‘Just lucky’: 94-year-old cheated death four times

May 24, 2014
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Henry Roupe, 94, of Bentleyville, a U.S. Army Air Forces veteran, displays the emblem of his unit, the 85th Divebombers, 306th Bomb Squadron, from World War II. Order a Print
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Harry Roupe, in uniform
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Barbara S. Miller / Observer-Reporter
Harry Roupe displays a replica of the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” on which he was a turret gunner. Order a Print

Anyone who has escaped death will never forget it. Harry Roupe stared death in the face and survived four times.

This series of events began on land when he was a 10-year-old in 1930, twice in the air during World War II and underground when he was a miner.

“Just lucky, I guess,” was Roupe’s comment about his remarkable knack of managing to live 94 years despite his encounters with peril. In conjunction with tomorrow’s holiday memorializing soldiers and sailors who never made it home from wars, Roupe talked of how he almost didn’t.

He was born on Allison Avenue in Washington and grew up in Eighty Four, where he walked two miles to the Robertson School as a child.

One day during third grade, he began experiencing intense pain, but he still managed to trek home. His father drove him to a doctor’s office in Scenery Hill, and after a diagnosis of a ruptured appendix, he was whisked to Washington Hospital.

“They told me I wasn’t going to make it,” Roupe reminisced recently at a personal care facility in Bentleyville known as the County Home. The youngster managed to overcome gangrene, and, after a long absence, he returned to school, grew to a strapping 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and graduated in 1940.

His second day out of school, he was loading coal in Marianna, but when the United States declared war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, he enlisted three days later in the U.S. Army Air Forces in Canonsburg.

His training assignments as an airplane mechanic and gunner sent him hop-scotching all over the country, and when he landed at Blythe (Calif.) Army Airfield, a heavy bombardment training base. He was paid once a month, and he sent half of it to Helen Morrow back in Washington County and told her to come at once. When the couple married Jan. 13, 1942, in Arizona, the bride didn’t know how close she would come to being widowed three times.

Shortly thereafter, Roupe was a passenger in a two-seater dive-bomber when “it just quit,” he said. “We rode it into the ground and walked back to Blythe air base.”

As if that experience wasn’t harrowing enough, Roupe became a top turret gunner with the 546th Bombardment Squadron on a B-17 based in England with a mission to destroy infrastructure in Nazi Germany.

He recalls being assigned to RAF Grafton Underwood near Kettering in Northamptonshire, England, in 1943 or 1944. To ward off the cold on flights when the temperatures plunged far into the sub-zero range, the pilots and crew at first wore fleece-lined suits. Later in the war, they dawned heated suits powered by plugging into the electrical system of the plane.

The cold was perhaps the least of their worries.

An article, “Six Lost American Air Bases in Britain” on the Urban Ghosts website describes a B-17 bombardment group from Grafton Underwood that “lost 35 of its original 36 aircraft after only the sixth mission. How would it feel to climb into the cockpit with those odds stacked against you?”

Or, as Roupe puts it, “You wonder why I drank? I think all of us did.”

Roupe’s third mission to destroy marshalling yards in Cologne was also his third brush with death. It was daylight, and the Germans were defending the city’s rail hub with both Stuka fighter planes and ground-based .88-caliber anti-aircraft fire known as ack-ack. “You can see the shells bursting,” he recalled. “They would try to get your altitude and shoot at you. The fire was bright, but the sky was black.”

As a turret gunner, Roupe was armed with a .50-caliber machine gun, but the German attack was relentless, piercing the “Flying Fortress” with hundreds of holes.

“We were really shot up,” he said. “We were hit all over. It is amazing that nobody was wounded. We came back on automatic pilot. We made it back to England, to Ipswich,” a coastal area 82 miles as the crow, or in this case, the B-17, flies.

Roupe went on to serve as a gunner on 22 more missions in B-17s, and he was never injured. Amazingly, there was only one casualty among his crew, a bombardier who suffered a serious arm injury. Many of the missions, he recalled, were flown by pilot William McKay of Salt Lake City.

The Allies’ bombers proved devastating.

“After the war was over, we took nurses and doctors back to see Cologne. There wasn’t a building standing, only the cathedral,” Roupe recalled. Everything in the city along the Rhine River was flattened, and the massive Gothic place of worship was badly damaged.

After his discharge from the Army Air Forces, he remained in the reserves. The Korean War broke out on the heels of World War II.

“They called me up and I was ready to go, but they canceled it,” he said.

By this time, Roupe was back in the mines, a job that was almost as dangerous as the bombing missions over Europe.

“I went back to Ontario (Mine) first,” he said. “Slate came down on me. I was walking out when it caught me. I had a couple of cracks on the head, and I broke a bone in the foot.” Roupe was able to duck into a recess in the room-and-pillar layout known as a manhole, which the Coal Education website defines as a safe place “constructed in the side of a gangway, tunnel or slope in which a miner can avoid passing” underground vehicles.

How was he able to emerge alive?

Again, he replied, “Just lucky.”

Roupe decided to change jobs, working for B.F. Goodrich Tire Co. and Equitable Gas, retiring in 1982. He outlived Helen Morrow Roupe, who died in 2003. He has one son, Barry M. Roupe of Cokeburg and Boardman, Ohio.

Harry Roupe is the lone survivor among three brothers, including Everett and Donald Roupe, who served in World War II.

“Amazing stories,” said Roupe’s niece, Margaret Johnston of Chartiers Township. “I tried to read ‘The Greatest Generation’ and I couldn’t get through it. I couldn’t get through the first chapter, I was crying so hard.”

Said another niece, Carolyn Shook, also of Chartiers Township, “We’re proud of what he did for his country.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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