Dale Robertson: Actor & Wounded Combat Veteran

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.


I was in Tulsa, OK attending the largest gun show in the world where I met the Hollywood acting star Dale Robertson. I watched his TV show "Iron Horse" in the 1960s and of course "Death Valley Days." He made 63 movies, many of them being Westerns. His favorite was "The Gambler of Natchez". There was the "Tales of Wells Fargo" TV show and he was on the extremely popular show "Dynasty." He was regularly seen as a guest star on TV shows well into the 1990s ("Murder She Wrote" and "Fantasy Island").

However my first question to Mr. Robertson was "are you a veteran?" The answer was, not only was he a WW II Army veteran, but he was a combat wounded soldier. Mr. Robertson is a native of Oklahoma, born in Harrah. Because he had boxed professionally he was ineligible to play college sports so he decided to attend Claremore Military Academy, in Claremore, OK. He was an all around athlete and earned 32 athletic awards while at Claremore.

Mr. Robertson advised me that he entered the Army in 1943. He took his basic training at Ft. Riley and became an enlisted cavalryman. In 1944 he was sent to Officer Candidate School at Ft. Knox in Kentucky.

2nd Lieutenant Robertson became an Engineering Officer. He was assigned as the platoon leader of 2nd Platoon, C Company of the 322nd Combat Engineers, which was in the 97th Infantry Division. The 322nd was in California practicing amphibious landings on the sunny beaches of Camp San Luis Obispo. The 97th Infantry Division was supposed to be headed to the Pacific when the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium occurred.

While stationed in California, Lieutenant Robertson had a photo taken, that was displayed in the portrait studio. This was how Hollywood discovered him, even before he separated from the Army at the end of WWII. The entire 97th was put on a troop train to New York and on 19 February they sailed for France.

I was able to track down Lt. Colonel Fritz Ahlfeld, US Army Reserve retired, who as a young Lieutenant had been the platoon leader of third platoon, alongside of 2Lt Robertson's 2nd platoon. The amphibious training for attacking islands occupied by the Japanese came into good use, when the 97th was assigned to take the German city of Düsseldorf.

The Sieg River had to be crossed under enemy fire. 2Lt. Robertson and his platoon built a floating bridge that allowed supplies and infantry troops to cross the river. His platoon was responsible for removing mine fields that had been set up on the German side of the Sieg River. All of this was accomplished while under fire from German machine guns, mortars and the dreaded 88mm artillery.

The first two jeeps across the Sieg were blown up by mines. The Germans were not happy that the enemy was on their home soil and the fighting was intensifying. As the Germans were pushed back they would blow up anything that the US Army might be able to use. 2Lt. Robertson, along with the rest of Company C, was charged with repairing whatever they could (such as bridges and roads) or removing what could not be fixed but was in the way (such as mines and burning buildings).

After the capture of Düsseldorf the 97th was sent to the border of Czechoslovakia to liberate the city of Cheb and get the military factories in that city out of the hands of the Germans. The biggest problem for the 322nd Combat Engineers was the minefields that had to be cleared before the infantry and tanks could move forward. 2Lt. Robertson's platoon fought alongside the infantry in order to advance, to remove the mines.

During this operation they were under 88mm artillery fire and Dale Robertson told me he was wounded by shrapnel. I asked him about receiving the Purple Heart. He told me he dressed his own wounds and got on with the mission. He never reported to a military medical unit. With no official record, you get no official recognition. (Note the contrast with the extremely minor shrapnel wound insistently reported by now Massachusetts Senator John Kerry during the Vietnam War that got him sent home before his tour of duty was completed. -Ed.)

The Army tried to recall him during the Korean War. When they did a physical, injures were then made known to the military and he was deemed not qualified for active service. Like most WW II veterans, Dale Robertson got on with his life after the war. He just happened to do it on Hollywood's silver screens.




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