On June 6, 1944, D-Day, a 27-year-old self-described skinny kid from Rutland, Vermont, took part in aerial assault on Normandy, France. Robert Strobell flew his Republic P-47 as part of the 351st fighter squadron on two beach patrol missions totaling 9 hr. and 10 min. during the invasion. He lived to tell the story.
Strobell was a prime example of that tough, unselfish generation that went to war, giving their years and youth to a larger cause, holding no remorse and having no expectations for rewards when the job was done.
I met Strobell many, many years later at the College Park Aviation Museum in Maryland in 1999 when as a journeyman writer (I selected him to interview as part of a storytelling journalism course I was taking). And what a story he did tell, while patiently enduring the clumsy interviewing skills of a novice. He worked at the museum as a docent, with few visitors knowing his link to aviation and D-Day.
Strobell did not engage with any German fighters on June 6, but two days later, he shot down a Focke Wulf 190 over the coast, an unconfirmed "kill" as his gun camera was not working. A month later he earned a confirmed kill of a Messerschmitt Bf109. "It's impersonal," Strobell told me. "It's not the pilot, it's his plane. If I don't shoot him down today, I'll have to shoot him down tomorrow." In total, Strobell flew 79 comabt mission and 300 hr. in theater from Feb. through Aug. 1944 in the P-47.
Adventures and challenges followed the war's end. As part of a small group of pilots organized by Col. Hal Watson, he went deep into Germany soon after the war ended to assemble and fly one of nine Nazi Me-262s out of Germany to France for shipping back to the U.S. The pilots were known as "Watson's Whizzers". After being analyzed, those aircraft, along with other captured aircraft, formed the basis of the United States Air Force Museum in Ohio. Strobell was in charge of the entire captured aircraft inventory.
Strobell's gone now, having died of natural causes in 2001, but his contribution lives on, written not on a tombstone at Colleville-sur-Mer, like so many others, but in the clouds that fly over the beaches of Normandy, and in people that he helped make free.