Rainbow Salutes Local Air Force Veteran
Rainbow Salutes Local Air Force Veteran
by Kenyon Kemnitz
Robert (Bob) Jahn still remembers the thrill of flying in a plane.
“It’s a guarantee when you’re flying that if you go up, you’re going to come down,” said Jahn.
Growing up on a farm in Jefferson, he graduated high school a few months early and joined the United States Air Force in 1947. Maintaining world peace in the world had become a top priority for the country after six long years of war in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
“During that time, life was tough on the farm,” said Bob’s daughter, Diane McFarlane. “They didn’t have a lot of money. His dad had passed away when he was young, and he thought this was something he could do and see the country.”
After spending some time in San Antonio, Texas, he transferred to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, for communication specialty training.
Soon Bob became a radio operator and provided communications using international Morse code. He also assisted pilots and served as a Goodwill Ambassador, making mission trips around the globe, including Central and South America, and all over the United States.
“Dad just loved to travel, and he didn't care where he went,” McFarlane said. “He just wanted to fly and go wherever he could.”
One of the most memorable stops on his long itinerary was being stationed at Albrook Air Base in the Panama Canal Zone for nearly four years. Occasionally, Bob returned home to Jefferson when he was on leave, including one time in September 1948, when he surprised his mom, Mildred, after landing in Chicago following an 18-hour mission flight. Before he relocated to Brookley Air Base in Mobile, Alabama, Mildred also had the chance to visit her son in Panama for two weeks in 1950. In September 1951, Bob accompanied a three-star general on a trip to Rio de Janeiro as guests of the Brazilian government during their observance of their Independence Day. During his first four years in the Air Force, Bob was home for only a total of nine days.
Bob visited almost every corner of the world, making stops on every continent except Australia. Before he completed his military service in 1953, he had earned the rank of Staff Sergeant and spent almost a year on special air missions in Washington, DC, flying dignitaries to their destinations.
Bob even had the opportunity to fly in the first presidential airplane, a Douglas C-54 nicknamed the “Sacred Cow,” that was equipped with a conference room, a bulletproof window, and a battery-powered elevator for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to board the plane more easily in his wheelchair. Roosevelt took his only flight aboard the plane to the Yalta Conference to meet with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in February 1945, before he died in April. The Sacred Cow then became President Harry Truman’s plane, who used it extensively during his first two years in office before it was replaced by a newer model. In 1947, Truman was aboard the Sacred Cow when he approved legislation that made the United States Air Force a separate branch outside the United States Army. The Sacred Cow continued to serve as Air Force transport until it was retired from service in 1961.
“It was the first Air Force One before a presidential plane was actually called that,” said Bob’s son, Stan Jahn.
The “Air Force One” moniker was created in 1953 to avoid confusion after a plane carrying President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the same airspace as a commercial airline using the same flight number.
Bob was on board the plane one time when they had to get back so former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt could use it to go to South America.
“When Eleanor Roosevelt wanted something, she got it,” Stan Jahn said. “But I remember Dad telling the story of having to get back and maybe it was on that trip that they were getting tight on fuel and had to stop somewhere in Oklahoma.”
One time Bob also was part of the crew that flew Raymond Burr, the former Canadian actor that starred in Perry Mason and Ironside, to one of Bob Hope’s shows for the servicemen and women.
“Dad told the story that they were up somewhere around Greenland, and they had a mechanical issue and had to do some fixing before they could go to their next stop,” Stan Jahn said. “He said Raymond Burr was out there holding a flashlight as the mechanics were fixing the plane just like anyone else.”
Another story that his daughter-in-law, Sue, recalls is when he was in Ecuador, and it took a while to land his plane.
“It’s very high elevation there and very short runways and they were flying into poor goats on the runway, so they had to pass the time to scare the goats off so they could land the plane,” said Sue Jahn.
His past stories even range from funny to scary. One time, during a trip, Bob suddenly realized the pilot had fallen asleep.
“They were getting close to needing to do something and then he kind of said, ‘You might want to wake up now.’” Sue Jahn said.
Air travel has changed significantly since Bob’s time in the military. Back then, planes often had to stop to refuel on transatlantic flights, between New York and London.
His military service concluded in April 1953, just before the Korean War ended. Six months later, Bob returned to Wisconsin and married Shirley Pirwitz. He completed a course in radio and television at the Coyne School in Chicago before the couple settled in Janesville. They raised three children together in Lake Mills.
Besides being a father and husband, Bob spent most of his career as a truck driver, taking his love for the skies to the open road. First, he worked at Lakeland Farms in Lake Mills delivering eggs, then moved on to Schweiger Industries in Jefferson as a semi-truck driver for 25 years.
“At Lakeland he made two or three trips to Chicago every week,” Stan Jahn said. “He’d leave at 3 or 4 in the morning, go load his truck, was gone before we even woke up in the morning and wasn’t home until we were back in bed for the night as little kids. He was for sure a hard worker.”
After retiring, Bob had an urge to get back to work. He started showing cars at car auctions in Jefferson, then worked part-time as a Dealer Trade driver for Zimbrick in Madison. He drove vehicles to and from dealerships and to auction sites, mostly in Wisconsin, but sometimes would travel out of state. He and his wife would also travel and leave the Wisconsin winters behind for their condo in South Padre Island, Texas.
“Zimbrick really liked him because he would take any truck and he was one of the first ones he’d call because he’d never say no,” Stan Jahn said. “They liked him so much that they were flexible that they would say ‘When you go South for the winter, let us know when you come back, and we’ll put you back on the list.’ He did that probably 15-20 years too, from when he was in his mid-to-late 60s to well into his 80s.”
Bob was fortunate enough to join a group of other Southern Wisconsin veterans on a VetsRoll Trip to Washington D.C. in 2017, where he visited all the major monuments and the Air Force Museum.
He stopped working when Shirley got sick and stayed home to care for her. She passed away in December 2018.
Bob moved into The View at Johnson Creek a few years later in September 2021 and became a Rainbow Hospice Care patient in March 2023.
Rainbow social worker Catie Hunter and Nurse Manager Amy Johnson worked with Rainbow’s volunteer department to coordinate a pinning ceremony for Bob on Wednesday, August 23. They were both in attendance when Larry Whitmore and Robby Robinson of Jefferson’s American Legion Auxiliary Unit 164 arrived to perform the pinning. The two veterans presented Bob with a veteran certificate, and an Air Force-themed blanket, tied together by Rainbow’s volunteers.
Rainbow Social Worker Catie Hunter is honored to shake the hand of Bob Jahn.
"As part of our 'We Honor Veterans' program, Rainbow Hospice Care staff and volunteers gather along with family members to thank our patients for their service in the armed forces," said Hunter. "This moving ceremony provides veterans with a special chance to share stories about their experiences in a way many just haven't had previously. So many patients and families have expressed how meaningful these ceremonies have been for them."
Several members of Bob’s family also made the trip for the special occasion. His son, Stan Jahn, daughter-in-law Sue, and granddaughter Sarah, joined Bob’s daughter, Diane McFarlane, her husband Dave, and three of his great-grandchildren, Johnathan, Hannah, and Hailey to honor their hero. More friends, Dean and Janice McFarlane also stopped in to see the pinning along with a few Rainbow employees and some residents/staff from The View.
“It was so very special to see him happy and being honored for his service,” McFarlane said. “It’s the happiest I’ve seen him in a long time. The situation was so positive, and it made us happy that we could see him happy and it kind of brought some of his past back to him a little bit. Overall, it was a wonderful celebration for Dad.”
Bob sits during the pinning ceremony with his daughter Diane McFarlane.
After the family shared a few stories about Bob’s tour of duty in the Air Force, it was time for cupcakes, but not before Robby and Larry gave Bob a much-deserved salute.
“He was in the best situation mentally for that day,” Stan Jahn said. “He knew something special was happening and knew it was for him. But that program was great for him and we’re glad that Rainbow thought of doing that.”
Rainbow Nurse Case Manager Amy Johnson enjoys chatting with Bob and his son Stan Jahn.