Salute to veterans | WWII pilot Hugh Robinson never stopped working, serving others

Editor’ note: This is the first in a series running Sundays in May that takes a closer look at area veterans who served in wars from World War II to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Hugh Robinson settled in a chair at a local eatery along the Grand Strand and with a steady hand took off his hat. Across the front in bright yellow letters was “World War II Veteran.”

He pointed to the two pins attached to the hat and explained that they are replicas of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, planes he flew as a fighter pilot.

“I wasn’t a Flying Tiger, but I flew the plane they flew, the P-40,” the Army Air Corps veteran said. “I earned my wings when I was 19.”

Robinson served from 1942-45 and when the war ended went back home to Cranford, N.J., married a girl he met while stationed in Goldsboro, N.C., and was ready to enroll in a veterinary medicine program. No such program existed at any college or university in New Jersey, so Robinson and his bride visited other states. Those slots, however, were reserved for in-state residents. The couple headed to University of Illinois where a veterinary program was in the works and where Robinson was accepted because his family owned land in that state. His dream faded when the university scrapped the veterinary program to build a sports’ facility instead.

Robinson switched his major to horticulture.

“I figured it was easy, and I could pass all the courses,” he said, tongue in cheek.

The choice connects to his background. During the summers as a teen, he worked on his grandparents’ farm in Mendota, Ill. He performed all the duties necessary on a farm: fed horses, milked cows, slopped pigs, and gathered wheat and oats during harvest.

Memories are vivid.

“In bed at night before I got to sleep, the breeze would blow in the window, and I could smell the harvested crops,” he said. “The odors were wonderful.”

Other childhood memories that remain are his interest in chemistry. He recounts how he made his own fire crackers, hand grenades and gun powder.

“It wasn’t anything malicious,” he said. “I just wanted to see how it all worked.”

The man is modest about his lifetime accomplishments and a listener realizes this Garden City resident, who turns 90 June 2, has an impressive list of credentials. With a bit of prodding, he revealed that he initiated a chrysanthemum breeding program while a student at the University of Illinois and developed three varieties of the flower that were eventually sold commercially.

He founded and was CEO of Tinker Chemical Corporation in Virginia, manufacturing home and garden pesticide products. He founded and was president of The Hugh H. Robinson Company, a retail and wholesale nursery on the East Coast. He’s been agricultural marketing program development director and marketing specialist for Delaware, Maryland and Virginia state Departments of Agriculture and adviser to USDA on a fruit- and produce-marketing program he developed.

He has also been spokesman for the nursery industry on CBS and NBC-TV news programs. He’s had an insurance license and a real estate license, and until 2004 was a substitute teacher in Maryland for all subjects in all grades.

“I was looking for a challenge and became a substitute teacher,” he said. “I’ve never been without a job, not one day.”

Today, he writes opinion pieces for “The Veteran’s Voice” and helps distribute the publication.

“I don’t think I ever retired,” he said.

His daughter, Sylvia Robinson, admires her father for his youthfulness and his sense of humor.

Besides, “he’s a very kind, caring person,” the Surfside Beach resident said. “He was a stand-by-your-daughter kind of dad.”

The retired Army nurse said her father didn’t influence her to enter the military, and she wasn’t influential in 2011 when he founded Help A Veteran, a 401(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to raising funds for local veterans’ groups. He said he started the organization because as he got older and developed health issues, he saw other veterans “worse off than I am.”

“There was a need and [Hugh] recognized that,” added Harry DuBose, fellow veteran and a board member of Help A Veteran.

Robinson’s latest fundraising effort is a concert by stride pianist Stephanie Trick-Alderighi. Stride is a rhythmic jazz piano style developed during the 1920s and 1930s.

Sylvia said she and her father are both lovers of jazz. They look forward to the Help A Veteran fundraiser May 31, and Robinson emphasizes he wants to assist veterans as much as possible.

He remembers his days playing trombone in the marching band at Cranford High School and his year at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania playing tuba in the school’s symphony orchestra. Now he appreciates music instead of playing it.

His interest in aircraft and flying persists, although he is no longer able to pass the physical exam to be a private pilot. He has owned three Beechcraft airplanes and has survived a crash without incident. “I didn’t even have a headache,” he said. “The shoulder strap saved me.”

“It’s kind of a fun thing to do if you're bored,” Robinson said of training flights in a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk during World War II.

He said the fighter planes were designed to max out at 450 miles per hour, but in the Army Air Corps the pilots were “stressed to maximum performance.”

One flight, Robinson remembered with a smile, he got the controls up to 650 mph.

“I destroyed that plane. When I got back in the chief mechanic as so mad at me. It had ripples on the wings. They had to scrap it,” he said. Robinson said at 650 mph the controls on the plane froze.

“I looked out the window and I was diving. I pulled with everything I had on the stick, but it was frozen,” he said. “The ground was coming up fast.”

In a last-ditch effort, Robinson said he reached down to the trim tab and he felt the aircraft stabilizing.

“I was 1,500 feet at 600 miles per hour. But, it turned out fine. Except for the plane, it turned out fine,” he said.

Years later, Robinson said he was flipping through the flight instruction book for the Warhawk and read the chapter on compressibility when the controls freeze. He said the manual said there was no need in trying the trim tab in compressibility.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t read that chapter before the flight,” he laughed.

Any new projects on the horizon?

“I’ve turned down three invitations for marriage, but I’d be happy to work out an arrangement with somebody,” he said, again, with tongue in cheek.

Janet Blackmon Morgan contributed to this story.

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