At 98, a pilot who fought the Nazis urges unity against the coronavirus

Benjamin Rollason, 98, was a pilot and trainer in Britain’s Royal Air Force during WWII. It was on a furlough to Detroit while training pilots in Canada that he met the woman who would become his wife. Benjamin and Pearl Rollason were married for 74 years. (Courtesy photo) 

Since the middle of March, 98-year-old Benjamin Rollason has locked himself in self-isolation in his Farmington Hills condo, tapping out his memoir on an iPad. 

He knows his age along with earlier bouts of pneumonia make him especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. He also knows that if he contracts the virus, he would be the odd man out if doctors had to choose which patient got the last ventilator.

“I’m resigned to that,” Rollason said. “If ever I was unfortunate enough, I know I couldn’t survive it. I have a no resuscitation clause in my will. Just keep me comfortable.”

Just 17 months past the death of his wife Pearl, Rollason is fighting his loneliness with words he hopes can help friends, mostly in Michigan, and relatives, mostly in England, suffering some of the emotions that are pestering his psyche today.

Benjamin Rollason is writing his memoirs for his relatives back in England. He sees parallels between the fearsome bombings by German warplanes of his hometown in England and the grip that the coronavirus holds over families across America today. (Photo by Benjamin Rollason) 

He compares the coronavirus to war; a topic in which he carries some authority, having lived through Nazi bombings as a young man just outside Birmingham, England and as a Royal Air Force pilot. 

From his writings: 

“I am very close to 100 years old and have experienced many things in my lifetime. 

“Apart from WWII when I lived in England, this pandemic concerns me the most. It is equivalent to WWIII. I endured the bombings, when I was a pilot in the RAF for four years. I never expected to survive the war because at the time it seemed endless. But because people of the civilized world pitched in and concentrated on fighting the enemy, however difficult that was, we got through it.” 

Rollason is long retired as an architect and designer, including of many Catholic suburban Detroit churches and schools from the 1950s and 1960s.

“Americans have endured and overcome many adversities, but they have not experienced the actual invasion of their own shores. Now we are confronted with such a circumstance — it is literally on our doorstep.” - Benjamin Rollason, Farmington Hills

With winter’s grip relenting, Rollason misses preparing his small garden space for flowers, or heading to a nearby Oakland County golf course to whack a few balls. He proudly recalls he was once president of the Detroit Architects Golf League.

Inside his condo, what he watches on television seems like a rewind of what he saw yesterday, or the day before or the week before that. He cooks his own meals and has had to suspend a twice-monthly cleaning service during the outbreak.

"I'm stuck in the house with no visitors and it gets pretty lonesome," he said. But the precautions are necessary, he writes, in the fight to stay safe.

“Americans have endured and overcome many adversities, but they have not experienced the actual invasion of their own shores. Now we are confronted with such a circumstance — it is literally on our doorstep.”

On Saturday, he finished his latest essay, which he titled “Reflections,” contrasting the war years in his hometown 80 years ago, with today’s events. 

As a young man of 20, he recalled “the frightening howl” of air raid sirens signaling the approach of German planes. One night, an incendiary or firebomb bounced off the roof of his family’s home. The German warplanes were lighting the way for larger bombers aiming to destroy Birmingham’s manufacturing complex.

“This went on night after night right after supper. We did not know if one of those missiles may have our name on it. 

Rollason sees echoes in the contagion that now keeps people huddled indoors. 

Now, we are under a different kind of siege, one no less dangerous. ...This is a silent killer. We can be infected before we know it.”

He said he is working to finish his memoir so nieces and nephews and their children in England, where he was born in 1921, can learn more about their Uncle Ben.

A boyhood fascination with airplanes led him to join the Royal Air Force, where he excelled in training and expected to fly dangerous combat missions against Adolf Hitler’s forces. Instead he was made an instructor and eventually sent to train Canadian Air Force pilots. It was on a furlough when he was in Toronto that he took a bus to Detroit and met Pearl on a blind date and instantly knew she was the one. 

They married four months later. The union lasted 74 years. 

In June, Benjamin Rollason will turn 99. His memory is good and, as he reminisced, the right words came easily. After briefly protesting that he hadn’t shaved in a week, Rollason texted a selfie from his cell phone. 

These days, he is thinking a lot about how nations in crisis find common purpose. In one recent essay, titled “Crisis,” Rollason writes about America’s need to unify against the coronavirus. And he shows little patience for partisanship. 

“In WWII, we all pulled together and helped our neighbor. That was our number one goal. Who cares who’s at fault at this moment? IT IS HERE among us, there will be enough time in the future for blame and recriminations.”

For now, he writes, keep any criticism constructive and, for goodness sake, stop hoarding items from grocery shelves. 

Because Benjamin Rollason hopes to make it to 100.

RESOURCES:

Michigan Health Watch is made possible by generous financial support from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Michigan Association of Health Plans, and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. The monthly mental health special report is made possible by generous financial support of the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Please visit the Michigan Health Watch 'About' page for more information.

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Comments

Anonymous
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 5:12am

This brave war hero is absolutely correct. Heed his warning that we must treat this like a full-blown war. Urge your elected representatives from the top, president, down, your local mayor to act. Stay in your house, unless it is absolutely necessary to leave. The virus took the life of this young man, 19 without underlying health problems.

https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2020/03/31/news/revealed_very_healthy_i...

Case after case people who are sick are being told to go home instead of being treat because we are short of everything, from testing to PPE to ventilators. Now is not to time to procrastinate. Where are the five minute tests? Sick people are waiting weeks for test results. Urge the president to use the FULL FORCE of the DEFENSE PRODUCTION ACT and produce all the necessary equipment to fight this war ASAP. Therapies and vaccines take time to develop, but there is no excuse for our lack of equipment. We have known about this now for months. Healthcare workers that we so gravely need are dying trying to rescue the sick.

All hands on deck, everyone needs to do their part, even if it means ONLY staying at home. The more stubborn and willfully ignorant people are the more this virus spreads. Otherwise we need lots of help. Trained people need to work the ventilators and intubate patients. Lastly, convince your family and friends across the country to TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY.

Todd
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 11:25am

Yet still more people will die of the flu and heart disease.

Anonymous
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 4:41pm

Todd, I hope you are right, but there is absolutely NO evidence for your claim.

You talk like Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, who is now in the ICU struggling to breathe while kicking himself in the butt for making such dumb claims, claims very similar to yours. Karma, just sayin.

Do you not see the strain on our hospitals now because of COVID-19? Those strains never happen with typical seasonal flu. We are all at exponentially greater risk with COVID-19 because of how contagious it is, a virus killing someone every 2.5 minutes in NYC.

Kyle
Wed, 04/08/2020 - 10:17am

Actually he is absolutely correct - To date, coronavirus has killed far less people in the USA than a bad flu season, and now we are supposedly over the "curve" - If this continues, it won't be as bad as the flu.............

Kevin Grand
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 10:32am

Interesting piece.

It's good to be reminded that despite the adversity which occurred back then, people didn't lock themselves away from society, they persevered.

They didn't buy into what Axis Sally was telling them.

And wouldn't you know it, life went on.

Anonymous
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 4:45pm

Kevin: "people didn't lock themselves away from society" unless they were Jewish. Way to totally miss the message of Mr Rollason. Where did you serve, tough guy?

Kevin Grand
Tue, 04/07/2020 - 9:54am

Are you honestly implying that people just stayed in their homes and waited for the government to send them a check while they waited for the Nazi's to finish attacking them?

Anonymous
Tue, 04/07/2020 - 4:16pm

Are you honestly implying that you are a patriot because you want people to infect others?

Schooler
Tue, 04/07/2020 - 4:22pm

Kevin, we notice you didn't answer whether you served. Do you think business was open in Europe during WW2? I wasn't people spent most of their time in bomb shelters. Look at any country in the world at war and you will not see businesses open.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 04/08/2020 - 11:54am

I'm flattered that you guys think so highly, but just so that there isn't any confusion;

No, I wasn't out killing redcoats.

No, I didn't kill redcoats the second time around.

Ditto for Santa Anna.

No, I didn't take on the Confederacy.

I didn't go against the Spanish.

I didn't fight the Kaiser.

I didn't participate in the Banana Wars.

And WWII, That was Mr. Rollason's generation, not mine. I wasn't even born yet.

But I have read up on those eras. And if people curled up into a ball and daily life ground to a complete halt as you mistakenly claim repeatedly, then all of Europe would be speaking a mix of German and Italian right now.

Learn some history before you make any more asinine comments.

Todd
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 11:24am

I'm willing to unite and help anyone just as long as they aren't liberal, lefties, or far lefty democrats.

Paul
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 2:54pm

Todd, you are speaking like one of them. Conservatives help anyone who is truly in need no matter who they are.

Now, if you want to debate whether those dems and lefty wack jobs are in any sort of need, we can do that. IMHO the only thing they are in need of is to start school over again at kindergarten or 1st grade and pay attention in world and USA history this time around + take an economics class... After that they should try working for a living

Anonymous
Tue, 04/07/2020 - 10:41am

Paul, do you still have faith in Trump that he's doing a good job, think he's a stable genius?

Paul
Wed, 04/08/2020 - 10:19am

I have faith in no man - I *do* however have faith in the patriotism that still exists in this country and it is great to see how many new gun owners there are. This country is overdue for a civil war. These bureaucratic and liberal minded crap is far overdue for fire control.

Anonymous
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 4:46pm

Fool!

Not sure
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 6:20pm

Todd, do you still have faith in Trump and think he is doing a good job?

Facts Matter
Tue, 04/07/2020 - 10:44am

Todd and Paul talk tough, but they'll both be big crybabies thanking the lefty doctors and nurses saving their sorry lives, thanking also God for public education!

Ira
Wed, 04/08/2020 - 10:21am

That is only true if Todd and Paul are 80 year olds with underlying health conditions, which I highly doubt. If they were, they would be dying in one of the upcoming flu seasons anyway, so yeah.... There's that fact.... Do you feel awkward now?

Carl
Mon, 04/06/2020 - 2:51pm

This is in no way equivalent to WWII. Yes it is true that we are fighting for our freedom but we are fighting the state, not the virus. Yes it is true that people are dying but they are not 18 year old military recruits, they are mostly old and sick who were going to die from something else in the near future if not from the chinese virus. Yes there are outliers who are young or have no underlying health conditions but this is a tiny percentage of the deaths and not statistically relevant. Leave it to a Brit to compare old people dying from a chinese virus to young military recruits dying for the freedom of their countrymen.... Ugh