REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (August 28, 2023) – Propulsion expert. College instructor. U.S. Army Soldier. Vietnam veteran. Holocaust survivor.
Bob Sawada has inhabited each of those in his 98 years. Sawada returned to the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center in August for a speaking engagement in the Rocket Auditorium, the same facility where he served two-plus decades as a journeyman propulsion expert.
“If you needed a missile taken apart back in the day, you would call Bob Sawada,” said Richard Hatcher, moderator for the event. “Bob was the guy who got everything done because he knew how to do everything.”
In 1939, Sawada was only 11 when he, along with his parents and sister, were imprisoned in a Jewish ghetto in Poland. His parents would never leave. After Sawada’s sister convinced a guard that they were in fact, Catholic, not Jewish, he was sent to a slave camp, while his sister, a medical student, was sent to a military hospital in Dresden, Germany, to care for injured German soldiers. The facility was heavily bombed by the Allies and Sawada never saw her again.
Sawada would spend his teenage years as a slave laborer, in constant fear of not only his captors but of the bombs raining down.
“Every day the bombing was horrible,” he said. “The Germans were allowed to go into bunkers. We were not.”
Sawada escaped several times over the years but was recaptured and sent back to the concentration camps. Auschwitz. Dachau. Sawada knew them each personally.
When Hatcher asked if the conditions were as bad as reported, Sawada simply responded.
“It was worse.”
After being freed from Dachau in 1945 by the 12th Armored Division, Sawada was adopted by an Army Soldier and traveled to America. He still can remember the feeling of arriving in New York Harbor.
“The most precious time in my life I can remember is when we came into New York and seeing the Statue of Liberty … I am here. I am here,” he said.
He would soon don the uniform himself and being fluent in Polish, German and Russian, prove to be an invaluable asset as a U.S. Army translator. After tours in Korea, Germany and two in Vietnam -- where at one time he served as the sergeant major of the largest unit stationed there -- Sawada retired from active duty as a master sergeant. But his service to the Army did not end there. He would spend the next 20 years working for the precursor to the Aviation & Missile Center, fondly telling the audience, “I love this lab.”
Sawada leaned heavily on his faith while facing the unimaginable, but beyond that, he relied on an internal strength, one that enabled him to still look forward and see goodness in the world. It was that spirit that led him to join the ranks of those who liberated him, and it was a pride that he still feels today. When stationed in Germany after World War II and asked about how he felt returning to Europe, Sawada’s response was straight and to the point.
“I am wearing an American uniform. I am an American.”
The DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center, headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, is the Army’s research and development focal point for advanced technology in aviation and missile systems. It is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command. AvMC is responsible for delivering collaborative and innovative aviation and missile capabilities for responsive and cost-effective research, development and life cycle engineering solutions, as required by the Army’s strategic priorities and support to its Cross-Functional Teams.