Service Number: 302028
Birth and Early Life:
Robert Russell was born to Dale and Clara Russell of Moulton, Iowa, around 1922. He was raised in Burlington and graduated from Burlington High in 1940. Russell began studying at Iowa State and was active in the Society of American Military Engineers through ROTC, but left school shortly after matriculation in order to join the service.
Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Russell joined the Marines on November 22, 1940. He attended boot camp at MCRD San Diego, then Signal School where he trained as a radio operator.
Private Russell was posted to VMSB-232, a Marine scout-bombing squadron based at Ewa Field, Hawaii, where he flew as a radioman-gunner on a Dauntless dive bomber during training in 1941. He survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, was promoted to PFC in January 1942, and then to Corporal in August, shortly before his squadron departed for Guadalcanal. Russell often flew with Major Fletcher Brown, the squadron’s executive officer; on one particular raid against enemy supply barges, Brown and Russell distinguished themselves by flying repeatedly over the target after their bomb run, peppering the area until they had both run out of ammunition.
Date Of Loss:
Brown and Russell took off at 1050 on September 6, 1942, as part of a large strike against Japanese buildings and shipping at Gizo Harbor. They reached and attacked the target, but on the way back to base a heavy storm blew in, scattering the formation. SBD-3 03356, carrying Fletcher Brown and Robert Russell, was knocked out of control by the weather and was last seen falling earthward. They never returned to Henderson Field, and no trace of their plane was ever found.
Although officially classified as “missing,” Russell’s squadron mates knew that the chances of his survival were slim. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard C. Mangrum, wrote to the missing corporal’s parents that fall. (1)
My dear Mr. and Mrs. Russell:
It is my painful task to write you some of the circumstances of Robert’s loss. I hope that you have by now received official notification that he was reported as missing in action. Please understand that this letter in no way constitutes an official communication but reflects my high personal regard for Corporal Russell and the desire to furnish those closet to him with some information from those of us who fought with him against the common enemy.
It was on the 6th of September we lost Robert and his pilot, Major Fletcher L. Brown, Jr., my executive officer. Robert was serving as radioman-gunner with Major Brown. Returning from a bombing mission the flight encountered violent storm conditions. You will understand how difficult it is to be sure of what happened, but other pilots believe that from the last seen attitude and altitude on Major Brown’s plane it was out of control and could not have recovered. I believe that you would prefer to have the facts as we know them rather than cling to a hope we do not feel could be consistent.
Robert was one of our best men, strong, reliable, conscientious, and working with zeal to perfect himself for the arduous nature of his duties. His loss is a blow to all of us and particularly to the other radioman-gunners in the squadron who trained so hard with him to perfect our combat organization which has rendered useful service so far in this area.
I hope some day that it may be possible for me to call upon you and tell you further of the life here. Robert’s loss is in line of duty, in service of his country, for a cause which must demand or some the supreme sacrifice.
With deepest personal regrets, I am yours very sincerely,
R. C. Mangrum
Lieut. Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps
Several years after Corporal Russell’s loss, the wreckage of an unidentified plane was found washed up on a Guadalcanal beach. Two sets of remains were found and buried in the island’s cemetery. An extensive appraisal of serial numbers was made, but the one most telling was the number 21, painted in white on the fuselage. SBD-3 03356 – the one flown by Fletcher Brown and Russell on the day they disappeared – had carried this number with VMSB-232. However, not enough evidence could be found to conclusively link the remains with a name, and both were permanently labeled as unknowns.
Today, Robert Russell’s remains may rest with those of his pilot in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Section Q, Grave 493.
Next Of Kin:
Parents, Dale & Clara Russell
Status Of Remains:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) Burlington High School Hall of Heroes