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Serving with honor and heroism: Robinson reflects on years with military

Eugene "Gene" Robinson

Retired sergeant major Eugene D. Robinson, Dickinson, knows what it means to put your life on the line. He served as a U.S. Navy sailor during the Korean Conflict, and more recently rescued a girl at risk of drowning while on duty with the National Guard.

Just as he does every year, Robinson plans to attend the Veterans Day services on Monday in Dickinson, and he is serving on the Stark County Veterans Memorial Association Committee.

"Gene is a guy that was proud to be a soldier, proud to have served," said Art Wanner, who served with Robinson in the National Guard. "I knew him when he was first sergeant. When he said something, the soldiers listened to him -- he had a command ability about him."

In celebration of Veterans Day, Robinson spoke about his interest in the military -- joining the National Guard at the age of 15. He lived a block away from the National Guard Armory when it was across from KDIX radio station in downtown Dickinson. He liked to watch the soldiers do their drills.

"I wanted to be a soldier so I lied about my age," he said.

He joined Company K 164th Infantry on Dec. 14, 1947, and served as a private until May 24, 1949, when he requested a discharge to join the Navy.

He enlisted in the Navy June 1, 1949. He completed recruit training and machinist mate school at Great Lakes, and was assigned to the USS Philippine Sea (CVA 47).

"Our ship served 20 months off the coast of Korea during the Korean Conflict," he said.

Robinson held the rank of machinists mate third class petty officer in charge of the auxiliary hydraulic machinery aboard the ship. He worked six decks below the water line, but would go topside to watch the planes take off and land from the carrier.

He recalls heat generated by the boilers.

"If I had to go behind the boilers, I'd place an old rag over my face to keep it from burning -- it was that hot," Robinson said.

He was discharged March 30, 1953, after serving three years 10 months in the Navy. In July of 1958 he joined the North Dakota National Guard in Dickinson, serving as a squad leader, platoon sergeant, mess steward and first sergeant of the Dickinson Guard company until 1974.

He rejoined the National Guard in 1982, and transferred to the Army Reserves. He was assigned to headquarters, Sixth U.S. Army, deputy chief of staff operations, as the sixth U.S. Army and state of North Dakota liaison. He was discharged as a sergeant major in January 1989 for 28 years of service.

During his years with the Guard, Robinson described its mission to protect the state -- be it flood duty, snow removal or crowd control such as the infamous "Zip to Zap" by college students in May 1969.

"Mostly it was for winter storms -- we'd be called to help farmers feed their cattle or clear roads," he said.

His civilian career was spent with the railroads. From May 1959 to February 1994, he was a conductor for Burlington Northern Railroad. He went on indefinite leave of absence from 1987 to 1994 to work for Amtrak as a passenger conductor. He operated the trains from Milwaukee to Chicago.

He described that job as the guy who counted the tickets and make sure the passengers were on the correct car at the depot.

Robinson married his wife, Margaret, Oct. 24, 1953. They became the parents of four children, one deceased. Their son, Kurt served with the Coast Guard's search and rescue missions. Their family also includes Keith, Patricia and Kim (deceased), along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Robinsons moved back to Dickinson in 1994.

Since he has served with the National Guard, its role has taken on enhanced national missions -- members have been called to active duty in the Middle East and several are deployed to Afghanistan, he said.

"A big job in Iraq was to keep the highways safe of IUDs for convoys," Robinson said. "The regular Army solders knew the North Dakota by its patch -- we kept those roads pretty clear."

Robinson appreciates the opportunity to serve in the Navy and National Guard.

"It's the satisfaction of protecting your country, your state," he said. "The Guard has done a marvelous job with flood control in Fargo, Bismarck and Minot."

Robinson received a number of military awards while on duty, including service medals, Army Achievement Medal and Army Commendation Medal.

The Soldier's Medal for Heroism means the most to him because he saved a life. He remembers June 2, 1973, when a 9-year-old girl on a raft overturned in choppy, wind-swept waters of a lake. Traveling with a convoy to annual training, Robinson stopped to help. He swam 100 yards through high waves and winds gusting up to 45 miles per hour.

As the award stated, "He entered the turbulent waters at great risk to his own life, calmed the little girl and brought her to safety."

What the award didn't mention was how physically exhausted he was -- he didn't think he'd make it back to shore. Warming up, he put on his uniform and returned to the convoy.

Today, he encourages families to submit the names of veterans, dating back to the Spanish American War to present time to the Veterans Memorial Committee.

He said the memorial is a way to honor America's veterans.

"We need veteran's names -- we need them right now," he said. "The engraver is ready to start engraving the slabs."

More information is available at the website www.Stark