Boy Scout to Colonel
By Jana E. Pye, Editor, email@example.com
If you have lived in Darlington County long enough, eventually you will hear about U.S. Air Force retired Colonel Roland “Rocky” J. Gannon.
And if you are lucky enough, you have met him yourself.
Many locals know the stories he has shared through the years of serving our country in World War II, joining the Air Force in 1941 at 17 and becoming a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot – before he had even driven a car- to a 37 year career flying six-thousand hours in thirty-four different aircrafts, from bombers to transports, from gliders to fighters. Rocky is highly decorated with fifty military awards including the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, ten Air Medals, four Meritorious Service Medals and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm.
Veterans across the Pee Dee may know that he flew as a combat pilot in World War II, Korea, the Belgian Congo and 387 combat missions in Vietnam. After World War II, he served three years in the occupation of Iwo Jima and Japan. Fifteen of his 37 years of active duty were served overseas. Upon his retirement from the Air Force in 1980, he became an International Aviation Consultant. Later, he became the Executive Director of the Florence, South Carolina Regional Airport, retiring in 1993.
Can anyone guess what he attributes all this to?
The kind funeral director that was a mentor to him, and urged him to be a Boy Scout.
“I was born on the mainland in Palermo New Jersey,” said Gannon. “It was just a country area, probably 75 to 100. I was born on the kitchen table, and that’s a story in it’s own. My Dad called – we had a family doctor over on the island of Ocean City, which was a city. It was a Sunday, and the doctor came over. We had nothing but a fireplace, didn’t have electricity – and had an outhouse, and a pump. It was really crude. The doctor delivered me on the Sunday afternoon March 8, 1925. I was told later that after I was born, the doctor chewed my Dad out. 1925 is not too many years after cars came out. He said, ‘Harry, dammit, if you had gotten a car like everybody else you could’ve brought Loretta, my mother, to Ocean City – four miles away – and I would have delivered this baby for .50 cents. But since I had to come out here in the country, I’m going to have to charge you a dollar.’ So it cost a dollar to deliver me at my house!”
Gannon continued. “The big Depression came. We were behind on the place, my Dad lost his job, and we just lost everything. So we moved to Ocean City, which is a summer resort. At that time, (population was) 4,000 in the winter and got up to 250, 275 thousand in the summer; I was 7 when we went there, and left when I was 17 and went in the military.”
Although Rocky never lived there again, he owns a condominium there, where he enjoys staying in the summer. The locals in Ocean City are proud of him, so much so that they included him in a recent calendar for 2016, and a book entitled “Legends of Ocean City, NJ” placing Rocky on the cover.
“The big thing about that is, I am the number one picture,” said Gannon with a grin. “A couple lines down is Grace Kelly – so I got top booking. She beat me out in the calendar, though; she is June, and Rocky is August.”
Rocky is visiting Ocean City in April to donate his Boy Scout shirt from 1937 to their local museum, which has Ocean City stitched onto the sleeve.
“The scouting thing is a big part of my life. I still carry membership in my wallet. I started 79 years ago.”
“My very first scout meeting was May 6, 1937 in Ocean City. We had a doctor by the name of Dr. Darby and he was going to teach us how to take the neckerchief and use it for a sling if you are camping and break an arm. Or, if you break a leg, how to make a splint- you take newspapers and roll them up to frame it up. While he was talking at the meeting, a N.J. State Trooper came and knocked on the door. Our scoutmaster went to the door, and I saw him make a very serious look at the doctor. The scoutmaster came out and called the doctor over and whispered to him; the doctor apologized and said, ‘I must go, I’ll talk to you later.’ So he went out the door, and the scoutmaster said, “You just saw a short while ago the Hindenburg…it just crashed and burned.”
“Whether that made an impact, or not – I am sure it did. Scouting was so good to me. When my Dad died, he didn’t have a cotton-picking thing. My Dad had I think .37 cents when my mother got his body from the hospital. The funeral director talked to me the day of the funeral, and he said, ‘When you are 12 years old, I want you to be a Boy Scout. The day I turned 12, the funeral home was two doors down from my school. I went over and talk to the scoutmaster. He said he needed to get permission from my mother. She told him we couldn’t afford it, it was about ten cents a month. So he said, ‘I’ll see that he earns the money.’”
“I went by to see him the next day and he said, ‘You are going to be a scout, I’ve taken care of it. You are going to work for me after school. When I have a funeral, you’ll wash the hearses and clean up the outside, shovel snow and all that. I have a little book, I’m going to give you .25 cents an hour and I’ll take .15 cents out for your bills – your dues and uniform, cook kit and all that. Run home and tell your mother that everything is taken care of.’”
“Well, I thought this was neat. I went home, and as I walked in the door my mother told me to hit the light switch. I’m 12 years old and never had electricity; I never messed with the light switch. She said again, turn the light switch. I turned it on. And I said, “God, how’d that happen?”
And she said, ‘The scoutmaster. He had the electricity turned on. I told him I can’t afford it, and he said, ‘Your son is going to pay for it. He’s going to work for me.’”
“So, that has probably been what’s kept me in here for 79 years,” said Gannon, as he tapped the Boy Scout membership card in his wallet with his index finger.
“He had no children, but he made such an impact. I could make almost unlimited money, in my mind, by working for him. He kept books. He gave me some, and he kept some. And we both initialed each time I worked in this book.”
Gannon looked back to the photograph of he in his Boy Scout uniform. “So this is uniform that I am going to dedicate up there in April. I just can‘t explain the things I learned from him, doing stuff like that.”
The skills Rocky learned in Boy Scouts followed him as he went on to the military.
“And when I went to pilot training, everything was Morse code in those days,” he said. “If you are going to go off in a combat zone, you’ve got to have a light to flash a green light. To fly across country, they had towers with things that light up for Florence, FLO you had to know the Morse code. Probably a good 50% of the guys that washed out of pilot training because they couldn’t learn Morse code. But I was a Boy Scout, and already knew it. Then we got into survival, the compass, and all…so many things got me through the military. I hadn’t finished the 11th grade when I went to pilot a plane I had never driven a car, but I flew a four-engine bomber. So, so much came out of scouting and that scoutmaster.”
Rocky and his wife Roberta have been married for 57 years and have three children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
While in the service he earned a Bachelors and Masters degree. On November 11, 2003 Rocky received his Ocean City High School diploma 59 years after he left OCHS.
Rocky served as Boy Scout Leader in Japan, France, Germany, California, Nevada, New Jersey and South Carolina. He also served as President of the Pee Dee Council of Boy Scouts twice and four years as a member of the National Board of Boy Scouts of America. He has four grandsons that are Eagle Scouts, three from Darlington.
“I talk as much as I can about scouting because God knows I had no guidance really. My mother was an invalid; I could’ve been a local gangster, the kid that broke into all these empty houses and stuff. Whenever I ran the Florence airport for 6 or 8 years, somebody came in looking for a job where I had an opening, if I saw that they were an Eagle Scout, they got the job. I didn’t need to look further. To get that far in scouting, you get all those things …from God to working hard.”
I mentioned how inspirational his story must be for young people today, particularly for boys from single mother homes.
“What is there for kids in Darlington? If he has scouts, and he likes the Pinewood Derby, to make a little car, going camping, see all those things got me so excited. And I went for scouting until the night before I went into the military. Everyplace I went, except Iwo Jima places like that, I always worked with Japanese kids. Right after the war, they didn’t have scouting. I was teaching them English, and I was studying Japanese and I would talk about scouting an told them to keep forcing the adults in your life to get scouting going here.”
And the name of the man that made such an impact on Rocky?
“Mr. J. P. Cadman was his name. He was a funeral director, the only one in Ocean City.”
Rocky encourages others to think about mentoring children, particularly ones like him that are being raised by only their mother, as he was as a boy.
“There are so many right here, you know? They talk about helping these kids in Africa and elsewhere…but there’s kids out here just like I was who keep on the out and outs. But I tell you, my poor mother…this guy buried my father for free. My mother was left with only .37 cents with four kids. You learn from that.”
A new website chronicling the life of Rocky Gannon may be found online at:
He will turn 91 years young on March 8, 2016.
Mobile users, please click gallery to view more photos: Rocky Gannon Boy Scout to Colonel