Robbie and Joan Robinson
Robbie and Joan Robinson live in Boise. They met in high school and were married just before Robbie was sent overseas. Robbie wrote the book, Navy Wings of Gold about his experiences in World War II and those of other notable veterans such as George H.W. Bush.
Jim: When we talked a couple weeks ago, you talked about being up in Alaska and wanting to join; why did you want to join up and get into this?
Robbie: Well, I had gone to Alaska, of course it was during the depression, and we sailed up in an 18' sailboat, we only had seven and a half dollars when we got there and were gonna live off the land and that was pretty naive because it was wet on the coast and cold in the interior, so by the end of that fall I decided I'd go on and go to the University of Alaska, and made my way to Fairbanks and went up to the president, and told him that I didn't have any money but I'd like to go to school and he says would you clean the blackboards and sweep the floors and there's an old cabin down at the end you can throw out a sleeping bag and there's a stove in there and sign up, so I did. But there's no way I could learn to fly but an army pilot flew in and they were recruiting people to take CPTA training because I guess they figured they needed a pool of flyers sometime and they'd select 20 in the university and that's the only way I'd ever get to learn to fly and I was very fortunate to be selected as one of the 20 and that started me on my flight career and finished that year with a commercial rating.
Jim: How did you end up getting into the service?
Robbie: Well, I got back and I, when the war started we were really impressed with the British holding off the Germans, you know, in the early days of the war, so I volunteered to go into the Eagle squadron, that was Americans that would fly, and I got a letter back saying that they would keep it on file and so I thought it was best, I just had one more year at the university, so I went back to University of Southern California where I had started and had 2 years and ah, graduated in Economics. And I graduated in February but on December 7th I was working for Douglas at nights to pay to finish up my college at USC and so the next day it was logical not to go into the Eagle squadron and so on the 8th, the day after Pearl Harbor, I went and signed up to apply as a naval aviation cadet at the Long Beach Naval Air Station.
Jim: What went through your head when you heard the news about Pearl Harbor.
Robbie: Well, working nights and then going to school full time was very difficult, physically on me, so I'd rest up during the weekends and my folks lived in Long Beach, so I was there for the weekend on Sunday morning and I remember very well the upstairs apartment where they had a condominium and hearing the news over the radio while we were eating breakfast and it was a great shock to us because we knew it was gonna change our lives so as I went back to the University that afternoon, well I drove back up there to go to school again next week, why I realized that the thing for me to do is probably to go down and sign up. That's what everybody, well I wasn't alone you know, people were anxious to get in and do what they could to help.
Jim: It seems like there was that kind of spirit in the country, people heard about what happened and, well obviously people were aware of what was going oversees in Europe and in Africa and Asia and these things, but when the Pearl Harbor attack happened there was a spirit that people really did want to pitch in, sort of what can I do?
Robbie: It was totaled, and we had the recruiting officers were running DSC camps, I remember that Monday morning when I went to class, why they were already out and people were lined up there and I joined what was known as the Navy Flight Squadron after we were chosen from USC, it was just a gimmick because we never saw each other after we finished training, we weren't sure it was a squadron at all but we went into various phases of flight training, but you know, that spirit carried over for the entire 4 or 5 years that the war went on, there was never any question, I begin to wonder now if they had had the television today if we'd ever won that war. It's just a different feel, these women would help and build the ships and worked and we had tremendous curtail was put on in terms of gas and food and a lot of things and I don't remember anybody ever complaining about.
Jim: When you signed up, were you confident that you were going to be able to fly and do all that stuff?
Robbie: Well I hoped that I would, I was more confident than some because I had a commercial rating when I went in there and I've heard tales, you had to fly the Navy way and so I never let on that I was a pilot at all and that was a great advantage to me because I'd get in and say, what's a stick, or what's a rudder, how do you make this thing go, you know, I really felt sorry for the young fellows that got in there and never had any experience in the air, because that was the place of elimination training, when they washed you out, they didn't want to waste time on somebody that didn't have the ability to fly and I got through without a lot of that pressure, and so I gave a lot credit to those fellows that made it without any previous experience or background in flying.
Jim: Where was the first place that you were sent when you were in service and started really getting into it?
Robbie: Well, elimination training was in Long Beach at the Long Beach Naval Air Station, and that lasted about 3 months and then in April I remember I finished my final flight check and was sent to Corpus Christi which was the University of the Air and that was quite an experience because it had just been built and there were 3,000 cadets down there and uh, it was the first time I had been in a, kind of a military environment.
Jim: And then from Corpus Christi where did you go? What was the next stop?
Robbie: Well we went through primary trainings at Corpus Christi and then after primary training we went through basic training and then when we went into our specialized training they asked us what squadron's we wanted to go into and be trained, well that was right after the battle of Midway and all of the torpedo bombers had been knocked down at that battle and they were in need of torpedo pilots and so they asked our class how many would volunteer to go into a torpedo work. And I don't know why, it's kind of a stupid thing to do as I look back on it, but you know, there was about 30 of us stepped forward and we were the first ones every to be trained and specialized torpedo work, before that time all the torpedo pilots had come out of dive bombers and fighters and us, so we went through that specialized training and so I got my wings and then was sent to Opelika Florida for operational training and uh, there I flew some of the remaining planes that the Navy had, that was the first time we were actually got into operational planes.
Jim: We talked about Pearl Harbor and everybody wanting to join and then you talked about being in training when Midway happened, what was it like to be training and in the service and going through all that and hearing about all this stuff that was happening overseas that most likely you were going to be headed to?
Robbie: Well, it was very sobering, I think when we first got in, why it was a big kind of lark and adventure but when we got the reports, you see both Germany and Japan were stronger military powers than we were after Pearl Harbor. And so, here we we're having to fight war on two fronts with forces and equipment that wasn't up to the par as far as the Japanese and the Germans that we had to face, so it was pretty sobering. And yet I don't remember any hesitation, it was just taken for granted that that was what we were to do, so then I was assigned, after qualifying on the carriers, as a carrier pilot and assigned to an operational squadron, VC7 which was organized at Sand Point Naval Air Station in Washington and we got some of the first in Avengers torpedo's and that was the plane that I flew. Ah, as far as combat was concerned that was the plane that I flew on the carriers.
Jim: Now it was sometime right around then that I think, and my chronologically may be a little off here, but sometime right around then you met somebody who ended up being pretty special to you.
Robbie: Yes, I realized after I came home, well it was a very difficult time because the day that qualifying on the carrier, there was 12 of us that went off, it was an English carrier out of, in Norfolk Virginia, a cold January day, and that morning, of the 12 of us, 3 of them were killed and one of my friend spun in right in front of me on his approach and I can remember that I came on in and landed on the carrier deck, and I don't know why we were on an English carrier to qualify, never did figure that out, but anyway that's what we were told to do and this English crewman got up on the deck and he said, keep up your speed up, we've lost already 3 today, you got 3 more landing to shoot and I think I was more terrified than any time, really in the war, and finished up that qualifying and then brought the wife of my friend who'd been killed that morning, back to Nebraska, they'd only been married 29 days, so I guess when I got home, I went to a girl I had known but never gone with or seen actually for 2 years, but was a very special girl in our High School, we went to Long Beach Poly, although I was older than she was when we first went out and I hadn't seen her for a long time and asked her if she'd come up. I sent her a ticket if she'd come up and we'd get married. So, that took a lot of courage.
Jim: It took more courage than landing on the English carrier.
Robbie: No, not for me, my part, but for her part I think, because actually we thought we would go right out, we'd probably have at the most 30 days together and that we would go out and of course torpedo pilots were pretty expendable at that time, so but we were pulled out at the last moment and not sent out because they wanted to send us out for special training in night work in the dessert out of El Centro California and we were lucky our squadron didn't go because the other squadron that went out, they went out and were on Allisca Bay and they all got killed when Allisca Bay got hit in the morning and they were sitting over all that high test gasoline and the whole squadron was wiped out and then after we were trained for this first night attack, that kept us in the states, we had almost a year together and during that time, that's when our squadron was pulled out and they said there was some special work we want you to do with Cal Tech and that's when we developed the first air to ground missiles and I had the privilege of being sent out there to work with Cal Tech and to fire the first missiles that were fired from an aircraft and that was December 3rd, 1943, and we were married on March 23rd so we'd had 10 months together, and so we didn't go out until January 2, 1944 on the aircraft carrier Manila Bay, so we had almost a year together.
Jim: And you thought at the time, that that could be it, you didn't know what was gonna happen, you didn't know when and if you were coming back.
Robbie: No, in fact we didn't even know where we were going, even after we got to Pearl we knew we were going somewhere, but then we flew off from fort, after the carrier left Manila Bay and in the morning, and then that evening we flew out and landed on the Manila Bay and there was a tremendous task force, hundreds of ships and they were going somewhere, and we was coming into land and we would let the fighters land first because they didn't have the fuel capacity that we had in the Avengers and the first plane that landed crashed and blew up and I was flying wing on the skipper and he was just shaking his head, you know at the beginning. Fortunately the pilot jumped out before he was injured, before the plane, and they just through it over the side of the carrier then we came in and landed and it was that night before we knew where we were going and they told us we were going to Marshall Islands for the first major invasion of the Pacific War.
Jim: What did you think when you found that out, because I'm sure they could have sent you almost any place, but to be part of something that significant?
Robbie: Yes, it was a special feeling and I remember going up in the evenings and sitting in the cockpit of my plane on the fan tail and just looking at the sea and thinking about a lot of things. Because, and I wasn't alone, we were young, I was one of the older ones in the squadron, actually outside the skipper I was 24 but we had kids 18 years old, 19, 20 all of our, I don't think there was any of our flight or cover pilots that were less than 20 years old, I mean they were less than 20, so they were pretty young kids.
Jim: So, what did you think about when you were sitting out there?
Robbie: Oh, home, and wondering what was going to happen and there was some apprehension because, ah, we weren't sure what was ahead of us.
Jim: Tell me about the first time that you really got into combat.
Robbie: Well, the first ah, I remember flying because I was leading one section, there were 220 planes around us and uh, there was a pretty amazing feeling to be a part of an amazing striking force, but it's pretty impersonal, and you could drop the bombs as directed by the officers, we didn't have any aerial, by that time the, any air opposition had been knocked down and you could feel the concussion of the bombs after they went off, but uh, it was right after that that I, we were always assigned on patrol for prowling submarines and so I was sent out on a patrol and loaded, and it was a plane I hadn't flown before because in the Navy you don't get your planes, it was TBM3E but you had to be catapulted off and I had a full load of 4 500 pound torpex bombs, and 8 rockets and went out for 300 miles on this search and when I got back, well when I took off I knew the plane didn't have the same feel as my old plane because it was a catapult shot but it was touch and go when if I could hold that off the water just above stalling speed and he finally, after a full minute or so, began to climb, but I thought if I got rid of all my gas being out that late, but when I came back, it was on my down wind leg, and uh it stalled and flipped on it's back and we dove in at 100 MPG and then the whole plane exploded, and that was I guess my apprehension ahead of time was warning, but I was picked up by a destroyer, it was a hard time because the plane completely disintegrated and I had 2 crew men that were never found. And then it was hard because my wife and they got, my parents got notice that I had been seriously hurt and that when they got more details they would call in, but there were 4 months after that, they knew I was hurt but they didn't know what happened to me because I spent a week on the destroyer and then I was transferred to a hospital ship and then I was in Pearl Harbor at a hospital there for 5 months I guess, and they wouldn't let me come back until I could walk and it was a long time before I could walk.
Jim: And eventually you went back out again.
Robbie: Yes, after I'd just got out of the hospital and they were in need of pilots so they went me back out and uh, that was a hard time, that was a lot harder than the first time.
Jim: How come?
Robbie: I think it was harder on my wife too, although she was really amazing, she seemed to know that I was gonna get back. But, it was hard in many ways, but on a carrier I don't think it was nearly as hard as if you're a soldier or marine on the ground because they were out there in those conditions for 2, 3, 4 years and never did get home unless they were wounded or something, it just seemed intolerable that anybody could do that, but they did.
Jim: One of the things some of the people we talked to that were on the ground and engaging the enemy at that time talked about was what it was like to see these guys. In an airplane, did you have that same kind of feeling of when you saw people, when you saw planes, did it feel personal to you?
Robbie: Well, you did have a camaraderie as far as the squadron was concerned, and there was a great feeling of being a part of a team, and that was hard on me to know that I never did get, until after, long after the war that I saw some of my squadron mates again cause I never got returned to my squadron. So it was a loss and it was a loss for the wives too, because they became very close when we were in the squadron in training, they had almost a year together and my wife can talk more about that than I can, but they became very very close and then when we were left and they were on the dock when we left North Island to go off to the war and it was a very emotional morning because they didn't know if they ever see them again and then they never saw each other again because they all went back to their own homes and nobody really could relate to some of the things that they had been through that year, so you have to give the wives a lot of credit, I don't think I'd like that.
Jim: Well and it makes me, you know, talking about the fellows you were with in the squadron and thinking about the guys on the ground, do you think you had it different, was it different for you to be in combat in a plane versus the guys on the ground?
Robbie: Oh absolutely, I was, when I, I didn't realize that until later, when I got onto the USS Relief at Quadulene, I was taken to a launch there, I was the only one in the room and the bunks were 4 high in this little room and there were about 100 bunks there and I was the only one there, and then when these soldiers from division 7 came in from the assault and I saw what had happened to them and what they had been through, the war became very very personal, where in the air it was very impersonal, you never, sometimes a pilot didn't get back but you never saw mutilated bodies and the smell of the place, or the suffering that went on, and I remember that first night that I was, the fellow in the bunk above me was a handsome young lieutenant from Montana and he had been shot through the neck and paralyzed him and he just kept calling for his mother all night and then he died that night and the next day it really shook me and I told the coreman, cause I'd been in there several days and I say you know, I'd rather be out on the deck could you get me a cot, and he says well we are getting over crowded in here and he says that would be fine and they put a cot out on the deck for me, because it was so different, I'd never seen anything like that before and that was really hard and I stayed out there on that cot until we got clear back to Pearl Harbor. Because I couldn't walk you know or anything.
Jim: I hear people I think who weren't in the war, talk about World War II as a very nostalgic time and it's sort of painted in this, this golden brush of, of nostalgia or you know the good 'ol days and that kind of thing. Do you think that's fair?
Robbie: It wasn't, it wasn't my experience although you know like I, I read the obituaries everyday I never thought I'd do that, but and to look to see how many World War II or, or veterans are there because there's something that you've been through or experienced that you kind of not want to know what they did so it isn't as there is a tie with a generation that has experienced a great depression and, and uh then a war and the war that we didn't know whether we were going to win or not and then coming through that and then there's something special about that to me. Because if they've experienced that they'd have something in, it's a generation that has something in common, that was very special.
Jim: There's been a lot of talk about this, your generation being the greatest generation and that's used an awful lot and I think to the point where people don't necessarily think about what those words actually mean they just say 'em, this was the greatest generation.
Robbie: Well I, I, I never think about it being the greatest generation, I think it was a special generation in what we experienced. And I don't think any other generation that would've been in that period of time would've reacted any differently than we did because it was no great heroic thing as far as we were concerned, we just did what we thought we were supposed to do and I never thought of being heroic or anything like that.
Jim: And yet you, you've won medals you've been commended for, for your service.
Robbie: Well that you know if you've gone through that you got a few medals you know. Well I didn't do much you know fly, you read my book maybe wings of gold, but I did have the privilege of being associated with fellas that had amazing stories and I've been privileged to be able to recapture those stories and uh meant a lot uh to me to be able to see that they didn't die uh in that just pit of lost memories, we will be preserved.
Jim: What do you hope is, is preserved from that time? I think today it seems like people tend to focus on it was this sort of great time for America and there was great music and people talk about the movies that came out and, and all of this stuff but is, is that, is that what we should remember about the World War II era, not just the war itself, but, but that time period?
Robbie: No, but I think that there was a, a uh a time when or the selfless uh of kind of thing that uh, uh having gotten back we were I was idealistic and went into education you know and, and teaching and I saw things changed and uh so much in the, the 70s when I was principal of Beverly Hills High School and we were having all these demonstrations and here I was, I would never even mention that I was in the War because they think you're some kind of a killer or something because you'd been in the war and you wouldn't even mention it to them and, and uh and I think that the value system has, has uh changed, we just thought there was such a thing as loyalty and patriotism and we just took it for granted, it was no big deal with us, it was just a part of us and I think its that they've lost a, a and you know its almost with a feeling of, of pity that uh some of the young people oh haven't experienced uh those deep feelings and uh that they lost a, just on the quality of life that would be there for them if they wanted it.
Interviewed by Jim Peck, producer of The Idaho Homefront: World War II