Lucky #13 and the “Miracle Survivor”
Heheard and felt the two B-17s collide in mid-air and Sgt. Robbie Gill knew his crew was in trouble. His plane, the Black Cat #13, had pulled up and collided with another B-17 directly above them in low clouds. The collision sheared the Black Cat #13 in two at the waist of the aircraft. Robbie, being the tail gunner, was now “all alone in the rear of the aircraft.” He had struck his head on a crossbar and when he quickly came to, he recalled that there was “absolutely no noise, it was deadly quiet.” Now is when all his training had to pay off as he was rapidly descending into the North Sea.
Like many young men his age, Robbie wanted to “do his part in the war”. He didn’t want to be in the Army, so he joined the Army Air Corps in late November 1945. He was 19 years old. He completed his basic training in Logan UT, then cadet training in Santa Ana CA, followed by gunnery school in Arizona. He then went to bombardier training in Deming NM on the Norden Bombsight but was “not coordinated enough”, so they sent him to tail gunner school in South Dakota. Robbie said every school seemed to be six weeks long.
He was assigned to the 8th Air Force, 100th Bomb Group, 50th Squadron. He was in a crew with 9 other men and once they “picked up their plane in Arizona, they flew to Maine for deployment.” Robbie’s crew flew from Bangor ME directly to England where they soon began their first bombing run into Germany. Their first flight was into Merseburg, Germany and went off without a hitch. The second flight was nearly Robbie’s last. En route to their target on July 28th, 1944, the two B-17s collided.
Robbie’s training and survival instinct kicked in immediately. He quickly put on his “Mae West” life jacket and his parachute. He pulled the door off of the tail section and bailed out. By the time his chute opened, he was below the clouds with the “tail section spiraling slowly down to the sea.” He maneuvered his chute to avoid being hit by the tail of the bomber. He remembered from his training to take his boots off before he hit the water so he “kicked off his heavy flight boots to see how far it was to the water, and they seemed to take a long time to get there.” The young airman also recalled from his training that you need to cut your chute off right before you hit the water to keep from being tangled up in the lines.
Robbie looked around for other survivors. There were none. He was the lone survivor out of the twenty men from the two bomber crews. He released some fluorescein dye so he could be spotted by a rescue plane out searching for survivors. He was finally picked up by a rescue boat.
Robbie flew five more missions after his rescue joined several other men on back-up/stand-by duty. He then came back to the states to become an instructor on air/sea rescue in Deming NM and Harlingen TX.
Robbie and Wanda's eyes met over the Dunlap's Department store's socks display. They chatted briefly and, after Robbie paid for his socks, he invited her to the nearby drugstore cafe for a Coke. The rest is history. God must have known that Robbie would need a kind and nurturing wife, who would walk side-by-side with him through the pleasures and trials (and haunting memories from his time served). He would need the special kind of partner that would give him the freedom to remember and verbalize memories if he so chose, and to stand by her man unconditionally, offering him a safe haven where only he and God were allowed to view and re-live tragedy, defeat, death and loss.
They were engaged in 1946 and since April 2016, have been on this journey as a married couple for 69 years. They have four children: Stan, Stacy, Stoney and Rhonda, and 39 grandchildren. Robbie was one of 96 veterans to attend the Texas South Plains Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. in 2013. His eyes brim with moisture as he recalls how respectfully his son attended to his needs and witnessed Robby soaking in and processing the powerfully moving war memorials while his mind revisited the battle scenes. Even though constant waves of emotion swept over him at each memorial, he says now that he stands behind the Honor Flight's mission and encourages all Veterans who can physically go, to attend. He feels strongly that they will be blessed. He did not avoid his responsibilities to his country and urges those now serving to "make up their minds before you get in; to fully commit for the greater good." One of his favorite songs is the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
His strong servant's character was borne out of back-breaking farm work. When asked what hobbies he had back then, he answers seriously, "hoein' Texas cotton". After graduating from high school in 1940 in Hamlin (Pied Pipers) TX, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle and signed his military entrance documents, praying he would stay alive, unlike his uncle who gave his life in 1918. Robbie's utilization of the GI Bill helped him gain his secondary education, and he was a good steward of the benefits which opened the door for opportunities to learn the benefits of discipline, commitment to freedom, and loyalty to God and country.
One is forever changed after hearing Robbie's story and is swept to the brink of his memory as the tears roll in, choking him up. When asked if he is a hero (after declining a Purple Heart), he states, “You can call me a miracle, but not a hero. God and I know who truly deserves those awards.”
Respectfully submitted by:
Larry A. Williams and Katherine McLemore
Veterans Liaison Co-chairs
Texas South Plains Honor Flight