Legionnaires raise cash to bury D-Day hero

Robert "Reno" Pearl

NEWPORT — The old pickle jar on the bar of the American Legion Hall is growing with cash, but not fast enough to send war hero Robert “Reno” Pearl home.

“The Reno Pearl Fund” will be used to pay the cremation bill as part of the send-off that befits his sacrifice following the veteran’s death on Nov. 1.

“We’re trying to raise $995 to get him out of hock,” chuckled Wanda Janes of the popular coffee drinker who “always had a joke” and served as the post’s sergeant-at-arms.

A giant among the close-knit family of legion members, Pearl was quiet when it came to his exploits in World War II and the Korean War.

“He seemed like he didn’t really want to be very forthcoming with his past life,” recalled Angel Fitzsimmons, wife of an entrenched member of the longtime fraternal order of veterans whose good works include the American Legion baseball program, scholarships, Scouting and backstop support for penniless veterans.

Military historian John Baker, however, overcame Reno Pearl’s silence in a May 16, 2018 article in the News-Times that described his epic deeds in the armed services of two nations, Canada and the United States.

Born the son of a Merchant Marine captain in San Francisco, Pearl was raised by his Canadian parents in Nova Scotia. A circus employee and expert “tent man” by the age of 14, he earned military approval in 1939 to join the Canadian Army as an underage soldier with the Ambulance Brigade.

Pearl spent the next eight years in heavy combat against the Germans in North Africa, Sicily and Europe. One of the last surviving veterans of D-Day, he landed on Juno Beach with the Third Canadian Infantry Division on June 6, 1944.

“We learned to dive into holes — fox or not,” he told Baker. “’Stay low’ was obvious. What I remember most was seeing my comrades and the enemies, broken bodies in such terrible death-rendered condition. I don’t watch war movies.”

During the fighting in Europe, Reno was offered a chance to join the U.S. Army as a sergeant first class and ended the war in May, 1945 as a much-decorated master sergeant. He married a U.S. Army surgical nurse and had two children, but was called back to duty in June, 1950, for the Korean War.

While many veterans are reluctant for good reasons to share their memories of war, Baker uncovered a shocking event that explained Reno Pearl’s uncommon reserve. During his two-year combat assignment in Korea, Reno reunited with his wife and two children in Hawaii while on leave. On their return to Oregon, the plane carrying his young family disappeared over the Pacific and was never found.

“Reno seems to have lived many lifetimes, facing extreme danger and deep periods of sadness,” concluded Baker, “but the 94-year-old Newport resident has earned, many times over, the title of hero.”

The effort to put Reno Pearl’s affairs in order is a typical endeavor for American Legion Post 116, whose annual events include a free Thanksgiving dinner that serves about 400 and a Christmas party for children who would otherwise face a forlorn holiday.

But the post finds itself embattled by cultural shifts. While it still has a robust membership “on paper,” the fraternity is struggling to fill volunteer roles.

“We’re really concerned about the future of the post,” said Fitzsimmons. “Most of our members are from the Vietnam era, and we’re starting to lose those people. The newest generation of veterans isn’t as interested in these types of organizations. We’re kind of struggling.”

It’s the public’s turn to help a veteran, she concluded. People interested in contributing to the Reno Fund, whose jar will remain at the bar to help other veterans in need, can leave a donation at the Legion Hall at 424 West Olive Street in Newport. For more information, call 541-265-9017.

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