A tribute to Xenia’s Robert “Shorty” Geyer, the shortest fighter pilot in World War II

Note: Earlier in my career, I was a features writer at the Skywrighter, which is the newspaper of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I was privileged to write an array of personality profiles on veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Here is one of the my favorite stories, which is appropriate on Independence Day and every day. Mr. Geyer died at the age of 91 in 2014, the same year my grandfather and U.S. Navy veteran in World War II, Ennis Stillwell, died at 90. Thank you to Mr. Geyer, both of my grandfathers who served in World War II and all of our veterans who have passed on but whose sacrifice and service is jointly responsible for the freedoms we share today. This article was published in 1995 in a 50th anniversary World War II section I wrote and edited.

By Jeff Louderback

Thumbing through a personal book that tells his World War II experience, Robert “Shorty” Geyer stops of the page detailing his final flight record.

Four combat missions completed, it reads.

Numbers are deceiving in the case of Geyer. His is a story of a young man small in height but full of heart – a determined aviation cadet who refused to let any obstacle interfere with his goal of flying for the Army Air Corps.

Unofficially, he is the shortest fighter pilot who served in World War II. A more distinguishable fact, Geyer flew little known but crucial air ambulance missions near Remagen, Germany at the end of the war. During these flights, he transported wounded troops from the front lines to tent hospitals, saving many lives.

A 1941 graduate of Xenia Central High School, Geyer attended Miami University in Oxford as a freshman. In September 1942, he stood in a registration line for sophomore classes.

Robert "Shorty" Geyer

Robert “Shorty” Geyer

“I had a feeling that I would be drafted, and I wouldn’t be able to finish the school year,” Geyer said. “So I walked out of the line and to the bus station. I arrived at Wright Field and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.”

Then 5-foot-2 1/2 inches tall, Geyer told the Army Air Corps enlisted staff he wanted to sign up for the aviation cadet training. The height requirement for pilots was 5-foot-4, but the guidelines to become bombardiers and navigators were less strict at 5-foot-2.

“They recommended I sign up for navigator training because of my height and my math background,” Geyer recalled. “But I told them I didn’t want to be navigator. I wanted to fly, and nothing else.

“They told me it could be months before I was called to basic training, so I asked them to put me down for aviation training,” he added. “I said that I would stretch myself the remaining inches so I’d be eligible.”

Geyer remembered a technique he learned from Tom Blackburn, who was head coach of Central high School’s basketball team and later became a coaching legend at the University of Dayton.

Ironically, Geyer tried out for the team his first three years, but Blackburn told him he was too small. As a senior, Geyer returned for a final chance. The coach admired his player’s dedication, and kept him. That season, Central advanced to the state semifinals.

“He told me that if you hung from parallel bars or water pipes for an extended period of time, you could stretch your spine and gristle would fill in the openings,” Geyer said. “I wasn’t sure if it wold work, but I decided to give it a try.”

From the time he enlisted until the moment he was called to basic training in February 1943, Geyer spent hours hanging from the water pipes in the basement of his family’s restaurant in downtown Xenia. At night, he slept on a hardwood surface.

When Geyer reported to Keesler Field in Missisissipi, his size was the subject of a cruel joke, one that eventually caught the attention of the Army’s chief of staff.

“They didn’t have clothing in my size, so when they saw me, they issues me size 42 clothes and size 10 shoes,” Geyer said. “One day, we had a parade and high-ranking officials like Gen. George C. Marshall and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden were in attendance.

“As we marched by the reviewing stand, Marshall noticed me and mentioned for the parade to stop,” Geyer added. “He looked at me, and then asked me where I got my clothes. I told him the quartermaster issued them to me. The didn’t have anything small enough, so they gave me the largest size they had.”

Gen. Marshall was not amused. After the parade, he accompanied Geyer to the quartermaster, where the young soldier was given clothes that fit.

After completing basic training, Geyer was sent to college training detachment at King College in Tennessee, delaying his final physical until June 29, 1943.

“I still slept on har surfaces, and my buddies played tug-of-war with me by pulling on my arms and legs,” he said with a smile. “Just before the physical, I had stretched an inch, but I was still a half-inch too short to qualify for aviation cadet training.

“To get the extra height, I bought round bunion pads and placed them at the heels of my feet,” Geyer added. “That, I thought, would give me the additional half-inch.”

When Geyer appeared for his physical, one sergeant measuring height voiced his opinion that the short cadet candidate would be rejected. The other sergeant, who was recording weight, disagreed. The pair bet a candy bar about Geyer’s height.

“The sergeant who was measuring height jammed the bar against my head, looked at the numbers, and said I was a half-inch too short,” Geyer said. ” Then the other sergeant insisted the measurement was done wrong. I stood as straight as I could, and he laid the bar gently against the top of my burr haircut.”

The scale read 5-foot-4, and Geyer was accepted into aviation cadet training. Hundreds of pilots died during flight training in World War II. Of the four friends who roomed together at King College, Geyer was the lone survivor of the war.

geyer3

He graduated on May 23, 1944, when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. The feat wasn’t achieved without close brushes with death.

Geyer’s first flight was in a Piper Cub, and his flight instructor was a heavyset civilian. The seat belts and shoulder straps in the plane were adjusted to fit the portly man.

“I told him that I couldn’t tighten the belts and straps, and he said not to worry, that I wouldn’t need them,” Geyer said with a grin. “Evidently, he forgot I wasn’t fastened in because he put the plane in a nose dive spin. I slid out of my seat and onto the control board.

“The plane quickly dropped from the sky, and he was yelling at me to get off the controls, but  couldn’t,” he added. “Finally, I grabbed a lever and pulled myself back into my seat.”

The instructor regained control of the plane and suggested the incident remain confidential.

Geyer was given the chance he had trained for in January 1945 when he was sent to Belgium and assigned to the 493rd Fighter Squadron. The 20-year-old kid with a compact frame and a boyish appearance didn’t impres the commanding officer.

“He took one look at me and said, ‘They’ve been lying to us. We’re not winning the war, we’re losing the war.’” Geyer said, imitating the officer’s voice. “They’re sending the kids over here. Next, they’ll be sending us women!”

For weeks, a discouraged Geyer remained grounded by the commander until he received an assignment to fly air ambulance missions for the First Army in an L-1 near Remagen.

The Germans occupied one side of the Rhine River, and the allied troops the other. The First Army anticipated that, because of the soldiers and equipment crossing the bridge, no room would exist for ambulances to bring wounded men from the front line, so the service Geyer and fellow pilot Lt. Pete Gray provided was essential.

The L-1 is what Geyer flew during air ambulance missions in World War II

The L-1 is what Geyer flew during air ambulance missions in World War II

The L-1 was quite a change for Geyer, who was accustomed to flying fast fighters like the P-47. The plane he transported patients with had a 295-horsepower engine and reached a top speed of 40 mph.

“We had to dodge artillery shells being fired across the bridge by our own troops, and we carried no weapons,” Geyer said.

“We would land where medics placed a red cross, and we could only take one patient at a time. The fields we landed on were devastated by the bombing, and often it was difficult to find a place to sit the plane down.”

In addition to his plethora of air ambulance flights, Geyer flew four fighter missions before returning to the United States and receiving his honorable discharge. There was little knowledge of the mercy missions Geyer and gray flew until Geyer walked into the Air Force Museum in 1994 and presented the research center with copies of his war diary and other items from his service.

When he approached museum researchers Dave Menard and Tucker Malishenko, Geyer was remarkably reunited with a friend from basic training, museum volunteer Elden Shook.

“I was standing at the copier when he (Geyer) came in, and I heard him talking. When he said he was the shortest fighter pilot in World War II, I knew who he was,” said Shook, who was also a fighter pilot in World War II. “I turned around and asked him if he was Shorty Geyer.”

Shook met Geyer on a bus in Dayton, and they traveled together to Keesler Field and became friends. They separated after basic training and had brief contact during the war, but they had not seen each other since.

The past year, Shook has helped prepare Geyer’s archives collection. His air ambulance flights not recorded by the Army ir Corps, Geyer never received a  medal or decoration for his service at the Remagen bridgehead. Yet the most important mission for Geyer now is ensuring that fugutre generations know about the mercy flights they made.

“This is lost history that needs to be recorded,” said Geyer, who managed the cafeteria at Skyway Park after the war before entering the office supply business in 1963. “We did fly these missions, and I feel it’s important for people to know what actually happened.

“I was trained to shoot down enemy planes and end lives, but with the mercy flights, I got to help save lives,” Geyer added. “Maybe I didn’t get any medals, but the reward I got was satisfaction. Saving lives is more important than any medal or award.”

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