Bob Adams remembers the moment like it was yesterday. He was walking home on Dec. 7, 1941 after catching a movie on Asheboro Street, when he ran into his older brother, Marshall. “He said, ‘Bobby, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.’ ”
The next morning at the Greensboro Senior High School bus stop, everyone was talking about the war. That’s when Adams and his best friend, Fred Breeden, decided. They were joining the Navy. “We got to school, turned in our books and went to the Central Post Office to sign up,” Adams said. “It just felt like it was something we had to do.”
Adams was 17.
More than 75 years later, he hasn’t slowed much. If you stop by the Lowe’s of South Charlotte on most weekdays, he’s one of the first employees you’ll see, seated at a table just a few steps from the store entrance.
Adams, 93, works five days a week, helping customers get started on exterior home projects. Few have even a clue that the kind gentleman recommending their next set of windows once manned a 40-millimeter antiaircraft gun on an American destroyer during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, helping turn the war.
While his longtime friends at the store have heard a few war stories, some coworkers at the South Charlotte location weren’t even aware that a World War II veteran walks the aisles with them every day.
“Bob doesn’t talk about himself a lot,” said Sirlister Campbell, a former Navy SEAL and one of a dozen U.S. servicemen and women employed by the store. “I didn’t realize he was so historical.”
At the store, Adams is just as well known for his positive outlook, bright mind and equally sharp sense of humor. He’s jokes that he’s known by a few different names. “The young people call me ‘Bob,’ ” he said. “The people a little older call me ‘Mr. Bob.’ The older employees call me ‘Pops.’ ”
He’s fine with all those monikers. Just don’t call him a hero.
“I wasn’t one of the heroes,” Adams said. “The heroes are still over there – all the guys who didn’t make it home. Those were the heroes.”
“I wasn’t one of the heroes. The heroes are still over there – all the guys who didn’t make it home. Those were the heroes.”
Inspiration for enlisting
One of those heroes was his cousin, Young Edward Strickland. Growing up during the Great Depression in eastern North Carolina, Adams spent holidays with Young at his uncle’s farm in Smithfield. Young and his brother both served in the Navy, but Young never made it back to Smithfield. A Japanese submarine sunk his ship, Adams said, and Young was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously.
His service inspired Adams to try to enlist the day after he learned from his brother that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. His parents, though, took some convincing. Only 17, Adams needed his parents’ signed permission to enlist. His dad didn’t want to lose any of his three boys to the war, and his mom was a Quaker who didn’t believe in war.
“I told them I wasn’t going back to school,” Adams said. His parents signed his papers, and he was officially sworn in on Dec. 15, 1941.
After boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey, Adams was eager to test his sea legs. “I put in for transfer just about every month for sea duty,” he said. “I told them I joined the Navy to be on a ship.”
In July 1942, he was transferred to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and soon became a crew member aboard the newly commissioned USS Gherardi, a 348-foot destroyer.
Invasion of Sicily and D-Day
In the summer of ’43, Adams saw his first action off the coast of Sicily, the Allies’ first invasion of Axis-controlled Europe. “I went topside and came out to the deck,” Adams recalled, “and a bomb went off 20 yards away. That was my first experience with that, and it scared me to death.”
“I went topside and came out to the deck and a bomb went off 20 yards away. That was my first experience with that, and it scared me to death.”
A third-class petty officer, Adams was responsible for loading one of four 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns aboard the Gherardi. During the invasion of Sicily, the Gherardi was credited with shooting down one plane and helping General George Patton take the island.
A year later, after a series of transatlantic voyages escorting convoys, the Gherardi moved into position off the coast of Normandy as part of Assault Force “U.” On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the destroyer cleared the way for troops on Utah Beach by firing on bridges, shore batteries and other targets.
An estimated 6,600 Americans were killed or wounded that day. “By the hand of providence,” Adams said, “we survived.”
After participating in the invasion of Southern France, the USS Gherardi returned to the U.S. in the fall of ’44. Adams was transferred to Florida, where he spent the remainder of his service on a 50-foot motor launch retrieving torpedoes until being honorably discharged from the Navy on Sept. 2, 1945.
Answering the call for Lowe’s
Adams returned to Greensboro, where he wrapped up high school, then graduated from Guilford College with the help of the GI Bill. He briefly worked in textiles and life insurance before beginning a career selling electrical supplies.
In the ’50s, he said he sold roofing materials to the Buchan Supply Company, owned by Lowe’s co-founder and fellow World War II veteran Carl Buchan. And in the 1970s, he shipped truckloads of electrical switch boxes to Lowe’s stores.
After a nearly 50-year career in sales, Adams was in no way ready to take it easy. Fittingly, he landed an interview at Lowe’s in 2003, and got the job. He was 79.
Adams has spent the majority of his 14 years at Lowe’s as a telephone operator, a natural fit given his sweet-natured disposition. “God made us all different, but it doesn’t cost anything to be nice,” said Adams, one of eight nonagenarians (people between the ages of 90 and 99) who work at Lowe’s. “If you’re nice to people, people will be nice to you.”
Although he’s moved over to the project specialist table, he uses the same approach to connect with customers and keep coworkers upbeat.
One coworker told the story of an all-employee meeting awhile back when the store held a raffle. When the store manager pulled out the winning ticket, he hesitated. “I don’t know if I should say this,” the manager said. Then he went ahead and called out “S.O.B.” “That’s me,” Adams yelled back. “Sweet Old Bob.”
“He’s an inspiration, always smiling, making people laugh,” said Freddie Vogeli, who’s worked with Adams for 12 years. “I’m sure he’s seen things in the service that weren’t very pleasant, but he never speaks about that. He speaks positively about everything. I’m going to be 70, and he’s probably the reason I’m still here working. If he can do it at 93, why can’t I do it at 69?”
“He’s an inspiration, always smiling, making people laugh. … I’m going to be 70, and he’s probably the reason I’m still here working. If he can do it at 93, why can’t I do it at 69?”— Freddie Vogeli, Lowe’s of South Charlotte
Once military, always military
It’s been 70 years since he’s been in the service, but Adams still prefers a routine and operates on military time. Every day, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. sharp. He does the USA Today crossword puzzle on his iPad and enjoys a banana and a bowl of cereal before leaving for work.
A widower, Adams lives on his own and still drives to work (“I can’t afford a chauffeur,” he joked.) On the way in every day, he stops at “the Alamo” (the corner service station) and picks up a “groundhog (sausage) biscuit” and newspaper. Then he settles into the break room in the back of the store – more than an hour before his shift – to finish off another crossword puzzle and breakfast while enjoying some small talk with the morning crew.
“To me, it’s just a haven,” Adams said of the store. “It’s sort of like a family. At work, I can be with the people I know and love.”
The feeling is mutual, according to Brianne Green.
Adams was the first employee Green met when she began working at the store at about the same time he arrived in 2003. She said not long after that, her last remaining grandfather passed away.
“He told me, ‘I’ll be your Papa,’ ” Green said. “So he calls me his granddaughter and I call him ‘Pop.’ ”
They have an additional connection. Green’s father fought in Vietnam and her husband also served his country. So when asked about the Second World War, it’s difficult for her to sum up what Adams’ service means.
“Him being in World War II, it gets me. Just what they sacrificed to be there. What they were willing to give up,” Green said, tearing up. “Any time you have a bad day, just look at him and what he’s been through – 93 years. You can’t help but smile at him. He’s an amazing man. Pop is an inspiration. He gives us hope.”
Adams keeps tabs on her, and vice versa. Green always tells him to take it easy, but knows that’s not in his DNA. She doesn’t even try to bring up the “R” word. For good reason.
“I don’t believe in that. That’s manmade, not God-made,” Adams said. “Why still work? Because I can be with people and feel like I am doing something worthwhile. I can tell you, I’ve never been bored a day in my life. I don’t have time for boredom. There’s too much going on in this world.
“As long as I’m healthy and Lowe’s will have me, I’m good.”
“I can tell you, I’ve never been bored a day in my life. I don’t have time for boredom. There’s too much going on in this world.”