ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia --
It was a comfortably warm day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. As the noonday sunlight dappled through the tall trees and birds fluttered between the branches, five U.S. Airmen walked slowly and quietly through a large, peacefully shaded cemetery to find the final resting place of a man whose actions bonded the Ethiopian and United States air forces in camaraderie.
Every time Airmen from the 818th Mobility Support Advisory Squadron visit their Ethiopian counterparts for building partnership capacity missions, they make it a point to stop by the grave site of American-born John Robinson, a legendary, historical aviator.
“It was pretty serene and peaceful,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Greg Carpenetti, 818th MSAS senior air advisor about his experience in the cemetery. “It was like you were stepping back in time,” he said, explaining how old, elaborate tombstones were scattered across the layout wherever they could fit.
Robinson was an African-American born in 1905 who dreamed of becoming a pilot. He broke many standards to become the first formally trained African-American pilot, helping to create the pilot arm for Tuskegee University and was considered the “Father of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Finding it challenging to get a job in the U.S. because of his race, he was personally invited by the emperor of Ethiopia to join the Ethiopian air force as a colonel in the midst of troubled times for the African country. He was quickly promoted to chief of the Ethiopian air force and helped turn the tides of war when Italy invaded Ethiopia with superior weapons and aircraft in 1935.
Because of Robinson's actions, Ethiopia remained the only non-colonized country in Africa. Robinson went on to establish a school of aviation in Ethiopia that later trained the first pilots for Ethiopia Airlines, which is now the largest commercial airlines on the continent.
“People in the Ethiopian air force, they know him,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Ryan McCaughan, 818th MSAS C-130 Hercules navigator instructor, during one of his partnership-building missions to Ethiopia. “They still revere him.”
That's why, when the U.S. Air Force donated a C-130 Hercules to Ethiopia in 2018, Robinson's grave site was a focal point, with much of the ceremonial procedures occurring within the cemetery gates. McCaughan said the ceremony symbolized the strength and rich history of their relationship with Ethiopia.
“No competitor of the United States interested in building relationships can boast that kind of deep history of relationship with a country, particularly Ethiopia. Our relationship is so strong,” said McCaughan.
Building upon and maintaining that strong relationship is one of the reasons why the 818th MSAS comes to Ethiopia several times a year. During their trips, U.S. Airmen are busy with their mission to advise, train and assist their partner nation, but they still take time out of their schedule to drink coffee with their counterparts, learn about the Ethiopian culture, and honor a man who helped to establish a deep connection between the two countries.
“In Ethiopia, John Robinson's a hero,” said McCaughan. “He should be held up just like Jackie Robinson and any African American heroes that we revere today.”
“It was pretty fascinating how an American ended up in Ethiopia in the WWII time frame,” said Carpenetti.