Distinguished Alumnus
Charter Class of 2013
Robert "Popeye" Pullen
(July 31, 1919 – August 31, 1943)

AHS Class of 1938

Just as Robert “Popeye” Pullen is considered by many to be the greatest football player to wear the Arcola uniform, we must also remember Seaman First Class Robert Harold Pullen as one of our local military heroes. He was born in Arcola, the eighth of thirteen children of Harvey W. and Myrtle Hood Pullen. He attended Arcola schools, graduating with the Class of 1938. While he excelled in basketball, baseball and track throughout high school, Popeye, as he was known throughout the Okaw Valley, will long be remembered for his feats on the gridiron. He was a four-year standout on the legendary 1934-1937 football teams with a 32-1-1 record and a 33 game winning streak that included the final five wins of the 1933 season. Pullen excelled against Tuscola and the Purple Riders held their rival scoreless all four years. Pullen was a fast and powerful Honorable Mention All-State running back, defensive back and linebacker. In an era of low scoring defensive games, his offensive totals are amazing. He scored 34 touchdowns and 20 extra points, most by kicking, for a total of 224 points. Records for rushing totals are incomplete, but he gained about 2,000 yards on teams loaded with other great backs and many outstanding linemen. It was reported the 6 feet 2 inch, 190 lbs. “triple threat artist” was his teammates’ unanimous choice for captain of their 1937 Purple Rider football team. In more recent years, Popeye’s teammates related he was able to kick the ball over the goal post on the kick off. He was also no stranger to hard work, hauling coal in the winter and delivering ice door to door in the summer for the Pullen family trucking business. Robert was a member of First Christian Church of Arcola.

Robert enlisted in the Navy on June 12, 1940 and received his boot camp training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Chicago, IL. Seaman First Class Pullen was assigned to the USS Houston in September 1940. During peacetime, he was a crane operator on the heavy cruiser ship. In battle, his size and strength proved to be valuable as he loaded 50 lbs. shells into the 5-inch anti-aircraft guns. The Houston faced a major Imperial Japanese Navy force late in the night of February 28, 1942, and was lost in the fierce Battle of Sunda Strait in the Java Sea early in the morning of March 1, 1942. Of the 1,065 men aboard the Houston, 697 were killed as the ship sank or were shot in the water. Pullen was one of just 368 to survive the battle by swimming to shore. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese and subsequently sent to a series of POW camps in Java, Singapore and Burma, where he was chosen by his American Lieutenant to supervise his fellow POWs. The Pullen family learned Popeye was missing on March 15, 1942. In January 1943, Pullen and other prisoners were sent to Burma to work on the infamous Burma-Thailand railroad. As a prisoner in the 100 Kilo POW camp, he was deprived of proper nutrition, sanitation and medical attention, and as a result of the neglect and brutality of the Japanese, a minor leg injury developed into a tropical ulcer. Popeye died of septicemia on August 31, 1943, eighteen months after his capture. The Pullen family did not learn of Popeye’s imprisonment in Burma until December 1943 and they were finally notified of his death on September 21, 1945.

The body of Seaman First Class Robert Harold Pullen was first buried in the Japanese 100 Kilo POW camp in Burma. Arcola’s first Gold Star Hero of World War II was finally returned home for interment in Arcola Cemetery on June 4, 1948. Mayor J.V. Fishel requested Arcola flags be flown at half-staff for two days and also asked local businesses to close while Pullen’s funeral services were conducted in the Arcola Christian Church. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, Ghere-Pullen-Reinheimer Post No. 7862, administered full military rights at the graveside. The Arcola VFW post had chosen their name to honor Pullen in 1946. Robert Pullen was posthumously awarded The Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, American Defense Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, Victory Medal World War II, Bronze Star, Philippine Defense Medal, U.S. Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon and Philippine Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon.

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Last Revision November 10, 2017