The first email came from Mike Simpson, the tireless force behind the 445th Bomb Group web site. It alerted me to the fact that John Harold "Robbie" Robinson had passed away at age 92. Robinson wrote one of the best memoirs I've read about World War II. I don't think that's just my opinion, because when, in 1999, I was able to find a copy of "A Reason to Live" on amazon.com, it was in its sixth printing, I think by Crown Publishers. I say "I think" because I loaned my copy to Ed Hays, a former tail gunner and POW who traveled to Berlin to meet the German fighter pilot who shot down his B-17. Ed passed away several years ago without ever having returned the book, but that's okay.
I read "A Reason to Live" shortly after learning about the Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944. Robinson wasn't on the Kassel Mission, having completed his 25 missions well before that took place, but his book, drawn from letters to his then new bride (his "reason to live") and I think a diary he kept, was like a descent into madness, chronicling the minutiaie of each mission, the little incidents that played upon a flier's mind, the brushes with death that seemed to take place with regularity.
I had the great fortune to meet Robinson at the 1999 reunion of the 8th Air Force Historical Society in Savannah. I didn't have a long conversation with him, but if memory serves me correctly, I think I asked him if his book would ever be made into a movie. He said some people wanted the movie rights but he turned them down because the movie "Memphis Belle" was so far from reality. I was amazed by this remark because when I saw "Memphis Belle" I was struck by how realistic it seemed. As I learned more about the experiences of fliers in B-24s, I came to realize how correct he was.
Of course I googled Robinson after learning of his passing, and I discovered two interesting things. Robinson lived in Memphis, and in 1999, the same year I met him but likely a few months later, a Memphis police officer named John Harold Robinson Jr. was killed when he was run off the road by two suspects he was pursuing. An article about the incident said the two suspects are now serving life sentences. Sure enough, when I found Robinson's obituary -- one of those paid obits, the Commercial Appeal didn't even give him a staff written obituary -- it mentioned that his son, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty in 1999.
The other item I found by googling Robinson was a post on a forum titled "Earl's Story." It's too long to quote extensively so I'll include a link. It was written by the nephew of Earl Doggett, a member of Robinson's crew who was killed while assigned temporarily to another crew.
One other note: Robinson is survived by his "reason to live," his wife of 68 years, Virginia.
The second passing in recent days was that of Major Dick Winters, the leader of "Easy Company" made famous in Stephen Ambrose's "Band of Brothers" and the mini-series of the same name.
I almost met Winters once. It was a year or two after "Band of Brothers" was a huge hit on HBO (mind you, I've still only seen the first two episodes. It was at the Lititz Library in Lititz, Pa., where I'd been invited to take part in a World War 2 program and was told I could display my books (this was in the days before I began producing my oral history audiobooks). I gave a short talk and then was given a table where I sat, mostly by my lonesome. I saw a line from another table, the line passed my table, went out the front door and snaked around the side of the library. It was then that I learned that the featured guest was Major Dick Winters. People on the line were carrying VHS tapes for him to sign, books for him to sign, pictures, they'd have him sign the back of their hand just to come in contact with such a famous piece of history.
Fact is Winters was one of those modest heroes, who would have been happy spending the rest of his life on a farm in rural Pennsylvania if Ambrose and Stephen Spielberg hadn't turned him into an icon.
Which brings me to the pile of cash. How's that for a transition? Today I received an email from Paul Belleperche.
"Dear Mr. Elson," the email began. "Could you please contact me. I found an interview that you did with Jerome Auman on the internet and my father was mentioned in the interview (Frenchy Belleperche). I am trying to gather information about my father, he died in 1970 when I was 16. I had heard parts of that story as a kid, but to read it coming from a third party was very shocking. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration."
Here's a link to the story, which involves a cigar box containing $13,800, the production and marketing of "torpedo juice," a spell in the brig, and is on my original tankbooks.com web site: