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Has Tap Shoes, Has Traveled, and Has the Medals to Prove It

January 09, 1986|MARY BARBER

On Aug. 10, 1918, Cpl. Robert B. Young cut his way through wire barricades while under heavy artillery fire and engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, thereby enabling his Army unit to advance on the battlefield near Fismette, France.

"If it weren't for me, the United States would have lost the war and wouldn't exist today," Young announced 67 1/2 years later, nudging a nurse to make sure she got the joke. Then he went into his dance.

"You don't know any other 90-year-olds who can do that, do you?" Young said, his flair for comedy again straining the facts. He's really just 89.

And he was really tap dancing, as said he once did in show business.

"The girls go crazy when I do this," he said. "Have to fight 'em off."

Bob Young is the comic relief at Broadway Convalescent Hospital in San Gabriel, where he has lived for four years. He also is a World War I hero whose unremitting wit softens some tragic stories.

"I am convinced his indomitable sense of humor has kept him alive," said Young's son-in-law, Michael E. Kimmel of San Gabriel.

In 1918 Young won the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor. He also received the World War I Victory Medal with Battle Clasp for Defensive Sector and the World War I Victory Button. They are visible in old photographs among Young's memorabilia.

Young, a native of Pennsylvania, after the war became a pharmacist with his own drug store in Pittsburgh. His first wife died, his second marriage ended in divorce and his children, including Kimmel's wife, Sherry, had difficulty keeping track of him.

For most of Young's life, his medals and army uniform were among his most cherished possessions. They and other valuables were carefully packed in a trunk that accompanied Young when he moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1950s.

Kimmel said that about five years ago the trunk was ransacked and its valuable contents--including the uniform and medals--were stolen.

Soon after that, Young became ill and entered the hospital. "Now he's dancing his way to fame," Kimmel said. "His genes must be made of little cast iron bullets."

Kimmel's many attempts to get Young's Distinguished Service Cross and other medals replaced failed until last summer, when he wrote directly to President Reagan. A response from the Department of the Army came almost immediately, explaining that a fire in 1973 in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed Young's records, but Congressional records confirmed his heroism, and the medals would be replaced.

At a ceremony in the Broadway Convalescent Hospital last month, Young was given re-issues of his three most prized medals.

The presentation was made by Maj. Vance L. Marsh of the Arcadia headquarters of the 2nd Battalion, 144th Field Artillery, California Army National Guard.

"It was a special honor," Marsh said. "I've never seen anything like this. Not a lot of people have a Distinguished Service Cross."

For that brief, solemn moment when he received the medals, Young stopped laughing.

But that doesn't happen often. He often breaks into dances and is proud of his tap dancing shoes, which he said are the very ones he wore when he danced in shows with Vernon and Irene Castle, popular dancers of the 1920s.

"Bet you've never seen anything like this," he said, dancing as he recalled the ceremony. "The trouble is, the girls go crazy and we'll have to call the police to get the place cleared."

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