WWII veteran, Auburn alumnus treated to surprise visit of B-25 Mitchell

Published: April 20, 2015
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Buford Robinson had a hard time coming up with the words.

The 89-year-old Auburn University alumnus almost embarrassing admits he occasionally has difficulty thinking of the right words as the result of a stroke he suffered not too long ago.

But on this visit to the Auburn University Regional Airport, it was simply because he was overcome with so much joy.

Jim Cook, a fellow Auburn alumnus and local pilot, asked Buford and his wife Pat to be at the airport for a surprise. Cook had asked a friend of his, Larry Kelley, to stop at the airport on his way to an airshow in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Kelley, a 1971 Auburn pharmacy alumnus, happily obliged in order to show his B-25 Mitchell to Buford, who flew the bomber with the Army Air Corps – the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force – in the Pacific during World War II.

When Robinson learned the plane was arriving for him, he said to Cook, "Well Jim, I'm nobody."

Cook and Kelley know that is certainly not the case. Both men take great pride in sharing their warbirds with the men who operated them in battle decades ago.

Cook, a veteran himself, is active in Aviation Education Outreach, or AEO, a program within the Community Foundation of East Alabama that provides educational and development programs in support of expanding aviation experiences and opportunities for the community. AEO is hosting a fly-in at the airport on May 16. Cook will participate in the show with his Yak-9, a single-engine fighter used by the Soviet Union during WWII.

Kelley started collecting aviation artifacts as a young boy growing up in Enterprise, Alabama. He acquired vintage airplanes as he got older and in 2004, used his collection to start the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation in Sussex County, Delaware. The biggest plane in the museum's collection is Panchito, the B-25 Mitchell bomber that he brought through Auburn. Kelley has owned it for 18 years.

After earning his PharmD at Auburn, Kelley worked as a pharmacist for a few years before he and a friend gave it up to start their own business, Nationwide Pharmacy Centers, in Maryland.

"Pharmacy has been real good to me," he said. "I spent 30 years working nearly seven days a week. You know when you own your own business, the buck stops on your desk. At 3 a.m. when somebody 60 miles away needs a dose of milk of magnesia, you get out of bed and you deliver it. You do what you've got to do. But now I let somebody else do that."

Working as a consultant now Kelley said he has the flexibility to do airshows and make spontaneous stops in Auburn.

Robinson was noticeably thrilled to see the B-25, but he could hardly contain his excitement when he realized the Panchito was the same plane he got to fly in for his 80th birthday in Titusville, Florida. The treat was a gift from his daughter.

He undoubtedly would have gotten into the plane again – and even attempted to take the helm from Kelley – if he could have, but his frail body prevented him from attempting the ladder climb he made so many times as a much younger, healthier man.

The B-25 may have seemed like the star attraction at the airport that afternoon, its sleek metal basking in the sunlight. But Kelley, looking at Robinson and other veterans who showed up that day, quickly noted that, "Those are the real stories right there. The airplanes were the tools; these were carpenters. Like my Daddy used to say, a hammer don't build a house, a carpenter builds a house.

"These guys who volunteered day after day, getting in an airplane and going into harm's way, they're the ones who really changed the world."

Robinson enjoyed recalling all sorts of stories about his time in the service. Some stories made him smile and beam with pride. Others – like recalling when his 19-year-old brother was killed in North Africa – brought tears to the old man's eyes. He constantly apologized for the emotional display.

"Those are memories that will never leave you," he said.

Robinson said he joined the Air Corps in 1944 because "if you didn't, you were going to be drafted in the Army." Flying airplanes sounded much more exciting to the young Alabama boy. He enrolled at Auburn in 1946 and earned an engineering degree in 1952. He met Pat while he was managing Magnolia Hall – a dormitory where Lowder Hall now stands. She graduated in 1953 with a degree in elementary education. Both spent their careers in education. They have three children – all Auburn alumni – and will celebrate 61 years of marriage this summer.

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