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Pvt. William B. Robbins: Company 'I', 339th Infantry

Pvt. William B. Robbins (Courtesy of Mariam Robbins Midkiff)

William B. Robbins was born June 6, 1896, the third of seven children of Angelo and Mary Robbins. The Robbins family lived in Hesperia, MI, where Angelo worked as a schoolteacher, while Mary raised the kids and managed their home. Teaching was an insecure job, forcing Angelo to move around, and he did so, towing his family with him. Fortunately, in 1906, Angelo found a teaching position in Ensley Township, MI, and would stay there for eight years. It was here that “Bill,” as he was called, attended school, completing one year of high school.

In 1914, Bill’s father gave up on teaching and took a job working at a nursery near Muskegon, MI. Bill, now 18-years-old, got work driving a hearse for a local funeral home, and in 1917, while driving the hearse for a family’s funeral, met 15-year-old Marie Lewis, who was at the funeral for her grandfather. The two became friends and Bill courted her for the next two years.[1] Bill, also in 1917, registered for the draft, and was listed as; of medium height and build, and with blue eyes and brown hair.[2] He continued working as a hearse driver for almost another year before being ordered to report for service on June 23, 1918. Bill, along with many Michigan young men, reported to Camp Custer, and eventually was assigned to the 339th Infantry, Company ‘I’.

The 339th headed for France in early July 1918, but was redirected to northern Russia. Private Robbins, along with everyone else in the 339th, arrived at Archangel in early September 1918, though Robbins had been sickened by the Spanish Flu. Fortunately Pvt. Robbins recovered, and once he was healthy enough, rejoined his company near Obozerskaya. There, as a member of the Third Battalion, Pvt. Robbins (along with many other soldiers) developed a severe dislike for the unit’s commander, Maj. Charles Young. Robbins admitted he was part of the group of Yanks who shot at the chimney of Maj. Young’s quarters in an attempt to frighten him.[3] Happily for the men of the Third Battalion, their much-disliked commander was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. J. Brooks Nichols. Private Robbins survived the coming months of combat and bitterly cold weather, though he was also prepared for a different fate. He always carried an envelope in his pocket, addressed to Marie that read: “Good bye Marie. My last thoughts are of you. Love to all.”[4] Finally though, Pvt. Robbins and his company were sent to Camp Economie and in June 1919, shipped to France, and from there, back to the United States. Robbins was discharged from the 339th Infantry on July 7, 1919, and at that time received a discharge payment of $284.45.[5]

Bill Robbins returned to Muskegon and found a job as a millwright at a foundry. He and Marie Lewis married, and at first, lived with her parents.[6] Their first child, Robert was born in 1921, with him being the first of five children. Bill got another job, this one as an auto mechanic, a position he held for the next five years. Then, by 1930, Bill was working as a salesman.[7] The Depression was not the best of times for the Robbins family. Thus Rob, Bill’s and Marie’s oldest son, quit school, following the eighth grade, and got a job delivering telegrams, and by doing so, brought in some extra money to the family budget. One day Rob was bitten by a dog, while making a delivery. The young man came home so that Marie could tend to his injury. Bill was furious and grabbed his pistol, found the dog, and shot it. The dog’s owner yelled at Robbins, “You shot my dog.” Bill answered, “Yes I did, and it wasn’t that long ago I was shooting people.”[8]

Bill and Marie lived in Muskego until 1942, when Bill, who had been working as a landscape salesman, quit that job, and then they moved to Coopersville, MI. The couple purchased a small farm not far from where their eldest son, Rob owned an auto body repair shop. Bill went to work for his son, and he proudly wore a set of overalls with “Dad” stitched on the nameplate.[9] Marie and Bill remained in Coopersville, and by 1950, he still worked for his son; meanwhile Marie had a job as a manager of a gift shop.[10]Years later their granddaughter, Miriam Midkiff, remembered Bill fondly, recalling, “he was a story teller … with an affinity for his pipe.”[11] Marie and Bill retired, and he passed away August 6, 1972. Marie followed in 1986. The couple is buried in the local Coopersville, MI cemetery.


[1] Midkiff, Miriam Robbins, 16 July 2007. [2] Robbins, William B., Draft Registration card, 5 June 1917. [3] Midkiff, Miriam Robbins, 16 July 2007. [4] Midkiff, Miriam Robbins, 16 July 2007. [5] Midkiff, Miriam Robbins, 16 July 2007. [6] 1920 U.S. Census. [7] Muskegon City Directory, 1930. [8] Midkiff, Miriam Robbins, 16 July 2007. [9] Midkiff, Miriam Robbins, 2003, 2006. [10] 1950 U. S. Census. [11] Midkiff, Miriam Robbins, 16 July 2007.

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