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World War II vet celebrates 100 years: Shelter Islander Robert Strugats honored at birthday lunch

At a birthday celebration for Robert Strugats at Isola on Feb. 17, the guest of honor was asked how it felt to be 100 years old.

In a typically witty and dead-pan response, Mr. Strugats said, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” The following day was his actual birthday.

And he recounted his standard answer to anyone inquiring to let them in on the secret of a long life: “Keep breathing.”

His wife Mollie, couldn’t make the party because she’s recovering from an injury. “To Mollie — make a great recovery,” he said making a toast. “I miss you. I love you.”

Mr. Strugats’ five daughters — who organized the lunch —  greeted family and guests. He said, after a series of toasts to him, “To my daughters, I love each and every one of you. Each one.”

Sharing memories. (Credit: Adam Bundy)

His daughters, Linda Adler, Sharon Racusin, Janet Strugats, Debra Ingoglia and Michelle Salem, all spoke glowingly of their father, saying, “He’s always been a great dad.” “Always, always there for you.” “We’ve always been very close. “My confidant.” “My best friend.”

His talents as a raconteur and joke-teller were related by several guests. Ms. Salem said, “It wasn’t just a hobby. He looked at it as a profession.”

She remembered going through a big basket of his that she had come across, and found inside “pages and pages of jokes. And little pages he could put in his pocket, like cheat sheets he could pull out when he was telling a joke to a group.”

His grandson, Matthew Weitzman, who calls Mr. Strugats “Poppy,” remembered a family cruise when “there was a comedy show one night. Somehow, Poppy ended up on stage.”

He’s a veteran of World War II, one of the 119,550 of the 16.1 million Americans who served who is still living as of 2023. Mr. Weitzman said he would often ask his grandfather to tell him about his service. “He always said, ‘I’d rather not.’”

Robert Strugats in a moment of reflection at his 100th birthday party. (Credit: Adam Bundy)

He preferred talking to his grandson about fishing, which they often did, and beach combing for colored glass. Other special times he enjoys with Mr. Strugats include “watching old movies and talking about them.”

One time fishing, the young Matthew got a hook caught in his eye, and remembered  his grandfather’s “calm and caring demeanor,” which helped him through the accident.

People at the party remarked that Mr. Strugats was underage when he enlisted to fight in 1942, joining the Army Air Force, the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. Raised in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, he grew up poor, remembering how his grandmother had to provide food for the family to survive.

A bright boy, he skipped grades and graduated early from high school and took some courses at Brooklyn College. He also played trumpet in small, pickup bands, something he continued during the service.

The summer he was 20, he was a bombardier, alone in the nose of a B-29, located below and ahead of the pilot’s cockpit — “the best seat in the house,” he said with a touch of gallows humor — on bombing runs over Japan. The B-29 was built as a long-range bomber that could fly at altitudes of over 31,000 feet, but on Mr. Strugats’ missions, the bomber went over Japan at about 7,000 feet.

Fifteen times that July and August, Mr. Strugats flew missions from an American base in Guam. Some of the runs took 16 hours round-trip, where he’d be alone in the Plexiglas bubble of the bombardier’s station, looking through a Norden bombsight for targets. The Norden was also a navigational tool, he said, “But if I had a dollar for every time it didn’t work, I’d be rich.”

Mr. Strugats has described the night flights, with searchlights illuminating the sky, anti-aircraft fire coming up and Japanese fighters scrambling to attack, as a live-or-die exercise, night after night.

“We’d see the searchlights ahead coming up from the ground,” he’s said. “We’d fly right into them.” That didn’t mean it became routine. “We were hit at times, but we made it back.”

“Back” was the airfield at Guam, where the first thing each crewman received on disembarking in the hangar was a shot of whiskey. Good whiskey? he was asked. “No. Four Roses or some cheap [expletive],” he smiled, but it did the trick, he added.

Mr. Strugats and Mollie helped mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II by donating several items to the American Air Power Museum in Farmingdale, which showcases aircraft and artifacts from the war. A Japanese TV news crew was doing a documentary on the bombing of Japan at the museum, and Mr. Strugats was asked to participate.

A Japanese journalist asked Mr. Strugats his reaction to Pearl Harbor. Mr. Strugats said, “One word — sorrow.”

Asked  how his family reacted when he enlisted, he said, “No family would say, with open arms, ‘Here’s my son, take him.’” And asked if he could foresee a future without war, Mr. Strugats said, “No. That will never happen. There’s always conflicts between nations. Look at history.”

When the journalist brought up the horrific civilian casualties Japan endured that summer of 1945, and asked for comment. Mr. Strugats said, without hesitation, “I hate killing people.” He paused for a moment and then repeated, “I hate killing people.”

He served four years and was discharged in 1946, but was recalled to active duty in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War. Between 1946 and 1950 he returned to school, passed the New York State Bar exam and became an associate with a New York City law firm, specializing in trial practice. He retired to Shelter Island in 1995 when throat cancer robbed him of his voice.

Although he was able to speak again after two years, he and Mollie decided to continue their retirement on the Island.

Illustration by Peter Waldner, which he presented as a birthday card to his friend.

Mr. Weitzman was one of the most eloquent speakers at the birthday party, paying tribute to the man of the moment. “My Poppy, standing here today on Shelter Island, has lived through times that many of us can only learn about in history books. From the Brooklyn of his youth, with its horse-drawn carriages, to the modern era that surrounds us now, he’s witnessed a world transformed. As your oldest grandson, I’ve been blessed with countless memories alongside Poppy — memories that paint the picture of a life filled with love, laughter, and the wisdom only a century can bestow.”

He told his grandfather, and the happy gathering, that Mr. Strugats has led a life that “is a beacon of courage, having served with valor as a WWII veteran. Your dedication as an attorney spoke of your unwavering commitment to justice and fairness. But beyond these grand roles, it’s the small moments — the fishing trips, the old movies, the laughter — that truly define you to me. Today, as we celebrate your 100th birthday, we’re not just honoring the years passed but the moments shared, the lessons learned, and the love that has grown. Poppy, your legacy is not just in the big achievements but in the hearts of those you’ve touched, especially mine. Happy 100th Birthday, Poppy. Here’s to the stories, the adventures, and the love that you’ve given us. Thank you for every moment, every lesson, and every memory. Your life is an inspiration, and I am so proud to be your grandson.”

There was applause, some tears of joy, and then it was time to cut the cake.

Family and friends at the joyous celebration. (Credit: Adam Bundy)