Robert Sotak of Upper Arlington is a 91-year-old U.S. Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War.

Editor's note: Mr. Sotak died Feb. 16, 2019. Here is a link to his obituary.

Robert Sotak of Upper Arlington is a 91-year-old U.S. Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War.

Sotak was raised in St. Ann's Infants Home and St. Vincent Orphanage, both in Columbus, after his father died of cancer and his mother of tuberculosis.

He graduated from East High School in 1945 and enlisted in the Navy at age 17 that June. His two brothers already were in the Navy, and a sister's husband died during a B-29 bomber mission over Japan.

He first went to a naval training center in New York, where he served in the regimental headquarters.

He next was shipped to a Staten Island berthing facility in New York City. He recalled that a ride on the Staten Island Ferry and New York subways cost a nickel each, and he was able to visit such spots as the Statue of Liberty and Times Square.

Once in New York, he said, "I had a buddy from Cleveland I ran around with, and I only had $2.50 in my pocket and wouldn't receive reimbursement for travel for two weeks.

"I might add that I had the same job later and reimbursed personnel in two days," he said. "I tried to be careful with the short funds. However, there was a gentleman who said he was a veteran and asked for a dime to get a cup of coffee. I gave him a dime, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins and placed the dime with them.

"On another occasion, two women came up to us, and each asked for a quarter. We obliged. We just couldn't resist in either case."

In June 1946, Sotak put his name in for re-enlistment and was about to be promoted to storekeeper second class when he learned he instead would be discharged in July. A month from his 19th birthday, he left active duty and entered the Navy Reserve.

"While in New York, my buddy was a dancer, and I was a roller skater. We alternated dancing and skating," he said. "When we went to the ballroom, I sat out while my buddy danced. We both roller-skated.

"When I returned home, I got a job at $23 per week," he said. "A few weeks later, I was informed that the government was looking for veterans. I went to the personnel office and was hired the same day at $75 every two weeks."

Swing and big band still were popular, and back in Columbus, Sotak began taking dance lessons at the Jimmy Rawlins Dance Studio, which operated for decades, mostly in Clintonville.

"After finishing the advanced class, Jimmy offered me a teaching job, which I accepted," Sotak said. "Eventually, we did weekly exhibitions in front of big-named bands, such as Kay Keyser, Sammy Kaye, Harry James, etc., at the Deshler-Wallick Hotel at Broad and High. I kept my government job while teaching, but I made more money teaching."

After the outbreak of the Korean War in July 1950, Sotak was called to active duty in September.

After two weeks of disbursement training at Bayonne, New Jersey, he was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Lake County, Illinois.

He was assigned to a disbursing office, and his work environment changed as an indirect result of a party held at Waukegan's Veterans of Foreign War post.

"The next morning, the disbursing office burned down," he said. "One of the party members fell asleep on a cot in the ladies restroom while smoking. ... A temporary office was set up in the gymnasium. We worked seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. until about March 1951."

From there, he said, he was assigned to the special pay counter at the disbursing office's new location in a gym.

"This was my job until I was discharged in July 1952," he said. "Gym life wasn't very comfortable for us. We began standing guard duty, and for liberty, we were divided into (two groups) and alternated Sunday afternoons for liberty while working in the gym.

"At Great Lakes, my responsibility was the special pay counter. One day a person came in all dressed in civilian clothes and asked for money. After getting his name, I went to the officer's file but couldn't find his pay account. I went to my commanding officer, and he looked up and said, 'That's the commander of the base.' His file was kept in the very front by itself."

Sotak was allowed to return home to Columbus, but only married men were granted leave on Christmas.

He had thought of staying in the Navy, and had sent all of his civilian clothes to his sister, who had a young friend who didn't own many clothes. But he changed his mind about the Navy after learning that his rank would have been reduced from DK2 (disbursing clerk) to DK3 if he had stayed in. As a result, he had to spend all of his muster-out pay to buy new civilian clothes.

When asked for his advice to veterans adjusting to a return to civilian life, Sotak said he had no problem adjusting because of being young when he served in both wars.

"I learned you will have to leave your friends and meet new ones," the Good Conduct Medal recipient said. "That's what service was all about."

Sotak and his wife, Jane, have three children and four grandchildren.

He retired from the Department of Defense in 1986 and is a member of the Knights of Columbus and the Society of St Vincent de Paul.


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