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Robert Guy Robinson

U.S. Marine Corps

Medal of Honor

Pitthem, Belgium

Oct. 14, 1918

On Oct. 14, 1918, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Robert Guy Robinson was grievously injured, with more than a dozen bullet wounds to his chest, leg and abdomen and his left arm below the elbow hanging by a single tendon. All this happened in the skies over Belgium as Robinson fired his twin .30-caliber Lewis machine guns at a dozen German airplanes frantically trying to down the two-seat biplane in which he was serving as the aerial observer. Robinson and his pilot survived and became the first Marine Corps aviators awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in combat.

Born in Wayne, Mich., on April 30, 1896, Robinson was working as a mechanic in Chicago when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 1917. The 21- year-old was just 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 142 pounds but apparently had no difficulty completing initial training at Parris Island, S.C.

After additional training at Wilbur Wright Flying Field near Dayton, Ohio, Robinson sailed for France on July 18, 1918, aboard USS De Kalb, landing at Brest on July 30 with the newly created 1st Marine Aviation Force. This small unit entered combat as an element of the U.S. Navy’s Northern Bombing Group in October 1918, just a month before World War I ended.

Operating along the Flemish coast, Marine aviators flew bombing, supply and observation missions in two-seat De Havilland DH-4 biplanes. Robinson’s job— as observer and bombardier—was to be an extra set of eyes for the pilot. Robinson also manned the twin Lewis guns mounted near him. With a cyclic rate of 500–600 rounds per minute, this was a deadly weapon if used correctly.

Robinson’s first serious combat occurred on October 8, when his DH-4 participated in an air raid conducted by the Royal Air Force’s No. 218 Squadron. Fending off an attack by nine German scout planes, Robinson shot down one enemy aircraft. Less than a week later Robinson again proved his mettle. On the morning of October 14, in an air raid over Pitthem, Belgium, his plane and another lost power and became separated from their formation. A dozen enemy Fokker and Pfalz fighters soon found them.

In the subsequent dogfight Robinson was credited with downing another German plane but then, as recorded in his Medal of Honor citation, “was struck by a bullet which carried away most of his elbow.” At the same time his Lewis guns jammed. Acting “with conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity,” Robinson cleared his jammed guns with his good hand while his pilot, 2nd Lt. Ralph Talbot, maneuvered the DH-4 into better position. Despite excruciating pain and his useless left arm, Robinson fought off the enemy aircraft “until he collapsed after receiving two more bullet wounds, one in the stomach and one in the thigh.”

The horribly wounded Robinson was unconscious but alive. And his luck held, as Talbot managed to land the badly damaged plane near a hospital, where the surgeon general of the Belgian army successfully reattached Robinson’s mangled left arm.

For his extraordinary heroism Robinson was initially recommended for both the Army Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Ultimately, the two decorations were deemed insufficient, and on Nov. 11, 1920, Robinson received the Navy version of the Medal of Honor. Talbot also received the medal, but his was a posthumous award, as he had died during a test flight on Oct. 25, 1918.

In June 1919, after a lengthy period of hospitalization in both France and Washington, D.C., Robinson was awarded the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal and honorably discharged. He later was appointed a reserve second lieutenant and remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until May 1923, when he retired. He was promoted to first lieutenant in September 1936. Robinson died at home in St. Ignace, Mich., on Oct. 5, 1974, and is interred in Arlington National Cemetery.


Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.