'What Robby gave us was the gift of life': 55 years later, Vietnam veteran's heroism is still powerful
Severely wounded, out of ammunition and committed to taking out the machine-gun nest killing his men, 25-year-old Sgt. James W. Robinson Jr. limped toward the danger. He threw his last two grenades into the Vietnam sky and was dead by the time they hit the ground.
Sunday marked the 55th anniversary of his death, but events honoring Robinson's actions continue.
Born in Hinsdale, Robinson spent his childhood in Westmont, where his grandfather, William Robinson, served five terms as mayor. After high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was honorably discharged in 1962. The next year he enlisted in the Army and requested a transfer to serve in Vietnam.
Harold "Hal" Burke, a Navy veteran and former Westmont resident, runs Victory & Valor Memories, which provides speakers and information about veterans to schools and other organizations. Burke, a member of the Alexander Bradley Burns Post 80 American Legion in Downers Grove, ignited a campaign in 2019 to designate the Westmont Post Office as the James William Robinson Jr. Memorial Post Office Building.
"There isn't a day Vietnam isn't on your mind, but more so on April 11," says Phil Hall, an Army veteran who fought in the battle where Robinson was killed and spoke at the naming ceremony. "That was the most horrific day, but it wasn't the only bad day."
Hall was knocked unconscious by a mortar and later took shrapnel from a grenade that day, but he says the actions of Robinson, whom he called "Robby," saved lives.
"Robinson got up and dragged a couple of his wounded guys back," says Hall, who is 76 and lives in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. "What Robby gave us was the gift of life. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn't taken that machine gun out? The rest of us came home and had families and grandchildren, and he didn't get to have that."
Shot in the shoulder during that battle, Ken Mize found out later that Robinson had been killed. In his garden, Mize has a memorial that honors Robinson and the others who gave their lives that day.
"He was a very active, quick-acting person," says Mize, 74 and living in Arkansas, who learned that firsthand during a three-man mission that included Robinson. "But he also was kind of a quiet person. Every time I'd see him, he would have a book in his hand."
The First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton honored Robinson on Sunday with a Facebook post on the anniversary of his death, researcher Andrew Woods says. Robinson also is part of a display that tells the stories of Medal of Honor recipients, including his.
"Under intense fire, Sgt. Robinson gathered up rifles and ammo and distributed them. He then fired back at the enemy snipers, inflicting heavy casualties," reads the online tribute at fdmuseum.org. "Sgt. Robinson then saw a soldier hit by enemy .50-caliber machine-gun fire. Rushing to help, he was hit in the shoulder and leg. Reaching the wounded man, Robinson dragged him back behind a tree and gave first-aid.
"Out of ammo, Sgt. Robinson took two hand grenades and charged the machine-gun nest. A tracer hit his leg, setting the trouser on fire. Ripping off the burning cloth, he staggered onward despite enemy fire. Thirty feet from the gun, he threw both grenades. As the nest exploded, Sgt. Robinson fell dead with two .50 caliber slugs in his chest."
That battle at Xa Cam My resulted in a second Medal of Honor recipient, William H. Pitsenbarger, who received the honor 35 years later. His story was made into the movie "The Last Full Measure."
Robinson received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity." The Robinson Elementary School in Lyons was named in his honor in 1967. Because he lived in Virginia before going to Vietnam, Robinson also has a school in that state named in his honor.
"Unbelievable. That guy was a true warrior," says Frank Trout, a retired police officer and fire chief in Westmont who didn't know Robinson but fought and was wounded in Vietnam the same year Robinson was killed. "I never knew about this until a couple of years ago."
Trout read Robinson's story in a book by Fred Mundinger of Downers Grove, a cousin of Robinson, and helped get the post office dedicated to Robinson.
"I can remember that like it was yesterday," says Mundinger, 78, who was a student at Northern Illinois University in 1966. "My dad called me late at night, and all he said was, 'Jimmy was killed.'"
Trout, commander of Westmont's American Legion Post 338, says Robinson will be honored with an 11 a.m. ceremony on Memorial Day at Veterans Memorial Park in Westmont.
Burke served in the Navy aboard USS The Sullivans, named after five brothers (George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert) who all died when the USS Juneau was sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1942. Burke studies military history and says everyone should know the story of Robinson.
"He is," Burke says, "a hero's hero."