Memories from a World War

sinfonia-in-the-military

Learn the story of Brother First Lieutenant Lavan R. Robinson (Beta Omega ’48) and First Lieutenant Olin G. Parker (Gamma Mu ’41) who both served in World War II.

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The Sinfonian May 2011 - Feature Story by
Matt Koperniak (Epsilon Lambda '99)

This year will mark the 70th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War II, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During the years that followed, college enrollment plummeted as virtually all able-bodied young men joined the military effort. Many Sinfonians defended America in WWII, and some returned home to continue with their college education and to continue living their lives.

Two veteran Sinfonians, Dr. Lavan R. Robinson (Beta Omega, ‘48) and Dr. Olin G. Parker (Gamma Mu, ’41), recently shared their experiences in World War II. Incidentally, both men went on to serve the Fraternity as Province Governors for many years, and both men are now the namesakes of annual chapter-sponsored music scholarships given in their honor (Dr. Robinson – Zeta Gamma, Valdosta State University; Dr. Parker – Epsilon Lambda, University of Georgia).

Joining the Army

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the country was well-aware of the war brewing in Europe, and most young men expected eventually to serve. As a student at Bethany College, Dr. Olin G. Parker had not yet completed his undergraduate degree when he entered the enlisted reserve, and was subsequently called into service. He reported to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where the men were separated by last name for basic training: A-D went to Florida, D-H were sent to Arkansas, and I-Z went to California. “After 13 weeks of basic infantry training,” Parker recalled, “we had a choice as to what we wanted to apply for. The choices, they were not good, as far as I was concerned.” After basic training in California, Parker was sent to Seattle where he was a “filler.” He explained, “when units were being shipped overseas, sometimes guys would go AWOL and wouldn’t go, and we would fill their place.”

Dr. Lavan R. Robinson was attending Louisiana Tech prior to joining the Army, and was able to finish his degree before entering military service. “When the Germans entered France,” said Robinson, “I knew that my time would be very soon.” Robinson recalled being outside on campus on Sunday, December 7, 1941. “Everybody started to talk about it, and then the next morning, that’s when Roosevelt gave that great speech, the Day that shall live in Infamy.” Parker noted, “At that time, everyone was headed in one direction: win the war. Win, win, win. The country has become so divisive now, you can’t imagine how unified everyone was then.”

Robinson was a First Lieutenant in the Army Infantry, in the Blackhawk Division. “Everyone wanted to go in the Air Force, but not me. I wanted to keep my feet solid the ground. Infantry suited me fine!” Robinson underwent officer training at Fort Benning. He recalled, “I was trying to be the best soldier, the best officer I could be.” Robinson’s unit spent time training in Louisiana, Texas, and California before entering the war overseas.

Dr. Olin G. Parker
Dr. Olin G. Parker
Dr. Lavan R. Robinson
Dr. Lavan R. Robinson

The European Front

Robinson’s unit had been training for deployment in the Pacific, when General Dwight D. Eisenhower assigned them to go to Europe, due to a need for more troops. “At that time,” explained Robinson, “you had no idea where you were going. They didn’t tell us. They thought the enemy would get a hold of it.” Robinson’s unit arrived in France, just after the Battle of the Bulge, and for a week stayed in a “Cigarette Camp,” (a staging camp) approximately 40 miles from the ship where they disembarked. “They named them after cigarettes,” said Robinson, “I think mine was ‘Old Gold’.”
Robinson’s unit progressed from France into Belgium, and then into Holland via “Forty-and-eights” – trains in which each boxcar held forty men or eight horses. Upon being alerted to enemy aircraft, Robinson recalled jumping from the boxcar, tumbling and scrambling into ditches to avoid enemy fire.

When his unit reached Bonn, Germany, they crossed the Rhine River with the orders to join General George Patton. “And that was something else,” said Robinson, “trying to keep up with him!” After clearing the enemy out of Bonn, they continued traveling. “You were being fired at all the time,” said Robinson. “I didn’t lose any men in my platoon until we got to the Danube River. One of my men was hit with a field artillery piece, it tore him all to pieces. That was very sad.”

After crossing the Danube and covering more terrain, Robinson lost his company commander and had to lead his platoon through the Bigge River, almost frozen over and very icy. After crossing through the river, his troops began to draw fire. “That was my worst time,” explained Robinson, “the whole night, freezing cold, with wet clothing on.” He and his troops found some foxholes in which they quickly hid and spent the night trading fire. When the sun came out the next morning, the soldiers discovered the foxholes were littered with arms and legs of soldiers from a previous skirmish.

Robinson realized the end of the war in Europe was approaching as enemy troops began surrendering. “They would come in big groups with their hands up high,” he explained. By the time the war ended in Europe, Robinson’s platoon had traveled all the way to Salzburg, Austria. At that time, Robinson was sent to Paris to help with training for a school that would be conducted by American troops. “That was right at the end of war,” said Robinson. “We had a great time. All the troops went out at night, and we’d stay out until 3:00 in the morning.”

USS SHAW exploding during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941
USS SHAW exploding during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941

The Pacific Theatre

After his basic training was completed and he arrived in Seattle, Parker was assigned to the Airborne Antiaircraft Artillery unit. Parker describes, “Well, that unit turned out to be mostly made up of young men from the New York and New Jersey area. You’re talking about being a frog out of a pond! I was a naïve, young country boy from Western Kansas.”

Parker’s unit boarded a cargo ship and sailed to northern Australia, where they were deployed to New Guinea. At that point in time, the Japanese had pushed all the way down through the Philippines and to the tip of Australia. “I was commissioned during that time,” recalled Parker, “taken from that outfit to another unit, as a second lieutenant. I spent, as a total with two different units, twenty uninterrupted months in the jungles of New Guinea.” At the time, fighter planes could not fly for long periods of time, so engineers established small air fields for the planes to “do the hop-skipping-and-jumping from Australia to Japan,” explained Parker. During those long months in the jungle, Parker’s unit was responsible for protecting the airfields being built throughout New Guinea, both from enemy infiltration in the jungle and from enemy planes overhead.

“Remember, the planes then would probably fly 200-250 miles per hour, not 500, and they were flying low, where they could be reached” said Parker. He and his troops used height finders to assist in shooting at moving targets. “Estimating,” explained Parker, “and firing at planes that were trying to take us out, trying to take out the planes on the ground.”

Parker fondly described the return of Allied fighter planes back to the airfields. “You know what a P38 fighter plane is?” Parker asked. “It had two fuselages, so it was introduced, probably, in the middle of the war, and was really a sight to be seen. It was a good plane, and we saw a lot of them come back and do the victory roll. That was our main enjoyment, I think, in the whole thing.”
News from the European front was non-existent in the Pacific. “We didn’t know what was going on in Europe,” said Parker. “Radio transmissions were not good. We did have some kind of radio, and you’ve heard maybe of Tokyo Rose, who was a propagandist, who tried to convince us we should all pack up and go home to our loved ones, and played our kind of music. I don’t know if she ever convinced anyone they could go AWOL and try to go home. We just didn’t have that attitude.”

Among his experiences during those twenty months, Parker proudly remembers meeting another Sinfonian in the jungles of New Guinea, although it was only a brief encounter in which the two men did not have much time to get to know each other. Parker’s description of the availability of drinking water in jungle was not as fond. “There were a lot of rivers in the jungles, but you dare not drink it. So, the water they fixed for us to fill our canteens – blister bags – which had a rubber lining. And, rubber linings taste so terrible (laughs), so terrible. And, of course, if you’ve never tasted synthetic milk, why, you’re lucky! It is not good.”

After Parker’s unit cleared New Guinea, they boarded ships that took them to the coast of Japan. Parker explained, “We were poised on Northern Luzon, ready for the invasion of Japan. And the ships were there, and we had weapons and mobility and trucks, and jeeps, and the whole bit. And the LSTs … big long boat, that opens in the front, drives up on the beach, and people go out the front.” When the Japanese surrendered prior to invasion, Parker and his men were deployed to Tokyo, where they spent six months as military police.

Letters written to the Fraternity from Brothers serving in the military during WWII.

(Click the images to enlarge)
Letters written to the Fraternity from Brothers serving in the military during WWII. (Click the images to enlarge)
1943 Sinfonian-page2

The War Drawing To A Close

Meanwhile, back in Europe, after spending two weeks in Paris, Robinson received orders to take his troops to the concentration camp at Dachau. After locating his platoon in Mannheim, they proceeded to Dachau. “It was a terrible place … there were dead people on the streets,” said Robinson. “The first day we went into Dachau … the stench was so terrible, the dead people there. The train had brought in a group of Jewish people from another area, and they killed them when they found out Germany had surrendered, right there on the train.” For days, Robinson couldn’t eat, due to the overwhelming odor. “War is hell,” he said, “and it really is true.”

One of Robinson’s duties was to provide sustenance for the American troops at Dachau, and he would travel to Munich with trucks to procure the food. Coming back into the concentration camp at Dachau, there was a sign on the brick entrance that could be seen as everyone entered. Robinson described the deceptive nature of the sign, written in German, “Arbeit macht frei,” translated to “Work Makes You Free.” Robinson recalled, “The people in that camp, their work did not make them free.”

Robinson also described the tents at Dachau in which prisoners had been told to remove their clothes, in order to take a bath, but instead were taken into the gas chambers.  “Then,” said Robinson, “the crematoria there, they had burned as many of them as they could.” After the American troops had liberated the camp, clean-up came slowly. “The stench was so bad,” he said, “you had to get so inured to that smell. You can’t get it out, all at once. As much as they tried to fumigate, and do all the things they did, it’s just there.”

Robinson spent the remainder of the year at Dachau. “We had to keep the people who were starving away from the waste cans,” he said, “or they would eat so much they’d kill themselves, and we were trying to heal them.” German doctors and nurses were set up in the camp in order to treat the liberated prisoners, and members of the SS were charged with cleaning up the camp. “We are all frail,” mused Robinson, “and it could happen to us.”

While Robinson remained at Dachau, most of his men were deployed to invade Japan, just prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “They would have been sent to Japan,” said Robinson, “and they would have been wiped out.” Both Parker and Robinson acknowledged the controversy in later years of President Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons to end the war, as compared to the likelihood of vast American casualties by invading Japan. “My daughter once told me,” said Parker, “that we shouldn’t have dropped the bomb. I told her plainly, ‘if we hadn’t, there would be a 50% chance you would not be here right now’.” Robinson reflected, “I’m so glad we dropped that bomb. My dear friends, and people we served with, would all be dead. There are so many arguments for and against it, but I think you’d be for it if it would save your life.”

Parker returned to school following his service in WWII, but stayed in the active reserves.  Six years after returning from Japan, Parker was called back into service and was sent to Korea. “At that time, the country became divided,” said Parker, “and, probably with good reason. Most of the people who went into Korea came through World War II and heard all the propaganda that we fought that war to end all wars. And, here we were, back in Korea, a few years later. In my mind, that is when people started having different ideas, instead of thinking as one.”

Reflections

Of his experience as a First Lieutenant, Robinson said, “You are a master of your troops. You’ve got to be in control. You’ve got to lead them. You’ve got to be a soldier to do that. You’d do a lot of things you normally would do. You’d command them to do something, and they didn’t mind doing it for me, because they knew I had done it before.

“My greatest fear was that I would do something stupid. And, it’s easy to do something stupid, it really is. The cold weather, you’re freezing, you’re mad, and you’re angry, and you can easily make mistakes and get people killed. My greatest fear was that I would let them down in some way. I would have died before I would have let them down.”

Parker received his commission midway through his time in New Guinea, becoming a Second Lieutenant. He said, “As an officer, I had different kinds of responsibilities. One of the saddest ones, not talking about casualties, was sending a sergeant home blind. Out in the jungles, there were big bamboo, where it was easy for them to make cups. We had plenty of sugar and synthesized food stuffs. The men, when they had a respite, would steal sugar and, we had little pots of cooking alcohol to heat up food. That alcohol, they could mix it with sugar, and out in the woods, they would make small stills. Sometimes, we were situated in a situation for two or three weeks at a time. He made his too strong, and it blinded him. Being responsible for men who would do that kind of thing was not enjoyable.”

Both Parker and Robinson went on to have long careers as music professors at the university level. The lessons they learned in World War II have stuck with them through this very day. “World War II was instrumental in my development as an individual,” reflected Parker, “I learned how to get along with everybody. Aside from war, I hope I have never made any enemies. Suddenly having to become a grown-up, I missed a lot of things that I know you young people did in your early 20s, because I was in the war. I think that has done me good for my entire life, and my spirituality, and my emotional state, as well as always wanting to have more education.”

“I proved my manhood, and that gave me a lot of confidence,” said Robinson. “Thank God I was successful at doing what I did. I went to school, I worked very hard, studied hard, went to all kinds of workshops to make myself better in my profession, in teaching.” Both Robinson and his wife taught music for many years, and he summarized, “Music has been my life.”

“The hope for America,” said Robinson, “is to still keep our faith in our abilities to each other, and to speak and to do this in truth.” He added, “This is still a great nation, a great country. It is the greatest I’ve seen.”

Both Robinson and Parker, along with all veterans of World War II, are true American heroes. Both men, however, are very humble when describing their contributions. “I’ll be the first one to say, I was no hero,” said Parker, “I got the Bronze Star, which is a pretty automatic thing, if you have honorable service. No Purple Heart, or anything.” “A hero is someone who does more outstanding things than I did. The people who got killed,” said Robinson, “they are the heroes. I just thank God that I stayed alive.”

We owe all our Sinfonian veterans, living and deceased, a debt of gratitude for their service. Our country and our Fraternity have benefited from their immeasurable sacrifices and leadership.

President Eisenhower signing HR7786, changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day.

“The hope for America, is to still keep our faith in our abilities to each other, and to speak and to do this in truth.” He added, “This is still a great nation, a great country. It is the greatest I’ve seen.”
-Lavan R. Robinson
(Beta Omega ’48)

Lavan R. Robinson - Georgia Public Broadcasting

Dr. Lavan R. Robinson served as a First Lieutenant in the Army Infantry, in the Blackhawk Division. Dr. Robinson served under Patton and traversed to France to join the fight at the Battle of the Bulge. As a leader, Dr. Robinson describes his responsibility to his troops, and how he reacted under fire to guide and protect them. His narrative takes the viewer through France, Germany and to Dachau prison camp.

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