By Philip Gardocki
This is not a real story. There is no plot, no point to be made, and no punch line at the end. It is an example of how life can throw weird curve balls at you, and how one can adapt to unexpected circumstances. This is the story of Robert Eugene Brantly (1925 – 1985). While I knew him, he was a poet, rogue, father, manager and union leader - an overall renaissance man. His history before I knew him is rather vague; not that he was keeping secrets, but because we didn’t talk much. I was his step child and if he wanted to marry my mother, then I was just part of the deal.
There were leaks about his past and, when I thought about them, they didn’t always add up. He had stories of being drill sergeant in the Army, delivering ice in Cuba, served as a bodyguard all around South America, had a officers commission in the Merchant Marine, had dealings with the CIA, spoke fluent Spanish and Korean(?), was a boxer, robbed a bank and once broke a friend out of jail. He was descended from a rich southern family with extensive political connections. His father was part of the team that invented the cathode ray tube and he grew the stock rewards from that into a comfortable life.
While Robert was intellectually gifted and skipped grades in elementary school, he was also a typical "only child" rich kid. When he proved uncontrollable he was sent to a military school, the Valley Forge Military Academy. World War II broke out and the students were graduated early to provide manpower. Using the family’s political pull, he received the rank of commissioned midshipman. This is a rank below that of ensign but above any of the enlisted ranks. In that role, he traveled the Atlantic convoy routes to England, Morocco, and France, but, other than storms, he was never in any combat.
Following WWII, he left the service and spent most, if not all, of his time down south. It was around this time he broke one man out of a Mexican jail. However, the event that directed the rest of his life, started with barroom brawl. The fight ended with a plain-clothes, off duty deputy being knocked out by him. He was arrested and bail was posted by his father. This was the Deep South in the late 1940’s and, if you hit a cop, you were going to do time on a chain gang.
Realizing this, Robert skipped bail, and caught the next boat to Cuba. For doing this, he was forever disowned by his father. He made ends meet by delivering ice, and after a while, this english speaking Ice Man was noticed by an executive of General Electric. Who hired him to be a bodyguard for his business travels around South America. As the son of an electrical engineer, he knew a bit about electricity, and, when the executive was reassigned state side, Robert was offered a job managing electric barges in Seoul, South Korea. At the time, it was a common practice to build electric generation plants on barges and then ship them to needed areas around the world.
Very early on June 25th, 1950, there was a knock at the door. It was opened quickly as Robert’s manservant entered. His manservant had an unusual military background. In World War II, he had been a Korean corporal in the Japanese Army, where all the Japanese bias and bigotry normally kept any such recruits in the rank of private. To have achieved non-com status in that environment implied a high degree of competence. He said simply, "Chinese come, we go." The Korean War had just erupted, and Seoul was overrun on day 1. Robert Brantly had just become an inadvertent Cold Warrior.
With a bent towards scorched earth, they sank the three electric barges and hot-wired a jeep, which got them half way to Pusan before running out of gas. Joining the hundreds of thousands of refuges on foot, they made their way to the Pusan Perimeter, where the United Nations forces (mostly American) dug in their heels. The refuges were not evacuated, possibly as a sign of our determination to stay but more likely because Japan would not have accepted them. Eventually, this fluent English speaking refugee was noticed and he was approached there by the Central Intelligence Agency and spent the war as a security guard for an antiaircraft radar installation.
When the war ended, and now certain that the law wasn’t looking for him any more, he returned to the United States. He joined the army, and, being a former near officer and well connected, landed a job as a drill sergeant. He also got married and had two sons. Army life didn’t really suit him and, after a few years, he left.
October 1956 rolled around and he got an unusual request. When he told the story later, he described it thus: "You wouldn’t believe it. It was right out of a movie. I was given the address of an abandoned warehouse on the docks of Philadelphia. It was dark and foggy. When I got inside the building, I was hit with blinding lights and could barely make out three figures. They were all in suits and they all were named Mr. Smith. They wanted me to accept a job, without telling me what the job was. It didn’t take long for me to figure out they wanted me to parachute into Hungary, to help with the revolt against the Soviets. Of course, I turned them down."
Robert spent the next 20 years in a variety of jobs. He divorced and remarried, was a manager in some jobs and was a union president in another. Over the course of time, he rescued a payroll from a burning building, got an award for efficiency and was fired for incompetence later in the same month. He also never filed federal taxes but was never charged for it, although the local IRS chief knew exactly who and where he was.
A month after we buried him, my mother’s house was burgled. My mother’s 80 pound Elk Hound was found hiding behind the furnace, a pee spot on the floor to mark the spot where she must have been when the burglars entered the house. Nothing was stolen but everything was ransacked. I suspect the CIA was looking for something. But do they typically search homes of long retired auxiliaries? There just might be more to this Cold War Story than I will ever know.