Robert Berwick - Ensign
- Purple Heart
In north-central Des Moines, just west of where 6th Avenue crosses the Des Moines River, is a small house located at 615 Hickman Avenue. Faced in red brick and situated just south of the banks of the river, it is quite similar to the many other houses built throughout the River Bend neighborhood in the early twentieth century. This home is set apart, however, by the fact that one of Iowa’s heroes of the Second World War, Robert Abram Berwick, came of age there in the 1930s.
Our story begins, however, forty-five miles away in the small rural town of Knoxville, Iowa, where Bob was born on April 1, 1923 to parents Elmo and Gladys Abram Berwick. Bob spent the formative years of his life in Knoxville while his father managed a local coal business. In 1932, the family relocated to Des Moines and settled at the home at 615 Hickman. An only child, Bob nevertheless had a wide circle of family that imparted in him the virtues of public service and community that permeated throughout his own life. Besides his parents, who were both engaged, public-spirited individuals, Bob’s maternal grandparents, Margaret and William Abram, built a “life of public service” as prominent citizens in social, educational, and religious circles. Bob’s grandfather had served on the school board in every community he lived in, proudly boasting that he had signed the diploma “of each of his six children.” These values of community and service spanned the generations down to their grandson, of whom they were “extremely proud.”
It was these values that molded the young Bob, inspiring him to dedicate himself to the service of his community and his peers in high school and cultivating in him the bravery required to give one’s life for their country. Bob attended Des Moines East High School, where he graduated third in his class of 368 people. Described by his peers as “versatile,” “fun,” “witty,” and “smooth,” they elected Bob the President of their senior class. No doubt owing to his upbringing, he took a vested interest in school life. In his role, Bob presided over important class functions like the annual Anniversary Day Program held in celebration of East High’s history, the class banquet held at the Younkers Department Store’s famous Tea Room, and the Senior Class Night. Just before graduation in May of 1940, Bob’s teachers elected him to serve as honorary Mayor of Des Moines for a day. A part of the annual “High School Day” program that placed hardworking students in prominent government and business positions around the city, Bob took great “interest” in figuring “out some problems” in city government with “only a suggestion now and then from the City Clerk.”
After graduation, Bob enrolled at Iowa State College, where he pursued a pre-medical curriculum majoring in Chemistry. Carrying his active interest in school life to college, he pledged Phi Kappa Psi in September, 1940, and fully initiated the following May. Yearbooks are a great source to chart individual student life. Bob’s face, consistently stoic and poised, appears in the group photographs for the fraternity in the 1941, 1942, and 1943 Bomb yearbooks. The last of these yearbooks recognized Bob and other brothers who were “active” in student organizations throughout the college: Showing his commitment to one day entering the medical profession, Bob had served that year as the secretary of the Pre-Medics Society.
Bob’s face is absent from the Phi Psi group photograph in the 1944 Bomb. His name still appears on the page, however, among an honor roll list of twenty-three Cyclone brothers who were serving in the armed forces. With a year left in his undergraduate career, Bob put his future plans on hold and enlisted in the Navy. He trained at the Naval Training School at Notre Dame in Indiana, receiving his commission as an Ensign in January, 1944. Six months later, Bob graduated from the Harvard Naval School and was assigned to the Pacific Fleet, shipping out in August. Joining the fierce campaign of “island hopping” already underway by the allies, Bob participated in the Battles of Peleliu, Leyte Gulf, Surigao Strait, and Formosa throughout the fall.
In January, 1945, Bob returned home to central Iowa on thirty-days leave. Although he never married and had no children, his family and classmates lingered on his mind. His visit home included a trip up to Ames to reconnect with his fraternity brothers and friends. Unfortunately, though, this trip home would be his last. Bob returned to duty aboard the Destroyer USS Kidd, which itself joined Task Force 58 in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa. With the commencing of fighting in March, Bob and his shipmates assisted by fighting off Japanese planes, destroying mines, and rescuing downed pilots. Although the USS Kidd successfully repelled many aircraft attacks, on April 11, approximately ninety miles off the coast of Okinawa, the pilot of a Japanese aircraft involved in a dogfight above the ship crashed into the boiler room, catapulting a bomb through the ship. The crash and ensuing explosion claimed thirty-eight lives, including that of Robert Berwick.
For his honorable sacrifice, Bob was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. Only two years prior, President Franklin Roosevelt had signed legislation enabling any member of the Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard killed or wounded in action since the attacks on Pearl Harbor to receive the Purple Heart. It was a fitting honor for someone dedicated to his community, to his family, and to his nation. The USS Kidd survived the attack, and served honorably for another two decades before ultimately become a museum ship in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As she retreated to Ulithi Atoll for repairs, Bob and his fallen crewmates were buried at sea on April 12. While undergoing repairs, the surviving crewmen commissioned a brass plaque with the names of the officers and men who gave their lives in service aboard the ship. Bob’s name appears second from the top on the left-hand side, a fitting memorial to his ultimate sacrifice for his nation. His name also appears in another memorial, one located thousands of miles away from his final resting place off the coast of Okinawa, in a small cemetery on the outskirts of Colfax, Iowa. There, Bob’s name lives on near the resting places of his parents and grandparents, the ones who had done so much to shape his values of dedication and service while growing up in a small brick home in Des Moines.