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Robert Lueben at work during his Air Corps days in World War II.

King of the airport towers

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On May 2, 1942, Robert Lueben was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Now, more than 60 years later, the longtime Detroit Lakes resident says it was luck -- and high test scores -- that landed him in the Air Corps a short time later.

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But he didn't think he was so fortunate when he was sworn in that day.

"I don't think my heart ever dropped so far into my shoes in my life," he said recently.

A native of Montevideo, Minn., Lueben was less than thrilled at the prospect of being shipped off to basic training in "hot, muggy St. Louis, Missouri."

He spent the next three months at Jefferson Barracks, learning "to march in stride, show respect for the officers and NCO's, and all the ins and outs of being in the service."

But because Lueben had scored sufficiently high on his GCT (a form of intelligence test) to qualify for the Army Air Corps, once he was finished with basic training, he was given his choice of assignments.

"I decided to go into radio," Lueben said.

Shortly thereafter, Lueben was transferred from Missouri to Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio, where he was assigned to the radio control tower.

Man in control

"I was very lucky," Lueben said, noting that at Patterson, "We had real well-trained control tower operators to learn from."

After receiving the necessary training, Lueben was assigned to his first eight-hour shift.

"It was eight hours on, 12 hours off, eight hours on, 12 hours off," he said of that first assignment.

Another assignment found him at Selfridge Field in Detroit, where he and some of his friends would occasionally hitchhike into town for some fun. One night, they were picked up in a car occupied by four young women, who dropped them off at a local bar.

They went in, sat down and ordered some beers, each of them putting a quarter down on the bar to pay for it (yes, a glass of beer actually cost 25 cents then, Lueben said).

After they had consumed about three beers apiece, they noticed that the quarters were still sitting on the bar. When they asked the bartender why he hadn't charged them for the beers, he said they had already been paid for -- by the four women who had picked them up on the road earlier in the evening.

The four GI's accompanied the young women back out to their car.

"We got them home in time for 9 o'clock curfew," Lueben said, impishly admitting that it was 9 o'clock the following morning.

Then there was the time that Lueben and his three companions were supposed to report in for a new assignment at Wichita Falls, Texas, and decided to accept the offer of a ride from a fellow G.I. who had borrowed his brother's car for the trip.

"It was a brand new '42 Buick," Lueben said.

The G.I. with the borrowed car, who was named Joe, wanted to play gin rummy with his companions (all of whom were experienced card players).

"We ended up with most of his money," Lueben said with a chuckle.

Training Tuskegee grads

Later, Lueben was sent to Oscoda, Mich., where the Air Corps had set up a brand-new airport for training fighter pilots.

Lueben was the first man assigned to that field, and part of his job was to set up the control towers.

"About two weeks later, I started getting some other operators in there," he said. In all, three more operators were assigned to the airfield.

Part of their duties included "the very distinct privilege" of helping to train the fighter squadron that was piloted by graduates of the Tuskegee Institute, Lueben noted.

For those who aren't familiar with this part of World War II history, the graduates of the Tuskegee Institute's pilot training program were unique among military pilots of that time in one respect.

"They were all black," Lueben said.

Known as the Tuskegee Airmen, these pilots flew with distinction as part of the 332nd Fighter Group in the Mediterranean Theater.

The Tuskegee Airmen were initially equipped with P-40 Warhawks, briefly with P-39 Airacobras (March 1944), later with P-47 Thunderbolts (June-July 1944), and finally with the aircraft that they became most commonly identified with, the P-51 Mustang (July 1944).

"That (the P-51) was a beauty," Lueben recalled. For the first time, the pilots were able to keep up with their German counterparts; previously, they had been unable to reach beyond the lower altitudes.

During this time, Lueben was also briefly sent about 80 miles north to another airfield in Alpena, Mich., where he trained control tower operators for the newly established field.

"Alpena was a new field where our cargo planes would stop, refuel and get a new crew before flying overseas," Lueben said.

After learning that he was going to be sent to Alpena, Lueben discovered that his first instructor from Patterson Field, Stu Welty, had been assigned there.

"So I decided I'd surprise him," Lueben said. He got a sergeant who flew a single-engine training plane to bring him into Alpena.

"Stu was on the mike (in the radio control tower) when the pilot called for manual instructions," Lueben said. "He told him to land downwind."

Lueben knew that was "a big no-no -- you're supposed to fly into the wind."

So he climbed up the ladder into the control tower and opened the trap door that was the entrance, saying loudly, "Anybody who would land a plane downwind should be stuck up here in Alpena."

Welty recognized him immediately, and grabbed his hand to hoist him up into the control tower.

"We had a good reunion," Lueben said.

After about nine months at Alpena, he was sent back to Oscoda, where he was promoted to the rank of master sergeant (from technical sergeant).

His next assignment was to fly from airfield to airfield, inspecting the control towers and reporting back to the squadron's headquarters in Chicago, Ill.

"I did that for about a year," Lueben said. At the bottom of each report he sent to Chicago, Lueben would request overseas duty.

Finally, he got orders to report to an airfield in Virginia for overseas assignment. "While I was there (in Virginia), the war ended," Lueben said.

Shortly thereafter, he was ordered to report back to Patterson Field for discharge.

"I never made it overseas," Lueben said. But many of the pilots that he helped train did see overseas action.

A Swift career move

Instead, he returned to his hometown of Montevideo. Tom Sickles, the manager of the Swift & Co. plant where he had worked during his last two years of high school offered him a chance to receive two years of college training in the dairy industry by joining the company.

When he was finished with the training, Lueben was assigned to a new program that the company had set up for cleaning up all its plants and affiliated buying stations.

"It was a tremendously big job," Lueben said. Rodents, flies and cockroaches were a common site in many of the facilities.

"Cockroaches were the biggest problem," he recalled. But within three years, they were gone -- along with all the rodents, flies and other pests.

Eventually, Lueben became the assistant manager of the Montevideo plant. Then, in 1949, he and the assistant manager of the Swift plant in Detroit Lakes traded places. Lueben moved his family to the community, where they stayed for a couple of years before he was transferred to Chicago.

In 1954, he returned to Detroit Lakes, at the behest of the local plant's manager, C.W. Kaiser, who was planning to retire at the end of the year. Lueben, then 35 years of age, became manager of the Detroit Lakes plant.

He then became the regional manager for Swift's operations in northwest Minnesota, and in 1978, was promoted to the position of CEO for Swift's north central region, which included Minnesota, North and South Dakota, northern Iowa and western Wisconsin.

It was under Lueben's leadership that the Detroit Lakes plant transferred its butter-making operations to Montevideo, its egg production to Sauk Center, and discontinued its poultry-dressing operations.

Gradually, all of these were phased out in favor of turkey production, and in 1959, "we introduced the Butterball Turkey," Lueben said.

He retired in 1985. "When I arrived in Detroit Lakes, we had 30 full-time employees, and when I left, we had 630, plus some independents," he said.

Family man

Lueben was a highly successful businessman during his tenure at Swift. He also served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce in 1964, and has maintained his membership in the Detroit Lakes Noon Rotary Club and American Legion Post 15 for more than 50 years.

But he has also been a family man. He and his wife Rose Mary, who passed away in 1992, had three children. Son Robert lives in Minnetonka, Minn., and works in real estate sales. He has three sons.

Daughter Barbara Medure is credited with starting and successfully operating the Lake Area Press, which is now part of Detroit Lakes Newspapers. She now lives in Newcastle, Pa.

Youngest daughter Anne Anderson is an English teacher at Detroit Lakes High School. She and her husband, Jeff Johnson, have three sons, and live on Long Lake.

Bob will celebrate his 90th birthday on Nov. 28. Though he has no plans for a formal birthday bash, his daughter Anne has planned several smaller celebrations over the course of the month, with family and friends.

"She's calling it my birthday month," he says.

Though he no longer plays golf on Wednesdays at the Detroit Country Club (where he has a lifetime membership), Lueben enjoys the activities at his current home in Lincoln Park, where he has been a resident since July.

"I love it here," he said. "I get very good care here, from some excellent people... they do a good job of trying to keep us old folks young."

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 14 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 844-1454
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