Story and Photos By Tim Sproles
Speaking with Legionnaires around the Department of Indiana’s 10th District, it seems like everyone knows Harold “Robbie” Robinson.
“Robbie is everywhere,” said Joe Brown, past commander of Post 65. “Everybody loves him. He really goes out of his way to help others and stay involved.”
In Robbie’s case, staying involved is almost an understatement. Robbie is a proud 30-year member of Legion Post 65 in Richmond, Indiana, holds duel status in the Sons of the American Legion and is an American Legion Rider.
Laurie Bowman, commander of the 10th District, said that Robbie’s positive impact is widely known outside of the district as well. “He will show up at different districts’ events just to volunteer. Everyone knows he’s one of those Legionnaires who is always ready to roll up the sleeves and work to assist our veterans whether they are a Legionnaire or not.”
As well known as Robbie is, a photo he often displays is just as popular.
It’s a simple family photo that features Robbie standing with his brothers Rodney and Ronald, his son Harold III, his daughter Tara and his grandson Chad, but the story behind this photo spans 100 years.
Robbie has traced the continued service of his family in the United States Army all the way back to September 1918. For any history buffs, this happens to be just under seven months before the creation of the American Legion. Robbie’s family has more than 100 years of service, and this photo represents 60 of them.
“My grandson Chad orchestrated it,” said Robbie. “I just thought we were taking a picture together, but after the fact, he told us that he had enlisted, and he wanted a picture together with all of the soldiers.”
Every story has a beginning, so Robbie and his family did a little research to find theirs.
“Once we made that connection, we wanted to see how far back it went,” Robbie said. “I knew that my father was in the army, but it all started with my grandfather, Monroe Robinson.”
Information on Monroe was limited, but Robbie located Veterans Affairs paperwork that stated he was a private in the 4th Development Battalion of the 158th Depot Brigade at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio.
During World War I, these development battalions acted as the equivalent of today’s Warrior Transition Units, designed for the rehabilitation of injured soldiers and the support of disabled soldiers.
Robbie said, “We know that he didn’t serve long, but he earned an honorable discharge with the army and is buried at the National Military Home in Montgomery County, Ohio.”
Robbie’s father Harold followed suit by enlisting in the army in 1942, where he took part in the creation of the Alaska Highway, arguably one of the top construction achievements of the 20th century.
“My father was one of close to 4,000 segregated black soldiers who worked on that project. He specifically worked on the Alcan Highway.”
These soldiers battled harsh conditions and winter weather to complete the 1,500-mile road during World War II. Robbie said his father always told him that he felt this project helped spark the discussion to end segregation in the military.
“It was dangerous work, and I think that danger created a bond in all of the men working on that highway. They depended on each other to make it through the day alive. It proved that black men and white men can do it together,” said Robbie.
This Oct. 25, 1942, photo provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Office of History, shows Corporal Refines Slims, Jr., left, and Private Alfred Jalufka shaking hands at the "Meeting of Bulldozers" for the ALCAN Highway in the Yukon Territory in Beaver Creek, Alaska. Nearly 4,000 segregated black soldiers helped build the highway across Alaska and Canada during World War II, a contribution largely ignored for decades but drawing attention as the 75th anniversary approaches. (AP Photo)
Robbie’s father was injured while working on the Alcan Highway and was honorably discharged in 1944. Only four years later, on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which established the president’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, eventually leading to the end of segregation in the military.
Fewer than 10 years later, in 1958, Robbie joined the United States Army, becoming the first in his family to serve in a fully integrated military.
“You know, I never really dwelt on it. I wasn’t excluded from anything inside of the army’s four walls, but you saw a different scenario in some places when you left base.”
Robbie said he only had one negative race-related encounter during his entire military career.
“It was 1958, and I was based out of Fort Leonard Wood. My squad had decided to go out to eat together. At the time, I happened to be the only black man in the squad. Which is something that my squad members never brought attention to, but an employee at the restaurant publicly made it clear that I would not be allowed to join my group inside.”
Robbie said he was of course embarrassed by the situation, but it was a culture shock to his friends.
“They were fired up. They had never seen that before, and it really made them angry, but that was reality in a lot of places.”
Following in the footsteps of their big brother, Robbie’s brothers Rodney and Ronald entered army service. After both brothers left the army in the late 1960s, it would be 1986 before another Robinson would answer the nation’s call.
Robbie’s son Harold III enlisted in the army in 1986, and his daughter Tara enlisted in 1988. At this point, members of the Robinson family were starting to see a pattern in the choice of service.
“People don’t believe me when I tell them that it wasn’t planned. I’ve asked everybody why they joined the army, and the answer makes me laugh every time. They figured if I could make it through then they could.”
The enlistment of Robbie’s grandson Chad in 2012 rounded out the 100-year service of the Robinson family.
All of the Robinsons are now out of the military, but every one of them pictured in this photo continues their service in the American Legion as members of Richmond Post 65.
Robbie isn’t sure what the future holds for the Robinson family as far as army service, but he is sure that his family history fills him with pride.
As he said, “You know every picture is worth a thousand words, but this one is worth 100 years.”
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