Wendel Archibald Robertson (1894–1963)
Wendel Archibald Robertson was a World War I fighter pilot who was one of two World War I flying aces from Arkansas.
Wendel Archibald Robinson was born on May 7, 1894, in Guthrie, Oklahoma, the eldest of three children of R. Scott Robertson and Elizabeth Robertson. He grew up in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), where his father worked in a wholesale grocery business, the Reynolds-Davis Grocery Company. He attended schools in Fort Smith prior to going to the Holbrook Preparatory School in Briarcliff, New York, and graduating from Yale University in 1915. He returned to Arkansas, working in his father’s business and with the Clear Creek Oil and Gas Company.
Robertson enlisted in the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School at Fort Logan H. Roots in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) after the United States entered World War I, but soon transferred as an aviation cadet in the Signal Corps. After graduating from ground training at the University of Texas on August 1, 1917, he received pilot training at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois. He was sent to the U.S. Third Aviation Center at Issoudun, France, in December 1917 and was assigned to the 139th Aero Squadron at Toul, France, on July 26, 1918.
When the U.S. Army’s offensive to reduce the German salient in the St. Mihiel sector began on September 12, 1918, Robertson was assigned to fly as wingman to Lieutenant David Endicott Putnam, who was the 139th’s acting commander and a combat ace, on a reconnaissance mission. He flew a French biplane commonly called a “Spad.” Shortly after taking off, the pair was attacked by fifteen German Fokker D-7 airplanes. Putnam downed one of the planes before he and Robertson ascended into the cloud cover to escape.
Dropping out of the clouds a few minutes later, the American pilots saw an Allied DH-4 observation plane being attacked by eight German biplanes. They attacked, and Putnam was killed, though the DH-4 escaped. Robertson continued the fight until the enemy planes ran low on fuel and then escaped back to American lines.
Six days later, Robertson and other 139th pilots shot down a pair of German Pfalz biplanes over Pagny-sur-Moselle. Robertson spied a third Pfalz and destroyed it, giving him three kills for the day.
After the Meuse-Argonne Campaign began on September 26, 1918, the 139th recorded twenty-three kills over the following six weeks, losing only four of their own. Robertson raised his score to seven, downing another Pfalz on September 28 and destroying Fokker D-7s on October 10, 23, and 30. Of Arkansas fliers in World War I, only Field Kindley of Gravette (Benton County) scored more kills, downing twelve enemy planes.
Following the Armistice, Robertson was given command of the squadron, bringing his comrades home in mid-March 1919. He was discharged from service on April 3, 1919.
He married Dorothy Read in 1922; the couple had one daughter.
Robertson returned to Fort Smith and worked in the grocery business and with an insurance agency. He became a regional sales manager for the Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America in the late 1920s, working for fellow ace Edward V. Rickenbacker. He later worked with an Oklahoma investment company and a Houston, Texas, taxi company.
He returned to active duty after World War II began and performed administrative duties at U.S. military posts in North Africa and in the Mediterranean region before retiring as a full colonel in April 1946.
Robertson died in Oklahoma City on November 3, 1963. He is buried at Forest Park Cemetery in Fort Smith. On November 11, 1988, he was inducted into the Arkansas Aviation Historical Society’s Hall of Fame.
For additional information:
“Arkansas Boy, Ace, Is Back from Front.” Arkansas Democrat, March 17, 1919, p. 2.
“Aviation Heroes to Be Celebrated by Hall of Fame.” Northwest Arkansas Times, November 7, 1988, p. 6.
“COL Wendel Archibald Robertson.” Find-A-Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53056593/wendel-archibald-robertson (accessed January 14, 2022).
“Dorothy Read Robertson,” Find-A-Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53056701/dorothy-robertson (accessed January 14, 2022).
Hudson, James J. “An Arkansas Spad Pilot Gets Revenge at St. Mihiel.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 42 (Summer 1983): 170–176.
———. Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
“Wendel A. Robertson.” Arkansas Aviation Historical Society. https://www.arkavhs.com/wendel-a-robertson (accessed January 14, 2022).
Whitehouse, Arch. Heroes of the Sunlit Sky. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1967.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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