Bob May knows his three years in the Navy during World War II could have ended differently.
“I was on the list to go to Midway Island and get ready to invade Japan,” May said. “The dropping of the atomic bombs saved my life and probably thousands others like me.”
May, an airplane mechanic, served in Rhode Island, Maryland and Hawaii. He chose not to re-enlist in the Navy after the war and headed home to Greenfield, Mass., and his first wife, Peggy.
While working for the Bendix Corp., a company that manufactures brake systems for cars, and helping to raise the couple’s five children, May became involved with the American Legion.
Specifically, he played the bugle in memorial services at a Veterans Affairs hospital in western Massachusetts. Each year, the hospital held a memorial in honor of the “Four Chaplains.” Now a famous World War II story, the four army chaplains — based in Massachusetts — were of different religious denominations serving aboard the USAT Dorchester.
The Dorchester sank after being hit by German torpedoes in the middle of the night. The four chaplains assisted some of the crew, helping them escape in lifeboats. Each chaplain gave up his life vest to the next man waiting in line, ultimately sacrificing his own life.
The services were particularly special when family members of the four chaplains were able to attend, he said. May has carried the American flag or played the bugle in hundreds of memorial services and funerals throughout the years.
“I always felt very honored to be able to play taps,” May said. “I always played from outside with a door open so it sounded like it was in the distance. A lot of people used to say that my playing brought tears to their eyes.”
May’s involvement in the American Legion continued even after moving from Massachusetts. In his 59 years with the Legion, he has held a variety of positions at three posts across the country as well as state and district offices.
For 58 years, May also has been a member of the American Legionnaires honor society, The Forty Et Eight, which focuses on child welfare and raising money for hospitals and children’s programs.
Despite some significant hardships throughout the years, May remains dedicated to both groups.
He missed a year of work during the early 1960s after being run over by the Forty Et Eight’s caboose-like truck in a parade. He had jumped off to hand out candy.
During the past 20 years, May has been treated for cancer on several occasions. He has undergone chemotherapy on and off since 1980.
At 83, May remains optimistic — even though he begins his next round of chemo next week.
“I’ve beaten it once, twice, a few times,” May said. “You just gotta do what you gotta do.”
Hearing loss now prevents May from actively taking part in some Legion events, though he is responsible for opening each meeting with a prayer.
May moved to Centralia in 1986. Peggy died in 1987, and he married his second wife, Florence, in 1989.
“I was lucky enough to find her, he said. “She’s a wonderful lady,”
May insists his military service was easy.
“I’m no hero,” he said.