As a long-time prominent Falls Church fixture, Commander U.S. Navy (Ret.) Robert “Hap” Day, “Hap” being a nickname adopted from his father, still lives on the edge of the City and mostly enjoys his retirement, albeit finding it a bit boring.
Before his life of leisure commenced in 1999, Cdr. Day lived all over the world, served his country in WWII and assisted with the growth of our own “Little City.” He is best known locally for his role as executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, which he held for 14 years until 1999.
Born on Oct. 27, 1920 in Philadelphia, Pa., he points out that he shares his birthday with Theodore Roosevelt. As an only child, his parents, Irene a homemaker and sometime secretary and George an engineer for General Electric followed the flow of work. George transferred to a sales position in a suburb of Pittsburgh in 1923, when a slew of engineers were laid off leading up to the Depression.
Continuing his education in the suburbs, Day graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School, an acclaimed Pennsylvania public school in Allegheny County in 1937. “At that time it was one of the ten best nationally,” said Day.
Although his father found employment during the Depression in the United States, Day still lacked the necessary funding to attend a university and hoped to gain admittance to West Point or the United States Naval Academy (USNA), so tuition would not prove prohibitive. Tuition for students, officers-in-training referred to as midshipmen, at the USNA is fully funded by the Navy in exchange for an active duty service obligation upon graduation.
As luck would have it, during his senior year in high school Day’s football coach, Henry Leucht, received a letter from Metropolitan Life asking him to recommend an outstanding student athlete to potentially gain acceptance at a prestigious north east college. Leucht submitted Day’s name.
Following his recommendation, Day met with a manager at Metropolitan Life, Henry Abbot, who happened to be a United States Naval Academy graduate. Thanks to Day’s excellent grades and exceptional performance on the football field, Abbot immediately recognized Day’s potential. Abbot took charge of the boy’s future, arranging for Day to leave Mt. Lebanon High School early and facilitating a transfer to the independent Bullis School.
Founded in 1930 by Commander William F. Bullis as a preparatory school for the United States Naval Academy, the school’s locale at that time was suburban Silver Spring, Maryland. In the 1960s, the school moved to its current location in Potomac, Md.
Upon graduation from Bullis in 1938, Day was again assisted by Abbot, getting him an appointment with a congressman in Washington D.C. At that time a congressional appointment was mandatory to gain acceptance into the United States Naval Academy. Arriving in D.C. Day never actually met with the congressman, but instead encountered Rip Miller, then the line coach for Navy.
Rip Miller turned out to be Navy’s master football recruiter. He’s known for running a very effective “birddog” or recruiting program, which led Navy to many winning seasons and post-season bowl games. Miller served as football coach and later Assistant Athletic Director at Navy for 46 years.
In addition to his impressive position as line coach at Navy, Miller also happened to be a former roommate of a congressman from Iowa, whom he met when attending Notre Dame. This connection served Day well and with Miller’s influence Day won the congressional appointment allowing him entry into the United States Naval Academy.
Day entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, in June of 1938. For three years he excelled academically as well as thriving on the football field while playing guard.
Graduation came too quickly in 1941. Normally midshipmen graduated in June, but due to the shortage of U.S. junior officers needed during wartime, the academy began expediting the graduation process. So instead of 1942, Day’s accelerated graduated date became Dec. 19, 1941. Although the class graduated ahead of schedule, they were still commissioned as ensigns and considered part of the graduating class of 1942. Day continues to function as the class secretary, just as he has done for the past 40 years.
In most cases a newly ordained ensign goes directly to a ship after commissioning, serving as a division officer. An ensign may also receive one to two years of specialty training prior to reporting to an operational unit.
Day expected to be assigned to a Naval Ship and join in the fight against Japan and Germany. But surprisingly, Day’s assignment took a more academic turn. Instead of heading to a ship, Day was one of 25 sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The fresh graduates were not given any details regarding their mysterious new assignment.
“At MIT we worked on a highly secret project,” said Day.
The undisclosed task turned out to be in the implementation of the Navy utilizing radar.
“In those days no one talked about radar,” said Day.
The ensign’s goal involved employing radar in tracking the movement of ships and aircraft. Working with MIT scientists, the sailors assisted with the practical aspects of radar, actual implementation of the science for military use in protecting ships and locating enemy aircraft. Day continued with radar research successfully at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.
In May of 1942, Day relocated to the Navy Submarine Base in Key West, Florida and then continued on to Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. By that November, he was assigned to the “Porpoise” at Mare Island Shipyard, which patrolled the coast of Japan on what was called the “empire watch.”
After touring the coast the ship overhauled at Pearl Harbor in 1943. It was after that when Day’s ship engaged in combat with a Japanese destroyer. As the ship’s diving officer, Day’s efforts lead the ship to safety and out of harm’s way, while under fire from the Japanese. For his exceptional work, Day earned a Bronze Star.
According the U.S. Department of Defense the Bronze Star medal is awarded to individuals who, while serving in or with the military of the United States, distinguish themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force.
After the conflict, Day was ordered back to New London and assigned to a sister ship, the “Pike.” In 1944 Day took command of the “0-10,” a WWI submarine used in training.
“At the young age of 23, I was the youngest submarine captain in WWII,” said Day.
After spending the next few years in Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, California and Australia, in 1947 Day finally returned to D.C. to attend Naval Intelligence School. During the next two years there Day learned to speak Russian.
While there in 1948, Day married Clara Lee Moore in a ceremony at the Naval Academy. Day had met Moore on a blind date while in Hawaii. Moore had just graduated from the Lucy Webb Hayes School of Nursing at Sibley Hospital.
Since she trained to be an Army nurse, with the war’s end, Moore found herself open to other ventures. With four classmates, Moore and her friends decided to work their way around the world. Moore made it only as far as Hawaii, working at Queens Hospital, when she met Day.
When Day graduated from Naval Intelligence School in 1949 he was assigned as a naval attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Russia. So in 1950 he and his new wife left for a new adventure. Working in Russia, Day’s every movement was monitored by the KGB. Constantly tailed, regular Russians were friendly, but afraid to talk to him. If he attempted conversation with a Russian the KGB would intercede.
“The average Russian was scared to death to talk to foreigners cause they’d get the hell kicked out of them by the KGB so we were pretty much isolated,” said Day.
His wife returned to her family’s home in Cumberland, Md. in 1955 to give birth to their son Kurt. Day also returned to the states, coming to D.C. to be debriefed after accidently locating a new Soviet cruiser that no one knew existed while out on a social voyage with his wife and some friends to visit Peterhof, a series of palaces and gardens.
In 1953 Day left Russia for good, entering Naval War College in Newport and also celebrated the birth of daughter Julie. The following year Day served as Executive Officer of the “Miller” in Newport.
After being deployed to Lebanon he took command of the “Mansfield” where he traveled to Greece and on to Malta. Once in Malta, Day turned over command, flew back to Newport and took command of the “Basilone.”
A year after the birth of Julie in 1955 in Bethesda, Day was ordered to CINCPAC staff. Prior to 2002, the Office of the Commander was known as the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC).
With the birth of his daughter Nan in 1956 Day spent the next four years with his family in Hawaii where his duties involved war planning as part of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an international organization for collective defense. The formal institution of SEATO was established at a meeting of treaty partners in Bangkok in February 1955. It was primarily created to block further communist gains in Southeast Asia and as a platform for the U.S. to prepare for the upcoming conflict in Vietnam.
Then in 1960 Day returned to work at the Pentagon and settled down, purchasing the house he still lives in to this day in on Shreve Road in Falls Church. In June of 1962 Day retired after 24 years of honorable naval service.
With four children to support, Day joined Acacia Life Insurance Company, working in financial planning until 1985.
In 1985 Day’s experience came to directly benefit Falls Church, acting as both president and CEO of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, a role he held until June 30, 1999.
A close friend of the News-Press since its founding in 1991, he began to co-host News-Press radio and TV shows in 1992, continuing until 2009. Now almost 90, Commander Day graced the office of the News-Press at the celebration of its 1,000 edition last month.
Although now officially retired, Day continues to write for “Shipmate” the USNA alumni magazine. Upon visiting the alumni website and opening the homepage for the United States Naval Academy Class of 1942 it states that 563 graduated on 12/19/1941, 44 died due to enemy action and 196 are still going.
Thankfully for the Falls Church community and its future, Commander “Hap” Day is one of the officers definitely still going strong.