Cpl. Robert Kope, Casper

Age: 93

Unit: 361st Engineer Special Service Regiment, Army

War fronts: Served as a special service engineer from 1942 to 1945 in both the Atlantic and Pacific.

After war: For decades, Kope has scoured the earth for rocks and minerals, jade in particular. He and his wife, Nadine, founded the Natrona County Rockhounds 58 years ago.

His words: “I’ve never regretted going, but I wouldn’t do it again.”

On the Web: Watch more of Kope's story and see profiles of other veterans at www.trib.com/honor

The officials, all ranked higher than him, had a problem.

“They had been there two weeks,” said Robert Kope, now living in Casper. “No electricity.”

Kope arrived overseas and went to France to find his head company in the dark. Officers had found a gas engine with a generator on it, but none could get it started.

So they approached Kope.

Can you fix it?

An oil boy from the Midwest, Kope was used to fixing things.

One of his first projects was an old Model T Ford. He and his four brothers saved up and pooled their money.

“Couldn’t keep the battery up on it, so we’d have to push it to start,” said Kope, now 93.

Eighty years ago, it cost them $25.

“We’d push and push and push and finally get it started, and then if it died we’d have to push it again.”

Kope left his family when he was 20. Packed his clothes in a cardboard box, kissed his mother goodbye and hitchhiked to Illinois.

He followed a boom there, the only one he knew of at the time. He was an oil field man. He went, he explains now, because it’s what he knew.

He did everything he could, even dug ditches. Spent some time as a bookkeeper. Brinkerhoff Drilling Supply liked him so much it kept him, even when the boom dried and more than 100 hands were fired.

He was married and working as a head mechanic for the company when war broke out.

One day, he was called into the office.

I’ve got good news for you, he remembers his boss said then. I’ve got your permanent deferment.

In that moment, Kope responded with a Thank you.

“I got to thinking about it later. I said, ‘There’s five of us kids, and we’re in a world war, and I’m married but I don’t have any children. You know, somebody ought to be a part of this thing.’

“So I had a few beers that night, went down and registered for the Army.”

Kope’s decision led him to France, to a broken generator in a camp with no lights on.

Then, he took one look at that generator and knew.

If it’s a gas engine, he had said, no problem.

Within 30 minutes, he had it running. The officers wanted him to stay.

We’ll get you a little room out here, and as long as we’re here, we want you to be here to keep it running, Kope remembers they told him.

So he stayed for six weeks, monitoring the generator his primary duty.

“It was paradise for an ornery boy,” he said. “I kept the little rascal running anyway. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t fix.”

His was the 361st Engineer Special Service Regiment, a unit that required men with advanced engineering and construction skills. It was their duty to come in with larger machinery and build bridges. After a bombing, they’d tend to the railroads, pulling out and disabling foot bombs.

“We’d clean up every one of them,” Kope said. “We lost quite a few boys over there.”

Even before the war, they were building. There was no place for the men to stay when they arrived in Louisiana for training, Kope said. Special service engineers, they constructed barracks themselves.

“We built everything that there was and we moved in. Two weeks later, they told us to pack up.”

Kope was one of the best shots on the rifle range. He always struck in the top five in his regiment.

Overseas, he was called out one night, selected as one of three in his regiment. They were being sent to the Battle of the Bulge.

Kope asked, why him?

You’re the best shot, he remembers being told. They were taking the best from each company.

Kope remembers snow and mud, feeling a chill run from the tips of his bones down into the dirt. When the soldiers moved, Kope covered the back end from attacks. When a difficult shot couldn’t be made, Kope would have to figure out how to make the complicated hit.

The specifics he keeps to himself. A man once asked him if he killed anyone. It’s a terrible question to ask a soldier, Kope said. And even if he did, he wouldn’t tell. He went overseas for a reason.

“It was horrible,” Kope said. “I ain’t gonna tell you about it. So let’s forget it.

“That’s my life.”

They Served With Honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

"They Served With Honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week, from Veterans Day to Veterans Day.

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