Merit Badges: There are life skills and then there are life saving skills

Story by Adam McDonald

A quintessential part of the Boy Scout experience is learning merit badges. Merit badges range from physical activities such as Swimming to badges that broaden the Scout’s mental scope like Environmental Science. Often, as a merit badge is completed there is a requirement pertaining to learning about career options related to that badge. This requirement serves as foreshadowing for how the Scout will use the new skills he’s gained throughout his life. What many Scouts might not realize is that these skills can sometimes actually save lives.

Lee Robinson is an American hero.  He was a Scouter and a World War 2 soldier in the U.S. Marine Corps.  He served in the Pacific and survived Iwo Jima. He says he is also a man who owes his life to a skill learned for a merit badge. “Thanks to the training of a Boy Scout, we lived to fight again,” he wrote in a letter recounting the particular story. 

During the war, Japanese forces held an island called Bougainville, which is located in the British Solomon Chain—east of New Guinea. South of Bougainville was a smaller island named Choiseul, which Robinson’s Squad was tasked with landing on and feigning a large scale invasion. The strategy was designed to draw Japanese troops away from Bougainville and make it easier to take. Once on the island, if the rest of their company didn’t show by dark, they were to move south along the beach to be picked up by a landing craft.

When darkness came, their company was nowhere to be found, and “before we knew it our ten-man squad found itself surrounded by about 250 Japanese fighters.” His squad was trained to move undetected which helped them stay out of sight. However, the Japanese had camps all over, with cooking fires visible to the aircraft that was sent to pick up their squad. “Naturally [the pilot] surmised, no darn fool, even a Marine, would be at that rendezvous point, not in the middle of a Japanese bivouac.” But the pilot was wrong and that assumption would mean that Robinson’s squad was going to be abandoned on an island in enemy territory. 

“There was one among us who knew some semaphore, something he had learned as a Boy Scout six or eight years earlier. He crawled out onto the beach and hiding as best as he could behind a large rock, signaled the landing craft.” With that one skill, Robinson’s squad was saved. Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson could not recall the other soldier’s name, but his contribution left an indelible memory.

If you were a Scouter around in 2010 you will remember that for the hundredth anniversary of Scouting in America the Signaling merit badge was offered that year. A merit badge that in the 1930’s taught a young man about semaphore that saved the lives of Lee Robinson’s squad. Besides the 2010 centennial, the badge was discontinued in 1992. Yet, in 2015, that badge is back again in a new form. It is now called the Signs, Signals, and Codes Merit Badge. It is one of over a hundred merit badges that Scouters can earn, each of which will teach a life skill, that just might save a life!