top of page
PA-ETO-Marburger: Visit Us
robert gribbin pic.jpg

Private First Class Robert M. Gribbin

Anti-Tank Gun Cannoner

Anti-Tank Platoon, Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion,
399th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division


     Robert M. Gribbin Jr was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1908. Growing up in the British Isles, he began working young as a pantry boy aboard a number of sea vessels before working his way up as a steward. Work slowed, however, and by the mid-1920s Gribbin found himself unemployed and without many prospects. His father, however, had sailed to the United States only a few years prior, and before long the rest of the family decided to follow suit. After a final pantry boy stint aboard the S.S. Laticia, Gribbin, his mother, and his siblings boarded the S.S. Leviathan to seek new possibilities in America. Arriving in New York Harbor on 21 December 1925, Gribbin and his family quickly moved to Union, New Jersey where his father was living. As a young man, he found work easily as a clerk at the local drugstore. Over time he settled into the community, working at several local grocers as a clerk, stocker, and soda jerk. In 1941 he was fortunate enough to marry his longtime wife, Margaret, after an earlier marriage did not work out so well, and create a home for himself. Throughout this period he worked hard towards earning his citizenship in the United States but was unable to finalize it by the time war broke out in December 1941. Although still considered an alien, he was drafted into service in the United States Army in November of 1942. An American for over fifteen years, Gribbin now had to return to his European homeland, albeit in a state of total war.

     A soldier at the age of 34, Gribbin completed basic training and was sent to the newly formed 100th Infantry Division at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. He received his permanent assignment as a member of Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 399th Infantry Regiment where he served as a gun crewman in the battalion’s anti-tank platoon. In this capacity, he focused on learning methods of anti-armor tactics and fire support for infantry operations using the 57mm anti-tank gun. The battalion-attached gun platoons played an important role in providing fire support for their native battalions and as such it was critical for these men to fully understand the variety of tactical roles they might play. By October 1944 the division shipped out for service in Europe, arriving on the 20th only to quickly be sent southward to join the 7th Army. Heavily entrenched and bitterly embattled, the 7th Army was in the middle of a grueling campaign throughout the Vosges Mountains of central France where German forces had turned every hilltop, valley, and forest floor into a strongly contested firefight. 


     Gribbin’s battalion first entered the line by replacing elements of the 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division along Foret de Ste Barbe, a wooded and mountainous area, in early November. Their first weeks of combat were spent on the defensive, sending and receiving combat patrols to and from the enemy lines. On 16 November the 3rd Battalion was able to help achieve its first major victory, breaking through the Voges line by overrunning Hill 431. The battalion began an attack that ended up exploiting a weak part of the German defense, moving 500 yards into enemy territory, taking two hills and several heavily defended buildings before the German troops realized what was happening. This allowed the American troops to not only secure the left flank of the division but opened up a route for the 7th Army’s troops to cross the Meurthe River and break out into the Alsatian Plain. 

     By the 26th the 3rd Battalion moved out again, this time arriving in Lemberg two days later to begin working against the heavily defended Maginot Line. Initiating their attack amongst heavy snowfall on 5 December, the 3rd Battalion swept through Wingen, Goetzenbruck, and Sarreinsberg to reach their objective. Lemberg, they knew, would be a much harder fight as reconnaissance had spotted numerous pieces of German artillery, armored cars, tanks, and infantry filling its streets. Within a kilometer of the city, the battalion first became pinned down by heavy mortar and artillery fire, stopping the infantrymen dead in their tracks as they advanced up the flattened main road into the town. The fight proved much tougher than they had expected as the Germans entrenched themselves with heavy fire support in buildings and fortifications so tough that one even earned the title “Suicide Hill.” Gribbin’s guns would’ve played an important role in supporting the infantry attacks and, like many other battalion anti-tank platoons, probably aided medical personnel as litter bearers when needed. His battalion lost many men killed, wounded, and captured in the battle but after four days of hard fighting, the Germans were successfully pushed out of the city. Now able to call themselves true veterans of Europe’s hard combat, the 399th Infantry looked towards their next objective: Bitche.


     While German forces caused mass chaos to Allied lines further north in the “Battle of the Bulge,” Gribbin and the 100th Division were tasked with assaulting Bitche. Located to the south of the Maginot Line, Bitche was garrisoned by extremely determined SS troops and fortified with a series of artillery-equipped bunkers and forts. The 398th Infantry was sent to lead the assault of the division while the 399th shored up the line and sent smaller tactical missions to test the German troops. Gribbin’s battalion in particular found themselves spread quite thin as more and more German units began streaming into the area, his platoon’s anti-tank and machine guns becoming increasingly more important to holding their positions. On 23 December the 399th began preparations for its counterattack with Gribbin’s battalion holding positions along some elevated terrain stretching between Spitzberg, Lemberg, and Goetzenbruck. While the Christmas holiday was fairly quiet, with only the buzz of P-47 engines above, the days following would find Gribbin facing a truly horrid event that would test his courage.

     Beyond their 57mm guns, Gribbin’s platoon operated a series of .50 caliber machine guns for the headquarters company to help defend their positions and arm the various battalion vehicles. On the cold and wintery evening of 27 December, Gribbin and two others in his platoon, PFC Michael Tirpak and PFC Richard Pearson, struck up a fire near their positions to work on some of the new .50 caliber guns that had been given to the battalion. The work was grimy but necessary for a battalion on high alert for a possible German counterattack to stay equipped and ready. In the process Pearson got up from his spot around the fire to gather some more gas, likely for a jeep or truck they had been using. Gribbin and Tirpak kept working by the flames and before long Pearson came bounding up the hill with his fuel. Once he got close to the fire, however, everything went wrong. Tripping on something underfoot, Pearson sloshed the gas directly into the fire, causing the flames to explode. Bursting all around the three GIs, Pearson was closest and caught directly within the inferno, setting his entire body ablaze. In a chaotic frenzy, he began running down the hill “in a trail of smoke and flame,” as he sought to do anything he could to put the fire out. Without a second to lose, Gribbin and Tirpak rushed into action, following right behind Pearson “in rapid pursuit.” Reaching him, the pair tackled Pearson to the ground and immediately began using their bare hands to beat out the fire consuming their friend, melting away their skin and nerves in the process. To imagine the terror of the scene, these two forcing their open flesh onto their burning friend, likely screaming in agony and fear at being alight from a gasoline conflagration, is beyond belief. For all this to be occurring in a heavy combat zone where an enemy force may notice the chaos added an even greater gravitas to the situation. Gribbin and Tirpak nevertheless worked without regard for their own safety in fanning out their buddy, and, after several minutes, managed to finally extinguish the blaze. Pearson was alive, badly burned, but alive. Gribbin and Tirpak, though badly burned from their rescue, had managed to save one more American soldier who might have never seen his family again.

     The utter heroism and selfless disregard for personal well-being demonstrated by Gribbin and Tirpak did not go unnoticed. While all three had to be evacuated to a field hospital, Pearson's two rescuers were immediately put in for the Soldier’s Medal: a very rare and prestigious decoration awarded to soldiers who performed acts of heroism involving “personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy.” Considered between the Bronze Star and Silver Star in prominence, the decoration proved extremely rare for infantrymen who most often found their heroic actions occurring within a combat capacity, thus warranting one of the other medals. Nevertheless, the commanders of the 100th Division felt that Gribbin and Tirpak had gone above and beyond the call in their valorous response to their burning friend and were worthy of an award tp recognize their courage. Officially, the dual decoration was approved on 10 January 1945 while the 100th Division was amid the huge German counterattack of Operation Nordwind. Even still, they found time to make sure these two men got the recognition they deserved. The final citation reads as follows:


For heroism not involving actual conflict with the enemy on 27 December 1944, in the vicinity of Goetzenbruck, France. While Privates Tirpak, Gribbin, and Pearson were cleaning a new fifty-calibre machine gun near a fire, Private Pearson went after gasoline. Upon returning he stumbled and fell, dashing the gasoline into the fire. In the explosion that followed Private Pearson was caught in the blast and engulfed in flames. Panic-stricken, he rushed blindly down a hill in a trail of smoke and flame. Immediately Privates Tirpak and Gribbin followed in rapid pursuit. In short order they tackled Private Pearson and beat out the flames with their bare hands, suffering minor burns. This instantaneous action and utter disregard for their own personal safety, though they suffered minor body burns and badly burned hands, saved the life of their comrade and reflected great credit upon themselves.


As mentioned above, the actions of Gribbin saving Pearson did not stop the war. Indeed, the 100th went on to spend several more months holding their segment of the line, much farther than the rest of the 7th Army, before they could launch a final assault to take Bitche in mid-March. Even once Gribbin and Tirpak returned to duty they found themselves engaged in bitter urban fighting at Heilbronn, crossing the Neckar River, and driving on to clear German forces at Stuttgart. The fighting was difficult but the Men of the Century persevered until the end.

     At the end of the war, Gribbin remained with the 100th Division for several months during the occupation before heading home and receiving his discharge in 1946. One of only twenty-three men in the 100th Infantry Division to receive the Soldier’s Medal, which saw over 20,000 men go through its ranks, Gribbin’s act of selfless valor not even in the heat of combat still speaks highly of his courage and devotion to others while fighting overseas for a country he was not even a citizen of at his time of entry. Upon his discharge, he returned to New Jersey and began a long career at the Weston Electrical Instrument Company in Newark, from which he retired in the 1970s. Afterward, he still maintained his community presence by volunteering to work as a court attendant and school crossing guard. Gribbin finally passed away after a long life of meaningful service in 1991.

PA-ETO-Marburger: Pro Gallery
bottom of page