In junior high school, Robert Bruce was in the California Cadet Corps. “We used to go to Fort MacArthur to the rifle range, and that’s when I found out I literally could not hit the broad side of a barn,” he said, laughing.
This didn’t stop him from putting his best foot forward years later when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Throughout his adult life, there were many instances in which Bruce was again faced with a difficult situation or with things he didn’t want to do, yet he strived to do his best in each one, making a sincere effort to go the extra mile.
Bruce was born on Jan. 6, 1945, in San Antonio, Texas, as the first-born to Thomas and Eugenia Bruce.
A self-described Army brat, he spent much of his childhood moving around. “From the third grade to the sixth grade, I think I went to six or seven elementary schools in three different states and two different countries.”
His father was a second lieutenant in the Army’s infamous 761st Tank Battalion, which was known as “the Black Panthers,” made up primarily of black soldiers who, by federal law at the time, weren’t allowed to serve alongside white troops during World War II.
Though he never spoke to his son about his time in the service, Bruce later learned more about his father, who retired as a major, including that he spent 185 days straight in combat, and was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, as well as a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and an Air Medal.
“His platoon was the one that liberated the 101st (Airborne Division) at Bastogne,” he said, adding that they also liberated Dachau, the first concentration camp established by Germany’s Nazi regime, which Bruce visited as a kid. “They were the first Americans to cross into Germany proper across the Rhine (River).”
“We went everywhere that the 761st went,” Bruce added. So, when Bruce was very little, his family moved to Germany, until he was about 4 years old.
“I don’t remember because I was so young, but I was told that German was my first language because I learned to talk when I was in Germany,” he said, “… so when I came back to the United States, I didn’t speak English for maybe a year.”
He started school in Compton, then he moved to Texas. “I went to school before Brown v. Board of Education when they had segregated schools in Texas. There was a school right across the street, but it was a white school, so I couldn’t go there.”
After only a short while in the U.S., his father was sent back to Germany, and so the family went. He had lost his knowledge of the German language by then, but has more memories of the second time living there.
He remained an only child until his family adopted his sister from Germany when he was about 10 years old.
After his father’s tour, they returned to the U.S., moving around a bit more before settling in L.A. after his father retired. He graduated from Centennial High School in Compton in 1963, and he began college.
He was drafted in September 1965. “I was in college, but I let my numbers drop below a certain level, so they took my deferment away and that was that.”
Bruce was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for basic training, and had no idea where he would go or what his job would be until afterward, when he was sent to wheel and track school in Aberdeen, Maryland.
“They trained us to be tank mechanics, Jeep mechanics, anything with tracks and wheels on it we had to (work on),” he said.
Though most were sent to Korea after training, Bruce was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where they were putting together a unit headed to Vietnam. They were there just long enough to get everything together, then his battalion was put on a ship for the 28-day cruise to Vietnam.
“We were so happy to get off that ship, we didn’t care where we were,” he said, chuckling.
Each troop had three or four companies and each company had at least 17 armored personnel carriers, 17 tanks and six self-propelled guns that Bruce and his battalion were tasked with keeping running.
“Every operation they went on, we had to go to,” he said. “When we moved into base camp, there was nothing. When I left, they had a phone line all the way to Saigon, a mess hall and barracks — they had completely built it up. Because we spend most of our time in the field, every time we’d come out of the field, there’d be something new.”
It was hard work being a mechanic out in the field, as Bruce and his team were constantly working on huge tank engines.
“The tanks have transmissions that are about the size of a small tractor, and you have to take the whole engine and transmission out of the tank at the same time,” he said. “The replacement engines came in hermetically-sealed cans that sat maybe 4 or 5 feet high.”
On his first run, Bruce found out mosquitoes could bite through wool socks. He also quickly learned that he’d be sleeping in quite a few interesting places.
“I slept in I don’t know how many holes, because every place we went, we had to dig a hole to set up in,” he said, adding that he once slept on the blade of a tank retriever, underneath 5-ton tractors, as well as on top of the cans that the engines came in.
Though there were so many operations that he can’t remember each one, a couple do stand out, including one where the regiment got a fire mission in the early morning hours.
“I dug in and had a nice spot to sleep out in the open,” he said. “But some of the guys had set up their tents underneath the trees, and when the mortars landed, they landed in the trees … they were close enough so I could hear the mortars coming out of the tubes.”
About a year before the Tet Offensive, they had a ceasefire, and Bruce was close to the Cambodian border on a French rubber plantation at the time.
“We were there for two days during the ceasefire — everything was quiet,” he said. “As soon as the ceasefire was over, those guns went off again.”
Bruce was sent back to the United States after spending a year in Vietnam, and was happy to be home.
“The war hadn’t turned ugly yet, as far as what was going on at home,” he said, adding that his homecoming was pretty uneventful. “It was strange, though, because when I left miniskirts hadn’t come out yet.”
He was left with reserve time and was honorably discharged as an E-4 specialist.
“Up until 1968, it was an entirely different situation in Saigon … they called it the Paris of the Orient,” he said. “But after 1968, the whole tenor changed and it wasn’t the same as when we first got there.”
“When I came back, Vietnam was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “I went to school, got married, had a kid and didn’t think about it.”
He married his high school sweetheart, Esther Sue, in July 1969, to which he remained happily married for nearly 50 years until she passed away in February of this year.
After Vietnam, he first went to work for Douglas Aircraft Co, in Long Beach for a while, then to Northrop. “Back in those days, you could walk into an employment office in the morning and come out that evening with a job.”
Both companies offered to keep him if he would transfer to other locations, but after moving around so much as a child, he wanted to stay put, so he went to city hall in Downtown L.A. in search of something nearby.
“I saw this advertisement for an assistant electric plant operator for the L.A. Department of Water and Power — I didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was,” he said, adding he took the exam and got the position.
After a few years working for them, Bruce decided to go back to school, getting a bachelor’s degree in public administration from California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Around that time, the Castaic Power Plant was getting its final touches. “They were having a hard time (staffing) … because nobody wanted to go up there.”
Bruce took a temporary promotion at the plant, though he was still living in Carson. “I drove from Carson up here almost daily. It was a 142-mile round trip, but back then, the traffic wasn’t so bad.”
When they made him a permanent employee, he decided to make the move up to Castaic, so he purchased a house that was being built. In 1980, Bruce moved to Castaic and has been there ever since.
Though things weren’t easy at the Castaic Power Plant, as they had many problems with the power units, which were always breaking, things were going pretty well for Bruce, and he continued to receive promotions.
“Then I got the last promotion I could get (in 1989) because I wound up as superintendent of L.A. Hydro, which included Power Plant 1, Power Plant 2, San Fernando, Foothill and Castaic,” he said. “I think I had a hundred employees.”
He remembers when the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit, and he had recently attended a meeting to prepare for outages caused by natural disasters. “The last Black Start meeting I went to I said, ‘I can’t picture a scenario where we lose the entire city.’ Well the morning of the earthquake, they lost the entire city.”
“A water line broke right out in front of the lobby, and the plant is 140 feet underground, so when the guys saw the water coming down the stairs, they thought they had broken a penstock (floodgate), and they didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I think it took us two or three days before they got that tower back up.”
After spending 28 years with the department, Bruce decided it was time to retire. “I retired in 1999 and swore up and down that I would never manage another body as long as I live.”
Though he had retired, he still wanted something to do, so he worked a couple of odd jobs, including for the 2000 Census. Soon, he found himself in charge of field operations until operations were shut down at the end of the year.
He enjoyed photography, and because he never really got the opportunity to pursue it, he applied to the Walgreens that was being built in Castaic near his home with the hopes of working in the one-hour photo department.
“They asked if I wanted to be the lead photo and I said, ‘not really,’” he said, chuckling, adding that he was given a position and worked there for a few years before retiring for good.
Since then, he’s been enjoying life, spending much of his time at the SCV Senior Center and with another senior group in Castaic.