Jim Robertson: 140th Former Pro Killed in WWII
Jim Robertson was an outstanding college athlete who had just begun his professional career in baseball when military service called during the summer of 1942. He is the 140th former pro ballplayer to have been killed during the war.
James G. Robertson was born in Albany, Oregon about 30 miles south of Salem. He attended Albany High School where, as a catcher, he led the baseball team to three consecutive championships and was named to the county all-star team each year. He was also an all-star basketball player; a league high scorer his senior year and recipient of the schoolâ€™s outstanding all-around athlete award.
Beginning in 1938, Robertson continued his high profile athletic pursuits at Willamette University in Salem. Under the guidance of coach Roy â€œSpecâ€ Keene (Oregon Sports Hall of Fame inductee 1982), Robertson was the Bearcatsâ€™ starting catcher for four years. In 1940 he caught every inning of the teamâ€™s 22 games as they clinched the Northwest Conference championship for the first time since 1931. Among his teammates at Willamette were pitchers Bill Hanauska and Earl Toolson, and infielders Clint Cameron and Lee Shinn, who all went on to play minor league ball.
Robertson finished his collegiate catching days in the spring of 1941 and played summer ball for the Silverton Red Sox of the Oregon State League â€“ the same team Boston Red Sox infielder Johnny Pesky had played for two years earlier (many of the Silverton Red Sox players worked for the Silver Falls Timber Company which was owned by Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey). The Red Sox were state semi-pro champions that year and clinched the league title in September with a 14-5 win over Medford. The Silverton line-up of 1941 featured Willamette teammates Toolson and Shinn, future PCL outfielder Bill Carney and big leaguer Dick Whitman.
Robertson completed his basketball competition at Willamette in the winter â€“ where he was named to the Northwest Conference all-star team – and signed with the Salem Senators of the Class B Western International League in February 1942. One of his first games for the Senators was against his alma mater on April 23 at George E. Waters Park â€“ home of both the Senators and Bearcats. In a close fought contest it was Robertsonâ€™s infield dribbler that scored the only run of the game in the bottom of the ninth.
Playing for first year manager Charlie Petersen, Robertson held his own behind the plate and with the bat for the Senators. He had a three hit game against the Spokane Indians in May and was batting .250 in 21 games when military service beckoned in June.
Jim Robertson served with the Marine Corps and trained as a pilot, joining VMB-413 â€“ the Marine Corpsâ€™ first medium bomber squadron. With 1st Lieutenant Jim Robertson as pilot and squadron athletic officer, VMB-413 deployed to Hawaii in January 1944. The squadron flew North American PBJ-1s; the U.S. Navyâ€™s equivalent of the famous B-25 twin-engine Mitchell bomber, and the flight echelon flew to the island of Espiritu Santo, part of the New Hebrides, at the end of the month. Following a brief training period, the squadron then moved northward to Stirling Island (part of the Treasury Islands) from where it flew night-time missions against Japanese forces at Rabaul and neighboring islands.
Shortly before midnight on April 20, 1944, Robertson, with the squadronâ€™s executive officer Major Douglas E. Keeler at the controls of the PBJ-1D, was returning from a mission over the Japanese stronghold of Kavieng on the island of New Ireland. The bomber had been damaged by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and was attempting a landing in heavy rain at the Allied airstrip on Green Island when it overshot the runway and crashed into the lagoon killing all on board. In addition to Jim Robertson and Major Keeler, other crew members were Second Lieutenant Charles F. Leidberg from Chicago; Staff Sergeant Gilbert V. Enck of Portland, Oregon; Sergeant Aaron S. Johnson Jr. of Pluckemin, New Jersey; and Sergeant Robert C. Hubbell of Philadelphia.
â€œâ€™Robbie,â€™ as he was affectionately known by friends and athletic foes alike, was . . . one of Willametteâ€™s best baseball players,â€ recalled the Willamette Collegian newspaper upon news of his tragic death.
Willamette University Bearcats baseball teamÂ (Robertson is front row, first left. Cameron is back row, fourth from left. Toolson is back row, fifth from left.Â Hanauska is back row, fourth from right. Coach Spec Keene is back row, far right)
Willamette University Bearcats baseball teamÂ (Robertson is front row, second left)
Coach Keene instructs his Willamette University playersÂ (Robertson is in the middle with dark jersey, white socks and wearing a catcher’s mitt)
Jim Robertson with the Willamette University Bearcats
Jim Robertson with the Willamette University Bearcats in 1940
Jim Robertson at Willamette University in 1941
A North American PBJ-1D of VMB-413
Thank you to Rose Marie Walter, Archivist at Willamette University for help with this article. You can read about all 140 professional players who lost their lives during World War II at www.baseballinwartime.com