Army Sgt. James William Robinson Jr. was surrounded by the enemy deep in the Vietnam jungle when he gave his last full measure of devotion to save his fellow soldiers. His bravery and selflessness were never forgotten, and they earned him the Medal of Honor.
Robinson was born Aug. 30, 1940, in Hinsdale, Illinois, to parents James Sr. and Ethel Robinson, but he was raised in nearby Lyons, Illinois, with his younger brother, Tom, and sister Joan.
Robinson was known to be a bright, pleasant boy who loved animals and became interested in health and fitness at a young age. As he grew up, he started to appreciate literature and wanted to become a writer, according to a letter from his father that was published online.
Robinson went to Morton West High School and played football before leaving to join the Marines in 1958. Much of his time in the service was spent in Okinawa, where he earned a black belt in karate.
When his enlistment expired, Robinson returned to civilian life. Several newspapers said he finished high school and enrolled in Morton Junior College. He eventually moved to Annandale, Virginia, where his father had moved after his parents split up. There, Robinson used his karate knowledge to operate a school for self-defense, Army documents show.
As U.S. involvement in Vietnam expanded, Robinson really wanted to do his part. He decided to enlist again in December 1963, but this time, he joined the Army. Robinson was initially deployed to Panama, but he wanted to fight in Vietnam so much that he consistently requested a transfer to the war zone until it was finally granted. In July 1965, Robinson shipped off to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division based in Saigon.
By the spring of 1966, the battalion was part of Operation Abilene, which had a mission to search out and destroy enemy base camps and supply caches that had been set up in preparation for an attack on the capital.
On April 11, 1966, Robinson was part of Company C when it walked directly into an ambush set up by a Viet Cong battalion about 40 miles east of Saigon. At the time, the company was already light on men due to leave and injury, Army records showed. The heavy fire they were taking from all sides quickly started to decimate their numbers further. They tried to take cover, but it was hard in the dense jungle, where enemy snipers hidden in trees were able to easily spot them. Two other companies were supposed to back them up but had lost track of them in the jungle’s dense foliage.
According to a 2019 Dupage County Chronicle article, at some point in the afternoon, Air Force pararescuemen had been able to cut a hole in the dense jungle canopy to repel down and airlift out about a dozen wounded men. But as the choppers flew away, intense enemy machine gun fire rained down on those who remained.
Despite the chaos, Robinson moved confidently among the men to instruct and inspire them, and to put them into strategic positions. Eventually, Robinson located one of the snipers who was inflicting the heaviest casualties. He grabbed a grenade launcher and successfully took that man out.
Soon after, Robinson watched as a nearby medic was hit while giving aid to another soldier. He knew the two men were now at the mercy of the enemy, so he ran through a hail of gunfire to grab them and drag them to safety, where he gave them both aid to help save their lives.
As casualties mounted and day turned into night, Robinson moved around under intense fire to collect weapons and ammunition from the wounded to redistribute them to soldiers who could still use them.
When another man went down in front of him, Robinson again ran out into enemy fire to bring him to safety. This time, though, he was hit in the shoulder and leg. Despite the pain, Robinson dragged his comrade to shelter and also gave him life-saving aid.
As he was patching up his own wounds, Robinson noticed one of the enemy machine guns that had been inflicting severe casualties on his men. He’d run out of ammo for his rifle, but he was determined to end its reign of terror, so he grabbed two grenades and charged at the entrenched enemy weapon.
As he did so, he got hit in the leg with a tracer round, which set fire to his clothing. Robison ripped off the flaming clothes and continued forward anyway. The enemy was now solely focused on him, and they shot him twice in the chest with a .50-caliber machine gun. Before Robinson lost strength, he was close enough to the gun that he was able to throw the two grenades into the entrenchment.
As the grenades exploded, destroying the enemy position, Robinson died where he had fallen. He was 25.
Robinson’s bravery and devotion to the cause saved several lives and helped lead to the defeat of the enemy battalion. However, it came at a price. A 2019 Dupage County Chronicle newspaper article said that 80% of Robinson’s unit was killed or wounded that day.
Robinson’s body was returned to the U.S. and buried in Clarendon Hills Cemetery in Westmont, Illinois.
For his extraordinary valor in action, the young soldier earned the Medal of Honor. His family received it from Army Secretary Stanley R. Resor during a ceremony at the Pentagon on July 16, 1967.
“Those of us who survived that day, and Vietnam … came home and had the rest of our life. Sgt. Robinson didn’t get to have the rest of his life,” remembered fellow soldier Phil Hall, who spoke to the Dupage County Chronicle for a story commemorating what would have been Robinson’s 79th birthday. “He gave that to us.”
In the many decades since Robinson’s passing, his legacy has not been forgotten. The elementary school in his hometown of Lyons was renamed for him in 1967. A few years later, the Robinson Secondary School opened in Falls Church, Virginia, also in his honor. His family even donated Robinson’s Medal of Honor to the school, which displays it in its entrance showcase.
The Robinson Army Reserve Training Center in Chicago and an annual military award commemorate his heroics. Robinson was also honored as recently as April 2021, when fellow members of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment dedicated a street in his name at Fort Riley.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.