Greatest generations: Stories with Maj. Gen. Robert Bay

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On December 1, 2008

The patrons at McDonald’s have noticed us. A few of them eventually come over to thank the two uniformed soldiers at our table for their service. What these civilians don’t realize is that a third soldier at our table, an older gentleman in plain clothes, is an honest-to-God general who started his service to the country during World War II.

“A lot of people have known me and never knew I was a general,” says retired Maj. Gen. Robert Bay, CE’49. “But at church, there is one Marine colonel, and when he sees me he still says, ‘Good morning, general.’”

“I didn’t know much about ranks yet. This officer was motioning me to come over, and I ignored him. Turns out, he was the company commander, a colonel.”

We traveled up here to Sullivan, the half-way point between Rolla and St. Louis, to meet Bay at the McDonald’s. Cadet Michael Tollison, a senior in mechanical engineering, and Capt. Chad Pense, assistant professor of military science at Missouri S&T, listen respectfully as Bay answers my questions and tells stories.

Currently, Bay is telling us a story about being a 17-year-old soldier who didn’t know much about the pecking order in the U.S. Army. During his first week, he was assigned to a mess hall. He was aggravated to find out that, for the time being, he was supposed to be serving as a waiter. “I didn’t know much about ranks yet,” he says. “This officer was motioning me to come over, and I ignored him. Turns out, he was the company commander, a colonel.”

The company commander was not happy when Bay finally went over to the table. “I told him I joined the Army to be a soldier, not a waiter,” Bay says. “Luckily, everybody laughed. That’s how my career started.”

Bay spent the end of World War II in the Philippines. He helped build a training camp at the site where the Bataan Death March had ended earlier in the war. The first task was to move the bodies of Americans who had died during that march and were buried at the site. Japanese prisoners of war were used to move the bodies to a U.S. military cemetery in Manila.

“We have the smartest military in the history of the world. They have to be smarter. They handle complex systems.

After the war, Bay took advantage of the GI Bill and came back to Rolla to finish his degree in civil engineering. Then he resumed his career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. All told, he served more than 39 years on active duty and in the reserves. His final assignment was as commander of the 416th Engineer Command.

Cadet Tollison is listening to Bay intently now. Tollison will graduate this December and then embark on a full-time military career. He admits to us, at one point, that he wouldn’t mind being a general one day himself. “I’d like to make it to general,” he says. “I like to be in charge. But, first, I know I have to be a good follower for quite a while.”

Tollison was an Army brat. Not long after 9-11, he looked up Afghanistan on a map of the world. He knew that he wanted to be a military man, just like his father, a colonel, and his grandfather, a Vietnam veteran. At Missouri S&T, Tollison tells us, “any time I have to spare has been spent on ROTC. … I really wanted to do well in ROTC, so I put extra time in it.”

Right now, there are about 65 cadets who are active in Missouri S&T’s ROTC program, according to Pense. The university also has an Air Force ROTC program.

When Bay was in college, ROTC was mandatory for young men. “The rest of us were veterans on the GI Bill,” he says. “We all wore surplus Army clothes to school.”

Lots of things have changed. Bay points out that today’s military is made up entirely of volunteers, like Tollison and Pense, who want to serve. He also thinks women have brought new skills and experiences that need to be utilized. “We have the smartest military in the history of the world,” he says. “They have to be smarter. They handle complex systems. … In my day, battle lines were drawn. You worried about terrain. There were tanks, guns and ships. It was easy to know who was shooting at you. We knew where the battlefield was.”

But much of what goes on in the military is still familiar enough that these soldiers have a lot in common and a lot to talk about, regardless of what generation they come from. Besides, Tollison, Pense and I can’t get enough of Bay’s stories.

When he first became a general, the Army sent him to the Pentagon to learn how to act like a general. “I was at the Pentagon for orientation, a charm school for generals,” Bay says, laughing. “While I was there I discovered that an office was reserved for Gen. Omar Bradley to use on his rare visits to Washington. Somehow, I found out that he was present that day and I got to meet him. It was a highlight in my military career.”

Bradley was a five-star general, the highest rank attainable in the U.S. Army. He told Bay that the key to success was to lead by example and to let your actions demonstrate that you care about soldiers. “I never forgot those words,” Bay says.

By the end of his career, Bay, like Bradley, had earned the Distinguished Service Medal.

In addition to his military service, Bay worked for the City of St. Louis, Laclede Steel Co. and Black & Veach. He worked on the design of the World Trade Center, the construction of the Chain of Rocks Canal and Locks project, and the expansion of the Howard Bend Pumping Station. He is a former president of the university’s alumni association and past president of the Academy of Civil Engineers at Missouri S&T. A founding member of the UM Alumni Alliance, Bay is a generous supporter of his alma mater, contributing 58 years in a row. Bay is now retired, of course, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything to do. He went on mission trips to Kenya twice in the past two years to develop water supply sources and provide medical assistance.

Upon the conclusion of our interview in Sullivan, Bay announces that he needs to head back up Interstate 44 for a meeting.

It’s time for Pense, Tollison and me to go back to Rolla. As we are leaving the McDonald’s, a stranger sees the uniforms and stops Capt. Pense and Cadet Tollison in the parking lot to thank them for their service – and much of their service to America still lies ahead of them. Meanwhile, Bay slips into his vehicle without attracting, or commanding, any attention. The general drives off in the other direction, accompanied by a lifetime of honor, accomplishment and memories.

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On December 1, 2008. Posted in Features, Winter 2008