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Robinson, Roscoe, Jr.

Robinson, Roscoe, Jr.

(b. 28 October 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 22 July 1993 in Washington, D.C), first African American four-star general in the U.S. Army and a highly decorated combat commander honored for his professional conduct and distinguished leadership in the military.

Robinson was one of three children of Roscoe Robinson, who worked in a steel foundry, and Lillie Brown, a home maker. He graduated from Charles Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, where he served as class president in 1946. Too young to be drafted into the army during World War II, he attended St. Louis University for a year, then received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Robinson received a B.S. degree in military engineering in 1951, becoming only the sixteenth African American graduate in the 150-year history of West Point. After graduation he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the Associate Infantry Officer Course and the Airborne Basic Course, then served as a platoon leader in the 188th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the Eleventh Airborne Division until 1952. On 1 June 1952 he married Mildred Sims; they had two children.

Robinson began his tour of duty in Korea in 1952 in an all-black unit. He served as a platoon leader, a rifle company commander, and a battalion S-2 in the Thirty-first Infantry Regiment, Seventh Infantry Division. Although the black units serving in Korea were often in dangerous and exposed positions, he led his unit with distinction in difficult circumstances. During this year of combat he was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the Bronze Star Medal. Upon returning to the United States in 1953 he served in the Eleventh Airborne Division, and in 1954 he became an instructor in the Airborne Department of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Completing the Infantry Officers Advanced Course in 1957, Robinson, now a captain, reported to the U.S. Military Mission in Liberia. Robinson was one of the first African Americans to serve in an unsegregated unit.

The 1960s proved to be fruitful for Robinson. He completed a two-year tour of duty with the Eighty-second Airborne Division serving as S-4, Second Battle Group, 504th Airborne Infantry Regiment and then as Company Commander of “E” Company of the 504th. He expanded his career by graduating from the Army Command and General Staff College in 1963 and was awarded a master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh in 1964. Although his three-year (1965-1967) assignment to the U.S. Army Office of Personnel Operations as personnel management officer was one in which he had major responsibilities for vital logistic assignments related to the Vietnam War, he felt that he should be doing real soldiering. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1966 and was posted to Vietnam, where he served as G-4 and then as Battalion Commander in the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, First Infantry Division. For his service and leadership in Vietnam during a period of close and intense combat, he was the recipient of two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, eleven Air Medals, and the Legion of Merit. Robinson completed the National War College in 1969. His service for this decade concluded with his serving at Headquarters Pacific Command in the G-5 Plans Directorate and as executive officer to the chief of staff in Hawaii. He received his second Legion of Merit Award.

Upon his promotion to full colonel in 1972, Robinson assumed command of the Second Brigade, Eighty-second Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In July 1973 Robinson was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, and was made deputy command general, then commanding general, U.S. Army Garrison, Okinawa Base Command. In 1976 Robinson returned to Fort Bragg to Becoming the first African American to command ene ral nowned Eighty-second Airborne Division, a post he referred to as one of the highlights of his career. Robinson had served as a young officer in this unit. In 1978 he was made deputy chief of staff operations, U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh Army.

On 1 June 1980, Robinson was promoted to lieutenant general and became Commanding General of the U.S. Army, Japan IX Corps. On 30 August 1982 President Ronald Reagan nominated Robinson to become the Army’s first African American four-star general. From September 1982 to September 1985 Robinson served as the military representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the first African American to do so. After thirty-four years of service Robinson retired from the army in November 1985. At his retirement Robinson received two Distinguished Service Medals and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.

After his retirement Robinson served on the boards of various companies, including McDonnell Douglas Corporation, Comsat, Giant Food Inc., Metropolitan Life, and Northwest Airlines. In 1987 he was named to oversee the work of a panel to review the Korean War performance records of certain African American army units that were criticized at the time. In May 1993 Robinson was recognized with the Distinguished Graduate Award presented by the U.S. Military Academy’s Association of Graduates. In 1995 officials at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas dedicated a bust of Robinson at the Buffalo Soldier Memorial Park.

On 7 April 2000 Robinson’s wife, children, alumni, cadets, former colleagues, and distinguished guests attended the dedication of the Roscoe Robinson, Jr. Auditorium at West Point. Giving remarks, his son, Major Bruce Robinson, stated that his father was “a man who loved people, his family, and his troops.”

In his thirty-four years of active duty, Robinson built a reputation as a dedicated and talented soldier. A close friend and classmate, General Edward Meyer, characterized Robinson as “a selfless leader who respected his soldiers and was respected by them in turn.” Fellow four-star army general and friend Colin Powell stated that Robinson “was one of the pioneers who worked for racial change in the army. . . . He was a soldier worthy of praise” and “a mentor, a teacher, an inspiration, and a perfect example of the professional soldier.” Robinson died of leukemia at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Robinson’s philosophy can be simply stated in his own words: “I think that what you’re doing and how you go about doing it is much more important than who is doing it.” Becoming the first African American four-star general was a struggle for Robinson. He fought the battle of racial prejudice in the army, a fight for which he received no medals but paved the way for others to follow.

Robinson’s papers have been donated to the Library of Congress. Good sources for biographical information are the Annual Obituary Index (1993), Walter L. Hawkins, African American Generals and Flag Officers: Biographies of over 120 Blacks in the United States Military (1993), and Jesse Smith and Joseph Palmisano, The African American Almanac, 8th ed. (2000). Information on his career is found in various issues of the Army Times and in the National Technical Information Service Technical Report No. ADA195006 (23 Mar. 1988). Additional information on Robinson can be found at the United States Military Academy Library, West Point, New York. Obituaries are in the New York(Times, Washington Post, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch (all 23 July 1993).

Joyce K. Thornton

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