I spent my early years outside a small farm community in Northeast Nebraska. Our neighbors to the south were the Robinsons, a hard working farm family with several boys including my good friend Larry. We would play at the creek between our two farms, catching frogs, minnows and crawdads. On Saturday, we would ride our horses to town, and just do those things that neighbor kids would do.
Although we remained friends, we parted ways with me heading West, and then to college. Larry worked on the farm awhile after high school, went to college, and then realized his goal of becoming a Marine. We would dream of being pilots someday, and we both did. However, Larry became a Marine Corps pilot, and served several tours in Vietnam.
Fast forward to December, 1969, for it was now Maj. Larry Robinson, with 14 years’ service, and stationed at Da Nang Air Base. He had just completed 100 missions over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and was preparing to go home on leave, and then report to perform training duty for new pilots in aerial tactics.
A close Marine buddy asked Larry if he would take his place in a planned air strike of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) positions just across the border into Laos. He agreed, and on January 5, 1970, Major Larry W. Robinson, along with his Radar Intercept Officer, led an attack on NVA positions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. As he “rolled in” to deliver ordinance from his F4B “Phantom II”, the plane was hit by NVA anti-aircraft fire. Larry was able to make it back into Vietnam, for the wreckage was soon located in dense jungle a few miles north of Dak To. Marine Corps helicopters immediately converged on the coordinates, but no bodies or parachutes were found. It was surmised they had ejected and were captured by the NVA. He was never heard from again. Later, enemy troops in Laos reported “having tens of tens” of American “war criminals.” MIA or KIA? Only God knows.
Last month, while in Vietnam for a couple days inspecting the tannery that processes Iowa pigskins, I thought a lot about my childhood friend. Then as fate would have it, when we left for Hong Kong, our Cathay Air commercial airliner traveled north out of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), on a clear, cloudless early evening. Watching the live map of our flight on the video screen, I discovered we were nearing Dak To. From my window seat, thirty-thousand feet below were mountains and dense jungle, and then appeared the nearly indiscernible village, surrounded by hills known as 823, 875, 882 and many others. Dak To took its toll in November of 1967, when American troop losses included 376 killed and just short of 1,500 wounded.
I imagined I could actually see the deep ravine, seven “clicks” north of Dak To where Major Robinson’s Phantom II had crashed and burned. I looked at the mountains and jungle in all directions surrounding Dak To, and was overwhelmed by the realization of absolute self-insignificance in light of what had historically occurred below. We were flying over truly hallowed ground.
With a slight bank to the right, our Cathay jet proceeded on course over Da Nang, now a huge and bustling city, with tall buildings and the haze of pollution from industry, vehicles and motorized scooters. We left the Vietnam mainland, passing over the southernmost edge of the Gulf of Tonkin, en-route to Hong Kong.
Having had enough, I closed the window shade, and reflected on what I had just observed, and thought of the pain and suffering experienced by so many in the jungles below. In my mind’s eye, I had seen him, standing in uniform so proud to be a Marine pilot from Randolph, that little farm town in Northeast Nebraska. Lost from his wife, family and friends on his 101st mission 45 years ago, Larry Robinson, along with all our veterans, can never be forgotten.