William Robert Warnock was born deep in the Rio Grande Valley on November 6, 1932, and by the time he passed on May 25, 2016, he had fought in the jungles of Korea, dug for oil in the Middle East, and later spent months at sea as a master mechanic. However, to me he was simply Grandpa Bob.
By the time I got to know him, he was the picture of a humorous, hard-of-hearing, and congenial grandpa figure. With a round belly and a hearty laugh, even the clear signs of age did not entirely mask the spryness he still possessed which betrayed to some degree his life of adventure and hardship. Perhaps the toughest and most formative event, however, was his time in the Navy during the Korean conflict.
In conversations we had prior to his passing, Bob remembered that on Pearl harbor him and his father, William Henry Warnock, were outside the house working when they heard his mother (Vivian Warnock) scream from inside the house. Before they could hardly turn to see what had happened, she burst through the door and explained to them through tears that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Although too young for the World War, the memory drove Grandpa to enlist in the military himself, ultimately joining the Navy shortly after turning 17.
During his basic training, however, Bob’s life took a drastic turn when his instructors realized that he was an incredible swimmer. Having grown up on the Rio Grande, Bob and his brother Tom would swim in the up and down the river, even against the currents. This meant that Bob was able to out-swim practically anyone else. He recalled that, “The way they picked them in them days, it wasn’t your education — cause if they had went by my education I would have been a swab jockey! It was how you could swim.”[i]
Apparently — and unwittingly — that made him the perfect candidate for what was technically called an Underwater Demolitions Team, or a Frogman more popularly. These units are famously remembered as the predecessors to the Navy Seals. As a member in an UDT he served in a variety of roles including sabotage, reconnaissance, mine removal, and even prisoner of war rescues.[ii] For the recon and demolition missions frogmen were often deployed by a submarine off shore before they would swim in stealthily.[iii]
During Korea the naval bulletins explained the frogmen as, “members of an elite corps in which only the fittest have survived.”[iv] And while Bob survived the war, the experience took its toll on him. The war was extremely difficult on Grandpa, as he practically never spoke about what he had done. In one of the only times he told me about his experience, he explained that a part of his responsibilities included rescuing prisoners who had political connections stateside.
During these missions they were strictly forbidden to bring anyone else out as it could jeopardize the primary mission. He remembered:
What made me so mad at the government was this. Let’s just say he [the priority target] was a prisoner there, and you was a prisoner. I had a chance to bring you both out, but I had orders only to bring him and I’d have to walk away and leave you — knowing that you might die the next day when I could have got you, both of you out. But we was — boy I mean they told us they would court martial us to no end of we, you know — well we was disobeying orders is what it would be. But you don’t know how that make me feel. You know, imagine what you’d feel like walking away from somebody, knowing that, that — their being starved to death, their being tortured with mainly the water drip, plus the starving and the slave labor, and have to walk away when you could take them out. It’s not a good feeling. It makes you bitter.[v]
After he came home he burned practically everything which reminded him of it except for a few pictures of his boat and naval class, and refused to discuss it for practically decades. In his own words Bob confessed, “I was bad when I come out, because I drank heavy, but uh, Grandma [Shirley] straightened me out. That woman’s done miracles!”[vi] Some sixty years afterwards, through his family and his faith in God the wounds of the war had gradually healed.
In his civilian life Bob became a mechanic and specialized in the offshore oil rigs, eventually traveling across most of the world. Upon marrying Shirley Passmore, in 1965, they continued to travel together and raise a strong family. Although his life was full of adventures, his time in the Navy as a “frogman” saw him endure unimaginable difficulties and summon incredible courage.
[i] William Robert “Bob” Warnock in discussion with the author, March 15, 2015.
[ii] “Demolition Demons,” Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin (May 1950): 2–5; “Training for UDT Duty,” All Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin (January 1952): 22, 57.
[iii] “UDT Applications,” All Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin (February 1950): 4.
[iv] “Demolition Demons,” Hands: The Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin (May 1950): 5.
[v] William Robert “Bob” Warnock in discussion with the author, March 15, 2015.
[vi] William Robert “Bob” Warnock in discussion with the author, March 15, 2015.