,” he said, pointing to a picture of a makeshift small town of thatched-roofed huts as he recalled his days in the service.

He used to take a Jeep and water wagon to find fresh water every morning, then pump it into the wagon, chlorinate it and boil it for the 20 other Coast Guard members to drink.

A plane from Miami would come once a week and deliver supplies, including a film print, which he would show to his men and the locals.

“I had a 35-millimeter camera that I would project in the town hall and it was an overflow crowd, hanging on the windows, and the kids would just love it,” he said.

His Coast Guard team came to the island to relieve a group of Navy servicemen.

“Our primary purpose for the men was to run a high frequency, direction finder station to look for submarines in the area,” he said. “I was here for the last seven months of World War II.”

Before Mr. Maase came here on his tour of service, he had never heard of the Cayman Islands.

“They flew us down in a PBY [an American flying boat] from Miami. We had never met each other,” he said.

He stayed in close contact with only one of the men, Frank J. “Bud” Spruce, from Michigan. Mr. Spruce has since died.

A life changed in Cayman

Mr. Maase said that his life changed when he met three missionaries from Anderson, Indiana, who worked with the Church of God here.

One of the missionaries married a Caymanian by the last name of Merren, who used to run a dry goods store in George Town.

“At that time, as a young Christian, I had the habit of going to church, and that being the only church, it’s where I went. And that’s where I met the missionaries,” he said.

“They were so supportive and encouraging to me, I grew as a Christian in terms of my commitment to the place where I felt God was calling me to the ministry,” he said. “Which I surrendered there and gave my testimony to commit my life to Christ for Christian ministry.”

When the war was over, Mr. Maase went back to the States. He attended Northern Baptist Seminary in Chicago for five years and became a pastor in a church of his own.

“During the Korean War, I became a chaplain in the United States Air Force, and I served for 22 years in Korea and Southeast Asia,” he said.

Then and now

When Mr. Maase first visited the Cayman Islands, there were roughly 5,000 people living on island, he said. Now, there are more than 50,000.

And back then, there were a lot more mosquitoes.

“When I went to look for water, I had to wear a pith helmet with a mosquito net over me, and no skin was exposed. Everything was covered,” he said.

He used to spray DDT on the screens of the huts to keep the numbers of mosquitoes down. “There were millions of them,” he said.

The other things that were everywhere on the Island were land crabs.

“When I would drive my Jeep at night, they would just crunch, crunch, crunch,” he said. “Crabs everywhere. Mosquitos everywhere.”

He said that 66 years ago, there was nothing on Seven Mile Beach.

“We could swim anywhere on Seven Mile Beach,” he said. “Now you can’t even find the beach.”

On off days, Mr. Maase would pick up a group of kids in the back of his truck and drive them to the beaches of Bodden Town.

The Guardsmen would sometimes have a nice Island treat.

“We used to butcher a hawksbill (sea) turtle on the slab that was out in the harbour and we’d have turtle steak once a week,” he said. “To me, it tasted like ham.”

He said it was primitive in many ways, but his memories are fond, like the times when the local women would charge to do the men’s laundry.

“They would build a fire out in their yard and put a big pot out there and put the clothes in the big pot and boil them and take them out and hang them up and dry them,” he said. “Our clothes smelled like smoke. The whole time we were here, our clothes smelled like smoke. But they were clean.”

Mr. and Mrs. Maase

V. Leno Peseyie and Bob Masse have been married for nine years.

She’s from Nagaland in northeastern India, near Burma and Nepal. She has a doctorate of philosophy and she has written six books, according to her proud husband.

He brought her here to show her the island where his life changed.

“He used to talk about it a lot … and I used to be very curious what it looked like … and so when we were talking about his 88th birthday, he said he’d like to come back and see and reminisce,” she said. “So I said, ‘Let’s go’[.”

They will be here for just a week, but when they leave, Mrs. Maase will have an idea about Mr. Maase’s short stay here so long ago.

She’ll have an idea about a portion of the long road that led him to her.


Mrs. V. Leno Peseyie-Maase and Robert L. Maase.
Photo: Brian Wright