A lifetime of accomplishments

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Col. Robert Cranston leaves a legacy of service

By John Barnhart

    Colonel Robert Cranston, of Huddleston, ended a long, accomplished life when he died at home Sunday night due to complications that followed heart surgery.


    Col. Cranston, who would have turned 94 on April 5, had suffered multiple setbacks following the surgery on Nov. 19. He made the decision himself, after being presented the options by his doctors, to discontinue hospital treatment and come home last week.
    Col. Cranston was born in London, England on April 5, 1919, on Angel Lane in a section of the city called Brixton. His father, George Cranston, a Canadian, had been in the Canadian Army during World War I, married a British Army nurse, and stayed in England after the war. Cranston never actually knew his mother. Louise Cranston died shortly after his birth.

    When Col. Cranston was a teen, his father moved to Fort Worth, Texas to take over the management of a radio station. In a 2001 interview, Col. Cranston said that he joined the Texas National Guard while he was still in high school. This wasn’t done out of patriotism. The unit he joined was a cavalry outfit and the commanding officer, as a recruiting incentive, promised the high school boys that they could bring their girlfriends out and ride horses. This sounded like a good deal to Col. Cranston, who noted that nobody was thinking about going to war.
    By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Cranston was a platoon sergeant in a 100-man cavalry troop. It was one of the few cavalry units that still had horses and, by that time, Cranston had already become accustomed to 14 hour days in the saddle.
    Ultimately, Cranston attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in 1943; then he was deployed to England.
    Cranston came ashore on Omaha Beach on June 8, 1944, two days after D-Day. They took some German artillery fire as they approached the coast but most had been either knocked out or pushed inland by that point. They moored at a portable pier that had been set up.
    The wreckage of D-Day was still apparent and the beachhead was still a precarious place. Land contact between Omaha and Utah beaches was tenuous and the beach area was occasionally bombed by the Germans. Cranston, who was a Signal Corps officer, had noted they had a terrible time with telephone poles. The Germans would bomb stacks of the poles and splinters would fly everywhere.
    Cranston finished the war on the bank of the Elbe River when American troops met the Russians, who had been advancing from the east.
    After VE day, Cranston, who had planned to go into civilian broadcasting after the war, took some leave and went to Paris to visit the Armed Forces Network (AFN) radio station there. It turned out that the station’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Hayes, knew Cranston’s father and gave him a tour.
    Cranston returned to his outfit and, a week later, was told that he would go back to the States to take over a company headed for the Pacific. Shortly after that, Cranston’s Commanding Officer called him in.
    “I didn’t give you leave to go to find another assignment,” he said, angrily throwing a set of orders across his desk. The orders assigned him to the AFN station in Paris and were signed by General Eisenhower.
    “I guess he outranks you, Major,” Cranston said after looking at the signature.
    That began Cranston’s 30 year career in military public affairs.  His military career included command of the Armed Forces Radio and TV Service station at Los Angeles and a tour of duty with the Assistant Secretary of Defense as the Deputy for Armed Forces Radio and Television, as well as a stint at the Pentagon as the chief of the Army’s Radio-TV Branch Office.
    Cranston also got involved with network television. During the ‘50s, as a major, he was in charge of radio and TV at the Army’s New York Office of Information. While there, he served as the Army consultant for the Phil Silvers Show, a situation comedy with an Army setting.
    “I’d occasionally get a growl from the Pentagon,” he said in a 2001 interview.
    One of those concerned an episode in which a chimpanzee was being court-martialed. Phil Silvers’ character, Sergeant Bilko, was the chimp’s defense counsel. Somebody from the Pentagon called and told Cranston that an enlisted man can’t be a defense counsel.
    “It was a farce,” said Cranston. “You can’t court martial a chimp either. I couldn’t believe it!”
    Cranston’s career success was the product of his  ability, but there were occasions when circumstances beyond his control frustrated his plans, ultimately to his benefit. At the beginning of World War II, he had tried to get in the Army Air Corps as a flying cadet. He was accepted, pending the outcome of a physical, and the guys in his unit gave him a big send-off party. The physical didn’t go well. He flunked the vision portion of  the physical exam because his depth perception was off and had to go back to his old unit to tell the guys the bad news.
    “I couldn’t believe I had flunked the physical!” he had said.
    His military career would have probably been very short if that had not happened. Almost all the men in the class that Cranston would have been part of were given minimal training and sent to the Pacific to fight Japanese Zeros. Most of these men were killed.
    Cranston retired in 1973. His career accomplishments were nationally recognized. On Feb. 1, 2001, the U. S. Army ,during its World Wide Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D. C. , inducted him into the Army Public Affairs Hall of Fame. While on active duty he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Army’s highest award for meritorious service, an award normally only given to generals. He also received the Purple Heart — he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge  — and the Bronze Star for his service in combat during World War II.
    The Distinguished Service Medal came as the result of his actions while commanding the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), headquartered in Los Angeles, Calif., which reached more than two million U-S military personnel in 35 countries and at dozens of U.S. Navy ships at sea. While in command, Col. Cranston negotiated an agreement with the three major radio and TV networks, and their unions, to provide their programs free of charge to the thousands of troops stationed around the world, via AFRTS.
    Cranston died just shy of his 20th wedding anniversary. He had moved to the Smith Mountain Lake area in 1982 and, later, he and his wife, Sandy, met at a grief support group. He was a new widower and she was a new widow. The two shared politics in common. Col. Cranston served as chairman of the Bedford County Republican Party in the 1980s and his wife later served as the party’s chairman. Cranston also served several terms and vice-chairman of the 5th Congressional District Republican Party.
    She describes the marriage as a wonderful experience.
    “We went to Europe a number of times,” she said. “I was just a small town redneck.”
    She also went to military reunions with him and was always pleased to see the respect he received from his peers.
    Sandy Cranston said that her husband had given her a medical directive in case he ended up unable to make his own medical care decisions. Fortunately, she didn’t have to do that. He was able to make his own decisions up to the end.
    “We brought him home Friday,” she said.
    “He was so excited coming home,” she added. “I wish he could have stayed longer.”
    Arrangements, which have not been finalized as of press time, are being handled by Burch-Messier Funeral Home. Sandy Cranston said that these will include a celebration of life She added that people who would like to come should check the Burch-Messier Web site for details.
    Later, Col. Cranston will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.