100 years of wisdom: Two World War II veterans become centenarians

Rosalia Scalia
Posted 2/22/24

Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years and woke up to a drastically changed world. For two World War II (WWII) Veterans celebrating their 100 th and 101 st birthdays, respectively, they didn’t have …

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100 years of wisdom: Two World War II veterans become centenarians


Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years and woke up to a drastically changed world. For two World War II (WWII) Veterans celebrating their 100th and 101st birthdays, respectively, they didn’t have to go to sleep to see drastic changes in the world.

Changes from horse and buggies to cars, from trains to airplanes, from large mainframe computers to handheld devices, Veterans—James W. Smith and Alexander E. Vroblesky who have turned 100 and 101 respectively—have experienced these changes in their lifetime with help from the VA Maryland Health Care System.

“Without the VA Maryland Health Care System, my dad would probably be in a nursing home, and he might not still be alive,” said Ginny Vroblesky, the daughter of Alexander E. Vroblesky who also is his caregiver. “His primary care doctor has advised and provided the necessary supplies to enable me to take care of him. We were able to get a wheelchair accessible van because of his combat related injuries and the work [physical therapy].”

Audrey Smith, the daughter of James W. Smith, echoes the sentiment. Although her father remains active, still working as an assistant pastor, she said, “From the emergency room staff to various specialty personnel and the inpatient hospital staff, all have worked together to focus on the right care plan for his specific needs, given his age. Anything he needed, for example to hear better, has been provided. A stair lift is on the way, and I hope a ramp will follow soon!”

“These oldest patients can have medically complex issues,” said Dr. Saeeduddin Khan, one of the lead providers of the GeriPACT team who serves the older patients at the VA Maryland Health Care System. “Our goal is to do what is best for the Veterans’ wellbeing. At this age, the focus is to maintain a good quality of life as long as possible.”

For Khan, this means reducing the need for hospital and long-term care services by maintaining good health and promoting preventive care. It also means not relying on a plethora of medicines that could bring about unwelcomed side effects. “Every medicine has side effects. Sometimes by giving medicines to patients at this age to solve one problem, it creates a series of other problems due to the side effects,” Khan said.

Born in Oxford, North Carolina, the oldest of eight children, Rev. James W. Smith who turned 100 on Nov. 6, 2023, grew up on a farm before being drafted into the Army, the first time in 1942, and the second time in 1947. In the Army, he worked in food service as a dietician and recalled having to cook for servicemen who tried to avoid combat by “messing up their stomachs.” One of his jobs was to drive a truck to the train to unload food supplies. “I have never seen so much food in my life,” Smith said.

He married Mary Alice Royster in 1950, and they had two daughters, Belendia and Audrey. He said that he appreciated the long-term benefits of his service in the military. “As a result of my service, I was able to gain access to education, health care and other services that improved my life and that of my family,” he said. “I’ve been coming to the VA since my first discharge in 1946 in North Carolina, and later, here in Maryland, after moving to Baltimore.”

After his first tour, Rev. Smith used the GI Bill to pay for classes in farming and became familiar with the health care services VA provided. When he realized that farming did not allow him to sustain his family, he moved to Baltimore in 1953 and sought jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Rev. Smith credits all his success to his relationship with God and heeding the call to enter the ministry, matriculating into the Morris Brown Seminary in North Carolina, earning his license to preach in 1957, and becoming ordained in 1959. After several years of dedicated service on the ministerial staffs of a handful of churches, he heeded a second call to organize the Little Antioch Baptist Church in Baltimore, which later become Second Antioch Baptist Church where he served as pastor for 42 years. After retiring, Smith continued to mentor pastors, preachers and young adults.

Rec. Smith, who gave up driving just before his 100th birthday, continued his education over the years, attending the Baltimore School of the Bible, the Maryland Extension of Morris College, Morgan State University, the United Baptist Missionary Convention Baptist Center of Religion, and Washington College, among other institutions where he went to quench his thirst for knowledge and his effort to show others the love of God first and foremost.

“I want people to see the importance of having a good relationship with God first, then your family and friends, and those you with work with, and so on. Then you will have a happy life because of all your positive relationships,” he said, noting that when he retired from pastoring in 2004 to take care of his ailing wife, God promised him that he’d see his 100th year.

Despite his first retirement, Smith never stopped preaching. Recently, he preached the day before his 100th birthday and now currently serves as assistant pastor at a Dundalk church where he will again be doing what he loves: serving God by serving others.

Alexander E. Vroblesky celebrated his 101st birthday on October 19, 2023. Born in Highland, Pennsylvania, he graduated from Foster Township High School in 1941 and came to Baltimore to work as riveter in the Glenn L. Martin plant. In Baltimore, he met the young woman who would become his wife, Virginia Walker, a West Virginia native, when he was sitting on the Ponca Street Bridge and saw a fire truck hurrying across, followed by a beautiful woman.

“She was chasing the fire truck because she came from a small town in West Virginia and had never seen a fire truck before. She was interested in the truck, and I was interested in her,” he said.

Vroblesky enlisted in the Army in 1942, training first at Fort Meade and then Camp McClellan in Alabama before being accepted into Air Cadet training to become a pilot. He then became a member of the 15th Air Force, 485th Bomb Group, 829th Bomb Squadron, stationed in Italy. “Back then, the Air Corps was part of the Army,” he said. 

He arrived at his first duty station in Italy in early August and had taken part in a handful of missions. In September, as a co-pilot of a B-24 on a bombing mission over Greece, his plane became disabled after another B-24 flying in front exploded, sending debris into and damaging his aircraft, causing them to lose control and forcing the crew to bail out. 

“Most of us were captured, and we became German POWs,” he said. “We were paraded through the streets of Salonika as North American Terror Flyers. Eventually, the prisoners were loaded onto a train to be transported into Germany. But near Mitrovica, Yugoslavia, while the prisoners were out of the train, the Chetniks came down from the hills and fought with the Germans. Someone yelled “Run!” and the prisoners took off in all directions. “Our aim was to get back to the allied forces, and we walked and sometimes got rides from Yugoslavians. We had to move at night,” he said. 

Eventually, it was the Bulgarians that helped him rejoin the allies, but the prisoners were in tough shape and were taken for medical treatment.  He had endured three months of captivity.

This harrowing experience did not deter Vroblesky from returning to duty once he recovered. He spent 20 years in the Air Force, stationed with his family at various bases throughout the United States and elsewhere. He particularly enjoyed serving as a training and personnel officer, helping to shape the futures of young Airmen. His favorite assignment was as Commandant of the 313th Air Division Military Academy at Kadena, Okinawa.

“My experience in the military has been adventurous and exciting. I would have stayed longer except for the reduction in force in 1962,” he said. 

After his discharge, he and Virginia stayed in Annapolis, where they raised their three children. He continued his commitment to serving people with a 30-year career as a real estate salesman. Many people still remember him from his efforts on their behalf, even though he has been retired for more than 30 years. He and Virginia were married for 72 years until her death at age 94 in 2017.

Reflecting on his life, he said: “The phrase ‘surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life’ is appropriate for me.  His favorite phrase is “Every day is a good day,” a motto that has been adopted by his children and grandchildren.

“Caring for our older Veterans, including those who have just turned 100, is a testament to our gratitude and respect for their service,” said Jona DeVera, coordinator for Outpatient Antimicrobial Therapy. “It’s an honor to serve them.”

The VA Maryland Health Care System offers specialized programs for eligible elderly Veterans. These services include home and community services, long-term care, fitness and rehabilitation, caregiver support, mental health, memory loss and brain health, medical foster homes, and many more innovative programs that promote health and wellness.

— Rosalia Scalia is the public affairs specialist for VA Maryland Health Care System.

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