Robert W. Almquist, 95, clutched his walker as he said hello to his old friend, the USS Oakland. Once, 800 sailors called the World War II ship home. Most of them are gone.
On Friday, Almquist slowly made his way to face all that is left of his old ship, her mast. Dressed in his reserve uniform, he steadied himself on his walker and rose to give a tearful final salute.
“I forgot so damn much,” he said of the quiet moments he spent in front of the mast. “Things come back kind of slow.”
For the Navy veteran, the trip from his Wisconsin home to Oakland fulfilled a lifelong dream. It started with a story in this newspaper in October that caught the attention of veterans groups, the tourism company Visit Oakland and Mayor Libby Schaaf. People from around the country donated to his family’s online fundraising campaign.
The trip of a lifetime began this week in San Diego, where Almquist visited a plaque honoring him and his 30 years of service at the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial. He brought his son Simon, daughter Lynn and daughter-in-law Sarah along for the ride.
After arriving in Oakland on Thursday, Schaaf honored him with a proclamation at City Hall. As it happened, a rotary meeting was taking place at the same time, so the mayor brought him inside and read it out loud.
There was hardly a dry eye there.
The same could be said about Friday morning, as Port of Oakland officials greeted Almquist at the mast. He held court talking about the moment when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Wisconsin 17-year-old was tending to his rabbits.
“I knew damn well I was going in,” he said Friday. “I always was gonna be a sailor.”
A light cruiser built by Bethlehem Steel Co. in San Francisco, the Oakland took him from Guam to Okinawa and was anchored in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri. From 1942 to 1946, he served as a baker — about 350 loaves of bread were baked daily — and loaded ammunition to gunners during battle.
He recalled sitting on the ship’s fantail when he saw Japanese planes bomb the USS Bunker Hill.
Though his ship earned nine Battle Stars, Almquist said the history books have overlooked it.
“She was the best ship in the Navy,” he said fondly. “Nobody knows about her.”
After the war, Almquist moved back to Wisconsin where he worked in a mill and raised six children with his wife, Ruth, who died last March. He’s had little connection to Oakland since his early days in the Navy, but the city welcomed him back with open arms.
Visit Oakland paid for his airfare, and the Executive Inn on Embarcadero covered the hotel costs, said Mark Everton of Visit Oakland. Everton was in awe of the reaction of rotarians on, who gave Almquist a 45-second standing ovation on Thursday.
“He touched the hearts of hundreds of Oaklanders today,” said Everton, whose family also served in the Navy during World War II.
Paul Ferreira of Hayward brought a pocket full of tissues to the harbor reunion just in case on Friday. Ferreira read about Almquist’s dream to come to Oakland and immediately thought of his father, Edwin Ferreira, who died at age 69 and never talked about his World War II service. His father served on the USS Castor, a general store supply ship.
“My dad’s ship was in the same waters as Robert’s four times. His flour and eggs probably came from my dad’s ship,” Ferreira said. “This has been a great opportunity to make a connection to my dad.”
On Friday afternoon, Almquist was off to a lunch at the USS Hornet in Alameda, where he will be honored by the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Next he’ll be in Hawaii to see Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial.
The beaches of Hawaii are nice, but his children, Simon and Lynn Almquist, said all he really wanted was to see the Oakland once last time. Like their father, both served in the Navy.
“This was his last wish, he needed to say goodbye to the ship,” Lynn Almquist said. “This was like coming home.”