Robert was born Sept. 1, 1924, in Honolulu, Hawaii, the son of a namesake naval commander and Catherine Byrne Gibson, the daughter of a prominent New York physician. Consequently he enjoyed something of a privileged upbringing, spending several years traveling with his mother through France, Spain, Italy and Austria. The family eventually settled in Lynchburg VA, where he completed high school, graduating in June 1941. Robert wanted to attend the Naval Academy but his severe myopia prevented acceptance. So he enrolled in Hamilton College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York, where he also joined Enlisted Reserve Corps and its unfulfilled promise of time to complete the degree. When examined by an officer and asked if he really wanted to join given his limited vision without glasses, he assured the office, “Yes, I want to help the war effort.”
In March 1943 the army called Robert up for active duty, so he chose the Air Corps. After a few weeks of basic training he was sent to Tinker Field in Oklahoma City where he became a shipping clerk. Still hoping to complete college, he secured a place at Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College in Stillwater in ASTP. Near the end of the first semester a second lieutenant in charge of the post office advised him to flunk out as ASTP was going to be shut down. Had he done so, he would have been sent back to the Air Corps and avoided the infantry. Thinking he wanted to earn college credits, he ignored this sage advice; but the lieutenant proved right, the program came to an end, and Robert departed for the 99th Infantry Division at Camp Maxey in Paris TX.
After completing advanced infantry training, Robert and his fellow 99ers left for Europe, arriving in eastern Belgium in early November 1944. Luckily, after one night in a freezing foxhole, Robert was assigned to Regimental Headquarters to “police the kitchen” in little town of Krinkelt where he might at least be out of danger from shells and bullets. Soon after the onset of the Battle of the Bulge, he and others left the village and headed for Elsenborn Ridge where they set up a kitchen and fed stragglers who happened by. Late in the afternoon on Christmas Day Robert was standing in an enclosed porch eating hard candy when suddenly a blinding flash occurred, and shell fragments struck him. One metallic chunk had penetrated a lung, gone through the diaphragm and lodged in his stomach. After evacuation to Liege, an army doctor removed the fragment and sutured the stomach. But complications ensued, for an infection developed in his pleural cavity. Subsequently a plane transported him to an army hospital in Cheltenham, England, where a ward surgeon daily ran his finger around the pleural cavity and removed any accumulated fluid through a drainage site. The procedure worked and gradually he recovered.
While in the hospital Robert made himself useful by creating a 30-minute radio program with music and jokes for the patients; he also constructed a wheeled cart that allowed the nurses to roll x-rays around the ward instead of carrying them. For some unknown reason the ward surgeon, Dr. Gerald Rigterink, called him into his office one day and told Robert he ought to go into medicine, a career he had never considered previously. That single recommendation changed his life. After returning home he completed medical school and then a residency in internal medicine. He married, had four children, and from 1954 until 1991, practiced as an internist at Clinch Valley Hospital in Richlands VA. After retirement Robert relocated to Weaverville NC, where he operated a free clinic, there and in Kenya, and actively participated in a variety of educational and charity programs. If there is one common theme that runs through Robert’s life, it is helping others in need. His family and all those thousands of patients he treated are grateful he survived the war.