VINTON–Four US Army Air Corps veterans from World War II were recently invited by retired Navy Commander Dr. Clare Weidman to his airstrip in Botetourt County to fly in his restored PT-17 Stearman. Two had been fighter pilots, one a bomber pilot, and one an aircraft radio operator.
Each had a turn taking the controls of the two-seater training aircraft in which he had started his flying career.
After pilot Russell Robinson, age 89, returned to the hangar, Weidman’s comment was, “He can sure fly an airplane, and that’s not an easy plane to fly.”
Robinson, who lives in the Mount Pleasant area, trained in a PT-17 as a United States Army Air Corps aviation cadet in 1943.
When he was just 21 years old, Russell Robinson found himself in charge of a crew of ten men, all younger than himself, flying bombing missions over Europe.
In 1941, Robinson graduated from Andrew Lewis High School in Salem on Friday, and on Monday went to work for the railroad making sixty-two and a half cents an hour. He began taking night classes in electrical work, welding, mechanics, sheet metal, meteorology, the theory of flight, and aviation ground school.
“I took every course I could take,” said Robinson.
After a time, he moved to Baltimore and began working as an aircraft mechanic. He decided to enlist in the aviation cadet program, but did not meet the entrance requirements because he had three cavities. He immediately found a dentist, got his teeth filled, and was accepted into the program the next day. He began his training as an air cadet stationed in Miami Beach, Florida.
Before the war, aviation cadets were required to be 21 years old with a college degree. In 1941 the age was dropped to 18 with a high school diploma. Cadet flight training hours were reduced to meet the demand for military pilots. It took Robinson thirteen months from enlistment to graduation.
Robinson’s next stop was in Tennessee where the Army determined whether he had the aptitude to train as a navigator, a bombardier, or a pilot.
Chosen to be a pilot, he completed his primary training on the PT-17, and then his basic training on BT-13’s, learning to fly in formation, to fly by instruments or aerial navigation, to fly at night, and to fly for long distances. That was followed by advanced training on twin-engine AT-10’s.
Upon graduation, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant, an honor generally given to those at the top of the class. Training was arduous and often up to a third of an entering class would not graduate.
His next step was learning to fly B-24 heavy bombers.
Although he wanted to fly fighter planes, the Army decided he was better suited to be a bomber pilot. He was assigned to Connecticut to be assimilated into a ten member crew formed of men from across the country.
Their final stop stateside was Charleston, South Carolina, where the crew trained together to become one fighting unit. Each crew had four officers: the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier, and six enlisted men.
“We had to learn fast,” said Robinson.
His crew was sent overseas in November 1944, stationed at Old Buckenham airbase in England, as part of the 453rd Bombardment Group (H).
Robinson flew 34 missions out of “Old Buck”, all to Germany. Aircraft would take off and form up into a group of thirty-three planes, in squadrons of eleven. They would fly the two or three hours over France to get to various targets in Germany. On each mission, they would be gone from England for five to eight hours. Their targets were factories, highway intersections, railroads, fuel plants, bridges, and tank factories.
Robinson and his crew flew a B-24 “Liberator” bomber with 4 engines and a twin tail. The Crew Chief, Andy Cumming, named their plane “Arrowhead” after a spot in California which had an arrowhead carved on the mountainside. During Robinson’s time as its pilot, Arrowhead received the honor of being the first plane to complete over 100 missions without an abort.
Robinson was the oldest of his crew; the youngest was 17. He eventually was dubbed “Lucky Worrybird” by his men because he was so concerned with taking care of them.
Flying a B-24 was no easy task. Flying at altitudes of over 20,000 feet, temperatures were thirty, forty, or up to fifty degrees below zero. Winds whipped through the cabin. The crew wore electric suits to keep warm. The gunners had to wear gloves, because if their bare skin touched metal, it would stick. Once, Robinson’s electric suit stopped working and his hands were frozen to the wheel. He didn’t realize that he was lapsing into hypothermia until one of his men began beating on him to help keep the blood flowing and warm him up.
“I was feeling sleepy, comfortable, and happy, while I was actually freezing to death,” said Robinson.
On one mission, mortar fire from the German 88mm guns on the ground went through Arrowhead’s bomb bay and lodged pieces of flak in the wall between the glass tubes of fuel and the cables that controlled the elevators and rudders. Robinson carries the piece of flak from that firefight with him.
“Getting airborne was sometimes more dangerous than flying over Germany,” said Robinson.” Some missions were so large that planes would take off from bases six to eight miles apart at the rate of one each minute for over an hour. Sometimes 1200 planes would be involved in a bombing raid.”
The 34 combat missions Robinson is credited with do not include all the missions he flew. They didn’t always drop bombs; sometimes they dropped supplies.
On another mission Robinson could see German fighter planes behind him. The ship began shaking as the tail gunner began firing; however, they had mistaken a P-51 for the similar German ME-109. Luckily the plane veered off and was not the victim of their friendly fire.
Sent into Germany to bomb a tank factory in the Ruhr region, they were flying low and alone with an enemy aircraft on their tail. They didn’t have a chance of outrunning the German plane. With smoke and haze from the bombing, and knowing the German pilot expected them to turn right to return to base, Robinson decided instead to fly into the haze and make a turn to the left.
“When we came out of the haze, the German plane was gone,” said Robinson.
Robinson and his crew provided air support during the Battle of the Bulge on Christmas Day in 1944. The Battle began on December 16, but for days there was too much cloud cover and snow to provide air support to General Patton and his troops. Finally, on December 24, the clouds cleared and they could see Patton advancing, tanks firing in every direction.
“Patton didn’t save any ammunition,” said Robinson.
Thanks to Patton, his troops, and Allied air support, the Germans were stopped a quarter mile from a large Allied fuel storage area, where they would have been able to refuel and continue the fight.
Robinson has as many stories to share about his days piloting Arrowhead as there were missions. Doug Andre and Jeff Bush who helped organize the “Gathering of World War II Veterans” held recently in Vinton have made it their own mission to ensure that WWII veterans are honored and that their stories are not forgotten. When Robinson mentioned to them that he would like one more flight in the aircraft he trained in, they set out to make it happen, adding yet another memory to his collection.