Remembering A Veteran's Service In "The Forgotten War"
by Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney
February 27, 2019
Lost medals and rarely spoken memories of a war seldom mentioned—this is what inspired Bob Petrucci, Adjutant and Senior Vice Commander of American Legion Post 68, and his friend Dave Lallier, to honor 91-year-old Korean War veteran, Robert Rawlings.
In a ceremony held November 27, 2018 at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Conn., family, friends, and fellow veterans joined together to bear witness as Rawlings was presented with the medals he earned during the Korean War.
A side-by-side photo collage of Korean War veteran Robert Rawlings standing next to a North American F-86 Sabre fighter jet in the 1950's (left) and over 60 years later (right), at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Conn., November 27, 2018. Rawlings, who flew the F-86 in combat during the Korean War, was honored for his service during a ceremony at the museum, during which the Commander of the 103rd Airlift Wing, Col. Stephen R. Gwinn, presented him with the medals that he earned during the war. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air National Guard combined photos by Tech. Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney)
This tribute, which came as a complete surprise to Rawlings, was the final step in a plan hatched by Lallier to replace Rawlings’ medals after learning they had been lost.
“This all came about with Dave Lallier, who happens to be Mr. Rawlings’ neighbor,” said Petrucci. “One day, Dave went to Mr. Rawlings and said he’d like to see his medals. Bob [Rawlings] said, he didn’t have them, he misplaced them, he can’t find them. It was coming very close to Bob’s birthday, so Dave went to [Bob’s] wife, Jean, and asked if she would mind if he contacted Senator Blumenthal to see if we could recover his medals. She said ‘no, go for it.’ So it was all done behind Bob’s back.”
According to family and friends, Rawlings rarely speaks about his military service. Rawlings enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1951, and in 1952, became a commissioned officer. Shortly after, he deployed to Korea as an F-86 pilot. Hearing these seldom-told stories from Rawlings about what it was like to fly in combat over the Korean peninsula inspired Lallier to take action. The first order of business was recovering the lost medals. Lallier contacted Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal who, in addition to replacing the lost medals, had them encased in a wooden shadow box and shipped to Mr. Rawlings’ home. However, replacing the medals was not enough for Lallier; he and Petrucci wanted the medals formally presented to Rawlings. The two men received their wish when the Commander of the 103rd Airlift Wing, Col. Stephen R. Gwinn, agreed to present the medals during a surprise ceremony. Thomas Saadi, Connecticut Veterans Affairs Commissioner, was also invited and would honor Rawlings during the ceremony by presenting him with the Commissioner’s Coin.
Unlike World War II and the Vietnam War, coverage of the Korean War was heavily censored. Five million soldiers and civilians, including 40,000 Americans, lost their lives during the four-year conflict; yet, memories of the war seem to have faded from the American psyche. Over the years, the Korean War became known as the “Forgotten War.”
Petrucci, a proud Vietnam Era veteran of the United States Navy, saw the ceremony as a way to help a Korean War veteran get the recognition that he deserved.
“I’m very, very proud of being a veteran and just want to do anything I can to help out my fellow veterans,” said Petrucci. “We have to continue to recognize these Korean War vets and put on ceremonies such as this. We do so many for Vietnam War veterans and [Korean War veterans] are overshadowed. [They may] have been somewhat forgotten, but I remember.”
Col. Stephen R. Gwinn, a decorated C-130 pilot who flew in combat during the Global War on Terrorism, recalled a trip to Washington, D.C., in which the Korean War memorial overshadowed by other war memorials.
“I immediately think of the Korean War monument down in D.C.; the bronze soldiers walking through the fields,” said Gwinn. “It’s a unique monument and it’s kind of off to the side and not as shiny and out there like the Vietnam Memorial, the World War II Memorial, or even the World War I Memorial.”
In a single deployment to Korea, Rawlings flew a total of 92 combat sorties, which, according to Gwinn, is a remarkable feat considering the perilous circumstances of aerial combat during the Korean War.
“We think of today, in modern times, where we have air superiority over everybody,” said Gwinn. “Our pilots are more safe with more technology, more backup, more resources, whereas these guys were flying the newest technology at the time, which was not necessarily the safest technology, but they did it without question and without fear. Going up 92 times in one tour is absolutely amazing.”
Following the ceremony, Rawlings was escorted to a hangar where a North American F-86 Sabre was stored. As he ran his hand across the nose of the aircraft, memories of his time flying through the Korean skies came flooding back to him. Of the 92 combat sorties Rawlings flew, six of them were intercept missions, in which he faced with the dangerous prospect of engaging a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 Soviet fighter jet in a dogfight. His squadron held a record, possibly unbroken to date, for flying the most combat sorties in a 24-hour period; Bob flew five of these sorties himself. Guests from the ceremony, including Gwinn, listened as Rawlings reminisced about the capabilities of the F-86 and what it was like to fly the plane in combat.
“I almost felt like, when he was standing next to the F-86, that he could have gotten in, started it right up and flown it,” said Gwinn.
Today, major headlines concerning tensions between North and South Korea serve as a perpetual reminder that the war between these two countries never officially ended. The Korean Armistice Agreement currently in place only serves as a cease-fire between the military forces of the two Koreas, however, we be thankful for veterans like Robert Rawlings whose efforts ensured some semblance of hope exists for peace between North and South Korea one day.
“What we defended throughout the Cold War is making sure countries didn't fall to regimes that didn't adhere to democratic values,” said Gwinn. “What those men and women did in the Korean War secured that for the world, and that cannot be forgotten.”
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