Veteran recalls D-Day lead flight

Posted 10/22/09

Col. Bill Whitacre, who helped select Robinson for the lead position based on his flying ingenuity in poor weather and limited visibility, joined Robinson in the C-47.

They towed a CG 4-A glider, which was the first released over Normandy on …

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Veteran recalls D-Day lead flight


{gallery}10_20_09/veteran102009{/gallery} Alvin E. “Robby” Robinson, wearing his World War II uniform, proudly displays honors, photos and other military memorabalia at his Powell home. Tribune photo by Brian HarringtonPilot flew for WWII generals Bradley, Patton, Eisenhower (Editor's note: Leading up to Veterans Day on Wednesday, Nov. 11, the Tribune will feature men and women in our community who have served in the U.S. armed forces.)At 2 a.m. on June 6, 1944, pilot Alvin E. “Robby” Robinson began rolling on a runway, bound for France in the lead pathfinder flight of the D-Day invasion.“As we approached the coast, we could see the Germans clearing their guns as the tracers went up into the air like the tails of rockets,” Robinson recalled. “It was a pretty sight to behold if you didn't think of the fact there were bullets in those tracers.”

Col. Bill Whitacre, who helped select Robinson for the lead position based on his flying ingenuity in poor weather and limited visibility, joined Robinson in the C-47.

They towed a CG 4-A glider, which was the first released over Normandy on D-Day. In the lead glider were General Pratt, the commanding general of the 101st Airborne, Lt. Col. Mike Murphy and Lt. Butler.

“By now, the shells were bursting all around us, and as we were the lead ship, they didn't have our speed down and didn't realize we were only making about 110 miles per hour,” Robinson remembered.

With worsening weather, the plane approached the drop zone. After the glider was released, Robinson and his crew returned to England. He would make a second D-day flight later that afternoon.

(He would later discover that Pratt and Butler, from the lead glider flight, were both killed that day.)

Robinson, a 93-year-old veteran who relocated to Powell two years ago, wrote about this experience and others in a memoir of his World War II days. He explained that he wanted to share his war stories with his family — to preserve his memories for future generations.

Robinson recently shared his D-Day stories with a French author, Philippe Esvelin, who wrote a book titled “D-Day Gliders.” Robinson is writing the preface for Esvelin's next World War II book.

Robinson, originally from Texas, moved to Powell to be closer to his daughter, Jan Sons, and her husband, Ken.

Robinson lives on his own in a house near Jan's rural Powell home, and despite his age — he will turn 94 in December — he doesn't take any daily medication.

He is strong, proud and recalls his World War II days with vivid clarity.

A pilot favored by generals

Generals are common characters in Robinson's stories. He speaks of them as acquaintances, some as friends.

One general, Omar Bradley, is even more than that.

Robinson's daughter, Jan, said she knew him as “Uncle Omar.” The relationship between Bradley and Robinson resembled a father-son bond, she said.

“He was much more than a friend. He was a surrogate father,” she said. “My dad became very, very close to Gen. Bradley ... they just fell in together.”

On an October day in 1944, Bradley asked Robinson to fly some of the top Allied generals to Einhoven, Belgium.

After carefully planning a course the night before, Robinson was informed that several fighter planes would escort the brass-laden flight. He shared:

“Well, the next morning, the generals arrived, and they were the top brass in the European Theatre of Operations. General Marshall, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; General Eisenhower, supreme commander; General Omar Bradley, commander 12th Army Group, General Patton, 3rd Army Commander …” and the list goes on.

Flying into Belgium, thick haze created poor visibility and prohibited an easy landing. After circling to locate the runway, a red flare went up to signal where it was.

“He didn't shoot it up until I was already over the end of the runway, so I had to go around again,” he wrote.

General Bradley suggested returning to where they started from, but Robinson tried one more time and successfully landed the plane in the poor conditions.

While everything turned out OK, putting so many generals on a single plane was a worry for some.

“I heard the generals talking about the approach and landing, and General Patton said loudly: ‘There is too damn much brass on this aircraft, and I am going back by jeep.' I really had to agree with him as we had the top brass that was fighting the war on this one aircraft. I had never seen so many stars since the nights in Texas.”

Piloting and befriending the stars

Another one of Robinson's unique duties during World War II was flying for stars of the Hollywood sort. In 1945, he flew the high-profile entertainer Marlene Dietrich to the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp shortly after the British captured it.

“We (Allies) had conquered quite a bit by that point,” Robinson said.

The glamorous German-born American singer and actress wanted to see her sister, who had been in the camp.

Robinson landed near the concentration camp, got a jeep out of the C-47 plane and drove her to Bergen-Belsen.

They crossed a one-way bridge, and Marlene visited her family.

He described the camp as a “pretty filthy place.”

On the way back, the pair approached the one-way bridge, this time heading the opposite direction. Worried about the guards, Robinson said they had better go to another bridge 5 miles below this crossing.

“She said, ‘No, I'll show you how to get across.' Whereupon she dangled her leg outside the jeep and pulled her dress up to her waist and the guards just looked blank as I drove rapidly across the bridge,” Robinson recalled.

Robinson also helped out actor Mickey Rooney.

“He was very young and wanted to get into the moving picture they were showing” at the Officer's Club, Robinson recalled. The film happened to be National Velvet — a movie that Rooney starred in with Elizabeth Taylor. Rooney hadn't seen the finished product, which premiered in 1944.

“Mickey asked me to take him in as a guest, as he was not an officer,” Robinson said. “I agreed to do so, as he said he had never had a chance to see the movie since he helped make it … after I took him in, he promptly left me and went up to where General Bradley was seated, and that was the last I saw of him.”

A general's pilot — during the war and afterward

Around two months after the D-Day invasion at Normandy, Robinson was assigned to pick up an aircraft for General Bradley. He wasn't thrilled with the position at first, but he was told that if he didn't like it, he only had to do it for a few weeks.

“Well, I did like it, and stayed with General B. for 10 years,” Robinson remarked.

After the war ended, Robinson remained the general's personal pilot as Bradley headed the Veterans Administration, led as Chief of Staff of the Army and finally served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a letter to Robinson, dated Aug. 14, 1953, Bradley wrote:

“Our association has been a long one — it began during the campaigns in France and Germany when you flew me over the battlefields and over the continent. We have had some rather risky times together, but I always felt safe when you were at the controls of the ship, because you are an outstandingly fine pilot.”