Airplane insignia and mementos line the wall in the North Middleton Township home of Newt Robbins, who spent 50 years in the Civil Air Patrol. He will soon be the recipient of the Congressional Gold Award for his decades of service.
NORTH MIDDLETON TOWNSHIP — Fifteen-year-old Newt Robbins was caught up in a wave of patriotism in 1942, and he volunteered to serve in the Civil Air Patrol with hopes of defeating America’s enemies in combat in World War II.
“We had a war on, and that was the thing to do, was to volunteer,” he said. “What I wanted to do was go in and fly fighter planes.”
It didn’t happen that way — Robbins received pilot training only to be told his services weren’t needed, then received a year of Naval platoon leader training, but he wasn’t deployed until the war ended. However, Robbins used his training to re-enter the Civil Air Patrol and work in aviation for the Pennsylvania State Police, beginning a 66-year career of flight and community service that included rescue missions of downed planes, helping state police find missing persons, and founding Carlisle Crime Stoppers.
On March 28, Robbins will receive a Congressional Gold Medal, an award that must be designated by an act of Congress. The award was made available on Dec. 10, 2014, to the more than 200,000 active-duty members of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.
A quick glance in Robbins’ office — decorated with model airplanes, state police insignias and military memorabilia — tells the story of a life filled with activity. It began with an childhood interest in flying, and he can still remember building model airplanes and his first flight at 8 years old. He was sworn in as an Air Patrol Cadet in 1942 and was trained on small Piper Cub airplanes.
One of his first contributions to the war effort, he said, was serving as an Aircraft Warning Service observer, placed on top of a mountain to spot unusual, potentially enemy planes and equipped with a direct phone line to Washington, D.C., to report any activity, he said.
He joined the Army Air Corps in hopes of becoming a fighter pilot, only to be part of a group that was told in 1944 that pilots were no longer needed and the only options were to become a ground crew member, an “Army grunt,” or be discharged, he said.
“We were really (angry), because we were flying at the time,” he said. “We took the discharge out of it and, in sheer spite, joined the Navy.”
Robbins became a Naval platoon leader by the age of 17 in 1945, but this time it was too late to enter the fighting fray before the war ended. He spent one day on a battleship before being sent to decommission destroyers in Florida.
“I was a deck ape above deck,” he said. “I was on three United States Navy ships, and I never was in saltwater.”
Robbins was discharged from the Navy in 1946, forcing him to find a civilian career after missing the opportunity to fight oversees — but his aviation training during the war shaped him for a lifetime of more daring adventures.
Robbins next decided to attend Bucknell University to become a civil engineer, but he found himself up against a backlog of other war veterans seeking an education.
“They said, ‘It will be another year before we can even get close to (accepting) you,’” he said. “For an 18-year-old kid, that’s a lifetime.”
So he decided instead to attend Roosevelt Aviation School on Long Island, New York, obtaining his Airframe and Powerplant license. A few years later, after being laid off from a job with a coal company, his stepfather recommended he seek a job operating an aircraft for the Pennsylvania State Police.
“I looked at him sort of funny and said, ‘State police? I never wanted to be a cop,’” he said.
He decided to take his stepfather’s advice, however, beginning a 32-year career that lasted until his retirement in 1985. During that time, he helped to investigate fatal crashes, find missing persons and track fleeing bank robbers from aboard his plane, he said.
Robbins also maintained his activity in the Civil Air Patrol for about 25 years, helping to respond to more emergency situations than he can remember. One of the most memorable, he said, was the 1964 Savage Mountain B-52 crash in Somerset County of a plane that contained two nuclear bombs. All but one member of the crew ejected from the aircraft, and the Civil Air Patrol was called upon to locate them in the mountains and the snow. Robbins said he remembers seeing a man waving his arms, and he waved the wings of the plane back, so he believes — although he can’t prove it — that it was his plane that discovered one of the B-52’s crew members alive.
Not all of his experiences had as positive a result. He remembers working unsuccessfully to resuscitate a drowning victim in a quarry until his arms get tired, as well as the state police incident in which he was asked to investigate a plane crash into the side of a mountain.
“The plane was still burning, and I saw a stump over there that was burning,” he said. “I walked over to it, and it wasn’t a stump — it was the pilot. It was his trunk.”
Robbins finally retired in 1985 after more than 32 years in the state police, but he still did not fade from the public spotlight.
“My family had a history of dying off young, and I wanted to do some public service,” he said, so he joined the Exchange Club of Carlisle.
Assigned to the club’s crime prevention division, he formed the Carlisle Crime Stoppers organization and a few years later helped Pennsylvania develop its first statewide crime stoppers network, he said.
Among other activities, the Exchange Club provides community service, works to prevent child abuse, organizes youth programs, and helps promote “Americanism” through such activities as providing flags at parades, said communications director Anne Wood, who said she wanted Robbins to be recognized for his years of service in various capacities.
“He has always been out doing everything he could to help the exchange club,” she said. “He has a wonderful sense of humor, and he’s just a delightful guy.”
Robbins will receive the commercial medal during a 1 p.m. March 28 ceremony at the Reading Regional Airport terminal at 2501 Bernville Road.
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