Skip to content



Retired CSM recalls Ft. Devens and a long military career


DEVENS — At an Open House at the Fort Devens Museum, Trustee Charles Gordon introduced guest speaker Robert Delia of Pepperell as a “soldier’s soldier” who became a “veterans’ veteran.”

Delia was a command sergeant major in the U.S. Army at Fort Devens when he retired 32 years ago, concluding a 30-year military career. Still a commanding figure today at 83, it seems fitting when old comrades call him “sergeant major.” Fellow members of the Combat Infantrymen’s Association, Inc., New England Regiment, for example.

Band of brothers

Interviewed at an Association meeting at Devens several years ago, Delia and other veterans who served with him in Vietnam said their war experiences were similar to those depicted in the TV mini series “Band of Brothers” and that the title fit them, too. Borrowing the banner, they pegged Delia for the character played by actor Mel Gibson.

In his recent talk at the museum, Delia sketched his military resume and shared career highlights. He served in Korea and Vietnam and was stationed at Fort Devens three times. During his final stint, he was the top non-commissioned officer on the base.

Youthful patriot

Delia was 17 when he enlisted in the Army in 1948 after WWII, during the Japanese occupation. “It was pretty good duty,” he said, though the Army was short of everything, such as equipment and money. But this “relaxed” period didn’t last long.

In June, 1950, the Korean conflict began. He was ordered back to base. From general headquarters in Tokyo, he was sent to Korea.

He had made corporal out of Intelligence School but hadn’t counted on going into combat. “We didn’t sign up for a war!” he said.

When he got to Seoul, family members were being evacuated in C-47 transport planes. Called “gooney birds” by the Army and DC3s by the airlines, the plane was a big, ungainly craft, “shaky and noisy,” he said.

Delia’s destination was “mountain country,” where there were no roads. Soldiers were told there were no tanks, either. But that information proved faulty.

“Suddenly we heard loud snapping noises,” he said. Ensconced in a Russian T-34, the enemy opened fire with 85mm machine guns. “We went to ground,” he said. North Korea had tanks after all.

Delia was in the 5th regiment, an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. “By the end of July, the commander had been hit and I was moved up to platoon sergeant.” Then he, too, was wounded. “I got the Purple Heart then,” he said, referring to a medal awarded to soldiers wounded in combat. “In Vietnam, too.”

His one-year tour in Korea had stretched to 14 months when he was wounded and ended in August, 1951. He decided to stay in the Army, however. And he got married.

Tough job

of an Army wife

Delia’s wife of 51 years died six years ago, a loss still keenly felt. Her job as an Army wife was tough, he said. When he went away, she stayed home without help. “The Army takes care of you,” he said, but wives were on their own. He said he placed a plaque for her at the Cathedral of the Pines, one of many honoring Army wives at the WWII memorial in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

In Korea when

he heard the news

Delia was in an Army mess hall in Korea when he heard he had been assigned to Fort Devens, where he would soon move with his wife.

Delia’s move to Fort Devens in 1958 marked a turning point in his life. “We’d never heard of it,” he said. After a repeat tour in Korea, he came back to Devens.

In 1967, Delia was promoted and sent to Vietnam, followed by three years in Germany. Then he went back to Fort Devens for a third time, choosing it over West Point. “I had a soft spot for this place,” he said. He had put in 20 years of service and could have retired, but he opted to stay in the Army.

Noting the two smartest things he’s ever done, Delia said number one was his marriage. Number two was staying in the Army. “There are a lot of good things about the service,” he said.

Noting that his brother served in Europe during World War II, Delia said he chose the Infantry when he joined the Army in 1948. “People said I was crazy, but we had newsreels that showed their work,” he said. “I’d do it again.” His fondest wish would be that his wife was still with him. She died six years ago. “She was a better soldier than me,” he said.

Life at Fort Devens was good.

“New England’s a great place, lots went on here,” he said. During his tenure, which lasted through five commanders, the base was home to the Army Intelligence School and the 10th Special Forces.

After retiring, Delia and his wife settled in the area. “We had a great time, good friends,” he said. “New Englanders are hard to get to know,” but the effort was worth it. Originally from Minnesota, Delia put down roots in the Nashoba Valley. He lives in Pepperell.

Training area

Fort Devens was a “big training area” for U.S. troops when he was there, said Delia.

Downsized now to a relatively small sector within the sprawling former base, the Army still has a strong presence at Devens; 40,000 troops trained there last year, Delia said.

He recalled “sadness” when the fort closed. Ironically, “there were U.S. troops still in Germany that could have come here,” he said.

Its history is preserved at the Fort Devens Museum. But creating it was an uphill push. “It was tough to get money,” said Delia. “You see a museum that was 14 years in the making.”

“Lots of people have passed through here,” he continued.

For them, a visit to the museum sparks memories.

Several local people with ties to the former fort attended the open house; more than a few came to Delia’s talk. Real estate agent Audrey Bryce, of Groton, for example. Her father was a guard at the POW camp on Fort Devens around World War II.

Sitting near her was a woman who was a civilian worker at the camp. Most of the 5,000 prisoners were Germans captured in North Africa. They were mostly “benign,” she said, not Nazi SS troops. Often, they were sent to work on local farms.

Two others in the room said they also worked at the Fort Devens POW camp: Mary (Horgan) Cody, of Ayer and Edith (Scarpa) Pasquale, of Clinton.

In an era when men dominated the military, women played a huge role, Delia said. Their contributions will be among those the museum seeks to illuminate.

Looking back

When Delia was stationed at Fort Devens (1958-61, 1963-67, 1973) the former Moore Air Field, which he called “the air strip,” was small but active, he said. Air Force personnel ran the tower and weather station.

As command sergeant major Delia served as “right hand” to the post commander. He was a go-to and facilitator. “I took care of business,” he said, from troops to mess halls. “You didn’t command much of anything, but you had a lot of simple power.” He even advised generals. When it came to “what was right for the troops,” if he didn’t buy an idea, the brass might not, either, he said.

“Enlisted wives did a lot,” Delia went on. In 1958, when the Delias came to Fort Devens, Massachusetts didn’t have public kindergarten. His wife and others campaigned to have one on the base. They went to the general and announced “we’re going to have a kindergarten here,” Delia said. They raised funds, set up in a wing of the old hospital and hired a teacher. “My kids went there.”

When the Department of Education tried to interfere, the general backed the cause, stating the school was on federal property, outside state jurisdiction. Delia nodded sagely. “Wives, that’s where the power was,” he concluded.