This Oral History is copyrighted by the Interviewee
and the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program on
behalf of the Board of Trustees of the University of
Copyright, 2005, University of Florida.
All rights, reserved.
This oral history may be used for research,
instruction, and private study under the provisions
of Fair Use. Fair Use is a provision of United States
Copyright Law (United States Code, Title 17, section
107) which allows limited use of copyrighted
materials under certain conditions.
Fair use limts the amount of material that may be
For all other permissions and requests, contact the
SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Bill Roberts begins the interview by speaking about his decision to join the Marines.
After a semester at the University of Michigan, Roberts enlisted and on the same day he
was shipped off to basic training at Camp Matthews in San Diego, California, in 1943.
He later describes the first time he saw military action in World War II which was while
he was stationed on the island of Guadalcanal as a replacement battalion [1-7].
After his turn in Guadalcanal, Roberts was sent to Okinawa and Saipan. He elaborates
on the different types of artillery used in battle, the geography of the area, and
compares the military strategies used in Saipan to the events in Okinawa, Japan. He
also discusses the effects of the pre-landing bombardment of the U.S. Air Force in
Eventually, Roberts elaborates on the camaraderie in his squadron and then describes
what American soldiers perceived to be the mentality of a Japanese soldier. During his
time in Okinawa, his outfit suffered a seventy-five percent loss of life. He talks about the
strategies the Marines used in war and his experience in close combat battles [14-18].
Upon landing on the Oroku Peninsula (Okinawa, Japan), Roberts describes the
conditions of the area in comparison to his previous deployment in Guadalcanal. He
reports his attitude towards the war, including his opinion of the subsequent casualties,
lack of sleep, food and disease. Roberts also speaks on the different tactics used by
the military during the battle of Okinawa to detect the enemy [19-26].
Roberts recounts stories of seeing friends die in combat. He also explains how original
Japanese successes and the quality of enemy fighting may have created different
opinions on the home front for American civilians. After the Battle of Okinawa, he
moved to Guam and later China, where Roberts heard news of the Japanese surrender.
He briefly touches on the atomic bomb and the loss of life to the Japanese due to the
nuclear bomb. He recalls the peaceful removal of the Japanese troops in China after
fighting ceased. With better technology and vast amounts of supplies, the United States
defeated Japan on August 6, 1945. Roberts reveals his relief about the victory and
explained what qualities enable a soldier to survived in times of war [27-35].
In March of 1946, Bill Roberts was discharged from the Marines and worked in Flint,
Michigan with the Buick Corporation. He recalls going through hard times and
eventually working two jobs to support his family. After receiving a job with Orange
Blossom Diamond Rings, his keen entrepreneurship enabled him to further his
education at Syracuse University. This allowed him to lead a very successful business
career. He later describes the personal problems like malaria, mental issues, and
combat fatigue he encountered once home. He also talks about the guilt he felt for
being a survivor of the war. Finally, Roberts concludes the interview with his reaction to
Tom Brokaw's comment that World War II veterans were part of "greatest generation"
Interviewee: Bill Roberts
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: October 27, 2004
P: This is Julian Pleasants. It is October 27. I'm at Pondra Vedra Beach, Florida,
with Bill Roberts. Just give me your date and place of birth.
R: I was born February 15, 1925, in Flint, Michigan.
P: Give me your educational background.
R: [It was] pretty limited. I was a good student in high school. [I was the]
valedictorian of my little Catholic high school with only thirty-eight students in the
graduating class. I got one semester [in] at the University of Michigan in mid-
1942. I was only seventeen. I graduated a little early. I got into the Marine Corp
immediately at the beginning of 1943.
P: Did you enlist?
R: After basic training, I scored well in a basic intelligence test, and they sent me to
Duke University in a pre-officer's training course. I didn't have enough college to
quality for OCS. They sent a lot of them, they had Navy boys and Air boys and
ROTC and Marine Corps college training program and P-5 and the Air Force and
so on. I was at Duke University for three semesters. I ended up with two full
years of college.
P: Did you enlist in the Marines?
P: Why the Marines?
R: I don't know. Everybody wanted to go somewhere to fight. It was such a popular
war. I had taken the intelligence test for the Air Force and I liked the idea of
being a fly-boy. You know, a seventeen-year-old kid. I got down to the place
where you had to volunteer to go through the draft process at that time, and a
great big Marine was standing there. The only big Marine I think I ever saw
during World War II. God, he must have been 6'4"! I was the biggest guy in my
machine-gun squad, by the way, at 5'8" and 160 pounds. I liked the looks of that
guy in that Marine Corps uniform. That's just where I went. I didn't even go
home. I went to San Diego the same afternoon I signed up. I had two weeks I'd
get at home. I just went on to train.
P: You did your boot training in San Diego?
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 2
R: San Diego.
P: Describe what that was like, and how long were you in your training?
R: The first part of the basic training was seven weeks. I think that's correct. It
might have been longer at the beginning of the war, but it was only seven weeks
for us. Then we had three weeks at Camp Matthews, just north of San Diego, in
the rifle range. It was like all the movies you ever saw about boot camp. They
just took away your individuality. Your hair was cropped. You got up at
incredible hours. The discipline was just unyielding. At the end of the thing, we
could do close-order drill like the machine. When they said, do this, we did it.
We didn't hesitate. I guess that's one of the great advantages in the close-order
drill. We did it by the hours. We were at this beautiful Marine Corp base in San
Diego, one of the most beautiful bases in the world. We just loved that part of it.
In the afternoon the flag is blowing, the band is playing. Not just for us, but for all
these people. That was it. Camp Matthews was in the mountains. I love
mountains, but we were absolutely alone up there, with your class of maybe six
hundred riflemen. Even the cooks learned how to fire a rifle. Every Marine is a
P: You would fire M-1's and carbines at that time?
R: Just M-1's. The old three had just been phased out, and the Garrand [rifle] came
P: What was your DI [drill instructor] like?
R: Tougher than hell. I think he could have killed anyone in the whole squad with
his bare hands. He had this mythical aura about him and he was just impervious
to any kind of snide remarks that he might hear. He wouldn't hear them. He was
just a god. He had incredible presence. We knew he was the guy. He was the
guy. You'd walk there and, in about the first twenty minutes, he says, well, your
soul belongs to God, but your ass belongs to me, and it's a grape, and if I
squeeze it...just in this incredibly loud voice. We heard him two miles away. We
didn't have to get out in the barracks to hear that. He was an impressive man. A
very impressive man. I later learned that that was a bunch of bullshit and the real
stuff happens overseas, including the training overseas, which is really what you
learn to prepare for.
P: You learned to perform as a unit. That's mentally what that's about.
R: Exactly. When they told you to do something, and the guy was in a position of
respect, whether he was a corporal or a colonel, you just reacted. You didn't
say, is that the thing I really should do? How about this? You just did it. I think
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 3
the officers, by the way, may have been the greatest difference, if there is a
difference, between Marine Corps riflemen, infantry, and Army. Our officers were
superb, in my opinion. I was only in there for three and a half years.
P: Well, part of that is that a lot of the Army officers were drafted. Almost all of the
Marine Corps had volunteered.
R: I think so.
P: The Marines, I suspect, had a little higher expectations for their [trainees]. I
suspect you did quite a few push-ups.
R: Oh, yeah. That's the sort of stuff you see in movies. If you hadn't dusted your
rifle for inspection, and my God, pull the bolt back and hold it like this, and they'd
walk up to you and be looking at your shoes, your uniform, all of a sudden, he'd
snatch that rifle out of your hand, and his hand would hit the stock and the spring,
and bang! You'd think, Jesus Christ, you broke it; you broke my arm. Where the
hell did that noise come from? He'd stand there looking at you. He'd hit that
thing, spin it once, come up so you're looking down to the rifle. He'd have his
thumb in the receiver area so he could get the reflection of that. When the hell
was this? This was sixty two years ago? I could feel that just now. The rifle just
leaped out of my hands with this huge noise, and there he is, looking at me. All
of a sudden, just below the site, he hits the rifle, spins up, and he's got a hold of it
looking just like this.
P: You'd better let go of that rifle when he hits it.
R: You bet. If you drop it, then you have to hold it for three [hours] out at the end of
your fingertips. Only you can't hold it for three [hours]. You can hold it for about
six minutes. Big sturdy guys, maybe seven or eight. You can't hold that darn
rifle. We couldn't. Then the thing would fall in the dirt, and then he would just
chew your ass out. Look at that beautiful rifle! Look at the filth on it! Get out of
here! Clean that, I want you back here in five minutes! On and on. That's the
funny stuff, just to get disciplined.
P: Did you have hand-to-hand combat in your basic [training]?
R: No. Well, bayonet practice.
P: But nothing too serious?
P: Once you finished boot camp, and you were in the 6th Marines [division], is that
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 4
R: The 6th Marine division.
P: Where did you go from San Diego?
R: I went to Duke University. For twelve months. The Marine Corps College training
P: Then, from there, where did you go?
R: At the end of the third semester, we had our two years of college in, a bunch of
us. Bob Russell, who was my roommate, whose uncle was the senator, Richard
Russell, from Georgia. He was the chairman of the [Senate] Armed Services
Committee at that time. He wanted to go, too. They said we had to have two
years of college before we could go to OCS [Officer Candidate School]. That's
good. Then they said, now we've got a new one. You guys have got to be
twenty, also. Which really makes good sense. But we didn't know that. Now,
we were both like nineteen and change. God, we had another one semester or
two semesters. We thought, Jesus, the war's going to be over. There was
plenty of war left. A bunch of us just dropped out. We didn't take our finals that
semester, so boom! We were at Paris Island for about ten days, and then boom,
we were on a train to San Diego and we were at Guadalcanal when we got off
the ship seventeen days later.
P: You were in charge of a fifty-caliber machine gun?
R: No, thirty[-caliber]. This is an infantry weapon. The fifties are truck-mounted. It's
a much heavier weapon. You can't carry it yourself. It's much too heavy. I don't
know what it weighs, but we had the water-cooled [thirty-caliber]. You know, the
water-jacket on it, and the air-cooled, which is the little barrel you think of, like an
airplane's machine gun. A perforated jacket. We would carry the light one, the
air-cooled, on the assault. The tripod only weighed about six pounds.
P: Did you have a carrying handle for that?
R: No, we did not. The tripod on the water-cooled weighed forty-six pounds. It had
three legs. Set the legs, take a hold of it here, take up and spin it around, and let
it rests. The one leg goes down the middle of your back, the other two legs come
down here like this and you hold it like that.
P: The total weight would have been about sixty-five pounds?
R: With a gun?
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 5
R: That's the water-cooled, it'd be about eighty. That's six quarts of water inside
that jacket, too. That weighed something.
P: That's in addition to your regular gear?
R: Yeah. Again, on the assault, you didn't take that heavy water-cooled gun. You'd
take the air-cooled gun. That gun maybe weighed less than thirty pounds, and
the tripod about six or eight. We had a seven-man squad plus the squad leader.
That was me. Five guys carried ammunition. Two twenty-five pound cans of
ammunition thirty-caliber, which weighed twenty-five pounds with the canister.
Each. They got fifty pounds and a canteen of water, and they got six clips for the
M-1. The M-1's over the shoulder. The bayonet's in the holster here. We've got
two or three or four grenades. It would be, with the ammunition, about 110
pounds, plus their body weight.
P: It's a lot to carry in a hot climate, isn't it?
R: All you can do is think of those pictures we'd seen of somebody, not John
Wayne, but somebody like that, leaping off this landing-craft at Guadalcanal in
some of those urban films, or something like that, in some war. He has a little
carbine. He doesn't have a damn thing. He doesn't even have a canteen. He's
got a cartridge belt, maybe a forty-five [pistol] on it, but a carbine, which weighs
six and a half pounds. He'd go leaping off this landing craft and leaping up over
the logs. My guys, all of them, including me, we got off that landing-craft into
what was supposed to have been about eighteen inches of water. It was about
three and a half feet. We went right to our faces. Just boom! Right straight
forward. Every one of us.
P: Where did you get your gunnery training?
R: That was at Guadalcanal.
P: You were shipped to Guadalcanal after the battle of Guadalcanal?
R: Oh my, yes. It was still a staging area for a couple of early divisions. The first
division who took it, and the second who relieved them, had gone on. There
were a lot of other troops, including some Army troops. It was a big staging area
for the south and central Pacific.
P: This is [part of] the strategy of island-hopping?
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 6
P: Trying to ultimately get to Japan. Did they talk to you very much about the war
strategy? What was going on? Why?
R: We didn't know where the hell we were for three days. The seventeen days
going over there, we had no idea where we were going. We landed at night on a
little landing craft. We had our own craft with us pretty much. We put up shelter
halves at night, two ponchos you'd put together. We did know we were in the
South Pacific, because we went across the Equator and they had that ceremony
for the pollywags and the shellfish.
P: What time would this have been? What year?
R: This was in March, April, 1944.
P: Once you were at Guadalcanal, did they explain to you that you were going to go
R: No. Okinawa was way, way in the distance. At that time, I was just a
replacement battalion. We hadn't been formed up into anything. We weren't a
member of a division. We became part of the 1st Marine Brigade. We went into
Saipan as part of that. Essentially, they just used us wherever they needed us to
fill in. The 1st Marine Brigade was made up of the 4th Marine Regiment, which
was lost at Bataan. In honor of them, they made these guys the new 4th
Regiment. There was the three raider battalions in the early part of the war who
were running around Guadalcanal in the early days. They couldn't control those
guys. They had one parachute battalion and two rifle battalions. Colonial
Edson's and Colonial Carlson's outfit that made great headlines over the war.
The paratrooper guy. That became the 4th Regiment. The 22nd Regiment was
also a replacement outfit. They went in as the 1st Marine Brigade. They were
reinforced with this one battalion, which I was in. I was a replacement battalion.
We later became the 3rd Battalion of the 29th Regiment. That was after Saipan,
before we went to Okinawa. We came back to Guadalcanal.
P: What was the status of Saipan when you went in?
R: I was a replacement there. I didn't know anything. Enough to stay in war.
P: Had the island already been captured?
R: No. It was in the middle of the campaign.
P: Describe your experiences as you come in as a replacement battalion. The
battle was already on, right?
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 7
P: You came in on the Higgins boats?
R: No. We came in on LCI's. Landing Craft Infantry. The beach was secure at that
time. It was a bad landing, I believe. I wasn't there. They had a lot of casualties
on the beach. We came up at night and we replaced the guys who were on line
at night. We had a couple of NCO's [non-commissioned officers] who had been
overseas before. I can remember the first night. The nights were incredible,
because it is so bloody dark, and you'd dig a little foxhole. If you get over two
feet down, they'd get you for desertion. You don't have to go very deep. You
just get your head down. There's enough starlight, you can see something.
There's a little something. Right out here, tonight, if there were no other surface
lights around here, you could see something by starlight. If there's any
movement, like a guy, you'll see him. Maybe not a hundred yards away, but
when he's a hundred and fifty feet away, if he's coming over the ridge, you can
The guy was coming over the ridge, and the sergeant, who was kind of a
loner guy, he says, shoot that son of a bitch. I'm on a gun. I'm thinking, I don't
know, that might be a company commander. I don't know who the hell that guy
is. I don't recognize him. I can't see his uniform. He says, shoot that son of a
bitch. I was afraid to kill someone. He just pushed me away and got the gun and
he shot him. It was about one full-round burst. The guy had a pack charge
about the size of a car battery full of explosives. He was about ready to throw it
somewhere. Then I was in the war. This is the war. This is a war. All of the
crap, all of the talking, all of the training films, God, in Guadalcanal, we shot. We
had training exercises. Before you go, you'd usually have one kind of grand
finale where the artillery is behind you, the air [cover] is working, you make a
landing, you come in and you got the mortars guys are going, they're dropping
some smoke rounds. The machine gunners are finding support, there are some
infantry guys going in and live ammunition. It works wonderfully. There's nobody
shooting back. It's so impressive. Man, all this artillery fire. Airplanes, rockets,
machine guns! The mortar guys are kathunk, kathunk, kathunk! Not quite that
fast, but almost. They could have eight, ten rounds in the air at the same time. I
thought, damn, this is an impressive thing! We're a first-rate outfit. Well, when
they started firing back, it's a little different. When that guy came across that
ridge, and I don't know if he knew where we were, because when we were down,
he couldn't see the silhouette thing. We were down on the ground. He couldn't
see us, but we could see him. I don't know whether he was after me, or us, but
he should've been killed. And I didn't know to do that.
P: You may have read E.B. Sledge, [With] the Old Breed? He had the same job
you had. He was at Peleliu. One of the things he tells about, which was really
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 8
R: Maybe unnecessary, too.
P: ...[that was] something I was going to ask you about later, they probably could
have bypassed Peleliu without a problem. He said that happened occasionally.
Some captain would be going through the ranks checking on people, or
somebody would get up to go to the bathroom, and he would be killed by friendly
R: Yeah. We had a pretty well-known college football player who was killed that first
night when we went on the lines. Accidentally. We were relieving these guys.
Somebody didn't get the word or something. About four rounds.
P: What were you thinking as you're sitting in this foxhole getting your baptism of
fire? What was going through your mind?
R: It wasn't a baptism of fire, because this man didn't fire anything at us. I was
stunned that this guy could be so sure to shoot this man and kill him. I didn't
even know to do it. I thought, Jesus Christ, I'm in the wrong [place]! Get me out
of here! What training course did I miss? Holy shit, I'm going to get my ass shot
off! I'm going to get some other guy hurt. I really was stunned that I didn't know
to shoot him.
P: I understand that the life expectancy of replacement troops under those
conditions was not very high, partly because they were inexperienced and didn't
know what to do. Although they'd been properly trained.
R: I don't know that. My opinion of life expectancy is that there are very few skills
that keep you alive very long. It's just an accidental thing. A mortar round comes
down, and they killed more Marines, I think, in both wars, and soldiers as well,
than machine guns and artillery. You can't hear it coming in. I kept wondering,
in Okinawa especially, when every morning, we'd get up. Well, we're in the
foxhole. Somebody's always awake in the foxhole. One out of the three guys in
it. You'd see the runner go up from the company headquarters out to the platoon
leaders, and each machine-gun section was attached to one of the rifle platoons.
The three sections in a company, three rifle platoons in a company. The runner
would go out, and we know he's got some information for the platoon leader.
We're going to be moving out. There's always fifty or 400 yards of pretty flat
ground with bloody little cover. The bad guys are sitting over there at the other
end of that thing [in] caves, and they had smokeless powder for their small arms.
Their nambus fired very fast. They were a very good weapon. They didn't have
that big funnel of smoke.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 9
P: Nambus are machine guns?
R: Machine guns. Light machine guns. About twenty-five caliber. Our thirty-caliber,
which was a good weapon, a little slower firing, which also means heavier to
carry and ammunition is heavier.
P: Did they have any belt-fed?
R: Yeah. The crew operated belt-fed, [with a] cyclic rate of fire of 460 to 625 rounds
a minute. You'd fire smoke. You'd fire five-shot bursts, approximately. You
know, da da da da, da da da da. You'd have a funnel of smoke out there fifty or
seventy-five feet. It'd be about eight or ten feet wide, light, but at a distance, you
could see that vividly. You'd only get a fire burst and you move that gun.
Because they know that's an automatic weapon, the bad guys. Here comes a
bunch of shitbags.
P: They would pick [the location of the machine gun] up and try to drop mortars in
R: They were rifleman, yes.
P: You didn't use tracers?
R: At night, occasionally.
P: You could see where you were firing, but they could also see where it's coming
R: Not really. The depth-perception is hard from their end to know exactly how far
we are. If I'm shooting something at you, you can see traces coming or going
over here, but you don't know whether I'm two hundred yards away or three
hundred yards or four hundred yards or only fifty-five or sixty yards. You don't
know quite how far I am. You can't really zero in on me as easily as you might
think. We can see where the hell we're firing, and if we've got a target, we can
adjust it. We'd put a tracer in about every five rounds. We'd pull every fifth
round out and put a tracer in and fire a couple of five-round bursts and you could
see where you were going.
P: Talk a little bit about Saipan. How long were you there? What kind of
engagements did you have?
R: Not so different from Okinawa. The caves were bad, but not as bad as Okinawa.
They did have, and I wasn't in the area where they had about four thousand
men, I believe. The Japanese sent about three, four or five thousand men in a
banzai attack in a valley where they were pretty well confined. They came about
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 10
six abreast. That ended the campaign. They almost got through to the artillery.
They came through the infantry and they were all the way back to where the
artillery was, about a half mile behind the infantry. A couple outfits moved in and
it was over in three or four hours. That was the last real effort they had on the
P: That was a suicide charge?
R: Exactly. They didn't do that very often. At least not after that. They did it a few
times earlier in the war. They changed the strategy distinctly in both Iwo [Jima]
and Okinawa. They didn't meet you at the beach. They pulled all the defenses
back. They had heavy defenses, interlocking bands of fire. In the southern part
of Okinawa, they had three layers of rail-gauge, moving supplies back and forth
from Shricastle to Naha on the beach.
P: In this case, they were really heavily fortified, had fields of fire, and were in effect
waiting for you to reach their lines?
R: That's right. We couldn't see very many of them until you got the last three, four,
five, six hundred yards of Okinawa. Then it was like a pheasant hunt; kicking
them out of the bushes.
P: They had a cave system, where they could move from one place to another?
P: When you finished with Saipan, did you get any time off at all? Or did they tell
you, we're ready for the next [engagement]?
R: No. About ten days. You've got to get back to Guadalcanal. At first, we just laid
around and we had to clean up. You always leave, what the hell is the name of
the group that you leave behind? I always wonder how they'd get in that? Older
guys, the cooks.
P: Supply people.
R: Supply people. No, cadre. Those guys kept the thing kind of organized back
there. I'd say about a week or ten days. Then we started light training. You're
not in such physical shape at the end of the campaign. You haven't been
exercising very much. If you moved two or three hundred yards in a day, that's a
pretty good day, and you might pay dearly for that little bit of yards.
P: Did they tell you at this juncture that you were going to Okinawa?
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 11
R: No, my God, no. Again, we didn't know until we got off the boat. Or maybe that
P: There's also speculation that Okinawa could have been bypassed. I think many
people argue that Peleliu might have been a mistake.
R: I don't want to admit that. That was bloodier than Iwo [Jima], because we had
more people there. The Navy had incredible losses there. I know two guys who
ran D-E's out there. Okinawa's about three hundred [miles] from Honshu, the
southern main island of Japan. Iwo [Jima] was about seven or eight hundred
miles. This was very close. This is really Japanese. This is Japanese people
around, not like Iwo [Jima], where there's no people. They had a picket line.
Every five miles there was a destroyer, a D-D or a D-E. D-D is the full one, the
D-E is the destroyer escort. There were one hundred ten, one hundred thirty
guys on it. They lost forty-two of those out there.
R: Yeah. John Delaney, I play golf with him twice a week. He got it out there. I
said, John, do you think you're looking for a hole, you think our infantry job didn't
look so bad? He said, you bet your ass.
P: I can't remember who the naval commander was, [Admiral] Spruance? I can't
R: I don't know.
P: He wanted, because the fighting took so long and they were suffering such great
damage, he wanted to leave. He wanted to get out because so many ships were
lost while they were out there.
R: That's just the picket line. There were ships in the harbor, too. You could see
the anti-aircraft fire in there. Okinawa was a long, skinny island, about eighty-two
miles long, I think. We were going, I don't know whether we were west or east,
but we were going toward the other island. We had taken ninety percent of the
island, but the last ten percent took us about sixty days. Buckner Bay, named
after a general, the commanding general of that corps was killed there, General
Buckner. Artillery, I think. You could see this harbor full of ships out there.
There was this huge event, and I don't know how many ships were involved, but
we were just a half a mile from the beach, and we could see just down the hill
here to the water. It rained for about fifteen consecutive days. I don't know
whether it was eleven or twelve. The mud was so bad, Julian, they could not get
water or ammunition to us and we were like less than half a mile from the beach.
Tanks couldn't go through it. Alligators couldn't go through it. They started
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 12
dropping it with torpedo bombers, TBF's, the Avengers. They'd come over, and
drop torpedoes. They dropped three thousand-pound bags of something with a
parachute. About one chute out of three wouldn't open and here would come
this thousand-pound thing, hit on the side of the hill and five gallon cans of water.
They look like a projectile of some kind. They're dangerous. That thing would
hit and just go flying. It would fly one hundred and fifty, two hundred feet in the
air! Here comes this fan. You're laying here like this. You're shooting at them
with M-1's. We're going, get that son of a bitch! Get them! One of them came
over and an artillery shell took the wing right off it. Boom! He went right in
[crashed]. Everyone went, yaaayyyy! [clapping.]
P: They were your guys [American pilots]?
R: Sure. They were trying to help us. But they were killing us with all this shit they
were dropping. All the thirty-caliber ammunition was in the machine-gun boxes
or the machine-gun belts. All belted. Well, those things, that's a hell of a
projectile. It's about this wide, it's about this long, and it's about this high. It's got
a metal top on it, and a little handle. Those things weigh twenty-five pounds.
P: They dropped a bunch of those on you.
R: Oh yeah! Well, they were in a bigger box, but the box would burst and they'd just
go flying and scattering. You could imagine dropping it from one thousand feet.
P: Once you got on site, we're talking about March 31st, something like that.
R: We didn't go in until April 1st
P: Right. That's what I'm saying. They put down about a week's worth of fire
before you went in.
P: You landed to no opposition. Is that right?
R: That's right.
P: Could you see a benefit from the [pre-landing] bombardment?
P: It didn't help at all then?
R: No. There weren't any Japanese around to resist. They pulled back before as
I'd mentioned earlier. I didn't know that was their strategy. We didn't know going
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 13
in. We were scared shitless. No, our destination was to take and hold Yontan
Airfield, our particular regiment. We took that in about an hour and a half or two
hours, and the first thing I shot was a chicken. Of course, there wasn't enough of
that chicken to eat.
P: The airfield was in the southern part?
R: The southern part.
P: Which was the more difficult part, as I understand it?
R: Right. Actually, our division, there were four Army divisions, and two Marine
divisions. The 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th. The 6th division turned north and we took
the northern three-fourths of the island up here. Just the 6th Marine division.
There weren't a lot of people up there. The Matobu Peninsula, where we met the
most resistance, and we lost about sixty men in our company there, that was the
most difficult thing. They had gathered there and they made their last stand
there. Is this le Shima here [looking at map]?
R: Ernie Pyle [1900-1945, American journalist and World War II war correspondent
who wrote about the experiences of enlisted men] was killed right out there.
R: We were there, as a matter of fact. We had just taken Mount Yatachi when we
got the word that President Roosevelt had died.
P: That was April 12, 1945.
R: The war stopped for us for about a half a day or a day. We couldn't believe it.
Who the hell was going to lead us? This man had been in office since 1932.
This is 1945. He'd been like a king. We didn't know who the hell was going to
lead us. It was shattering. No fooling. It was really just stunning for the young
P: Did you figure that that would be a setback in trying to win the war?
R: A little bit, but then we get a day off and we went back to work and came back
down south and relieved the 27th
P: Did you read much of Ernie Pyle's writing?
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 14
R: No, not until after the war. Not until after I got back. We didn't have the Stars
and Stripes [Army newspaper].
P: That was too far out for that.
R: Well, we were Marine and Navy. I think that was an Army newspaper.
P: Did you read his work afterwards?
R: Yes. Not in a serious way. I didn't look for it. I just didn't see it.
P: What people have said, and I've read his work as well, it really is a good
description [of war]. Mainly, he was doing infantry, but he did supply, he did Air
Force, he did Navy. But [describing] the average infantry man, Marine, soldier,
whatever; he gave you a sense of what it was like to be in combat and what you
had to eat and what these people talked about. Always, when he wrote, he'd put
everybody's name and hometown in there so people back home could read
about them. As far as I know, he was revered throughout the military. People
admired Ernie Pyle. He didn't have to be there. Let me go back and talk about
E.B. Sledge and his book, [With] the Old Breed. He was also at Peleliu and also
Okinawa. One of the things he talked about is the importance of your unit,
whether it be a platoon or a squad. He used kind of a happening phrase, "band
of brothers." How did you feel about the group you were fighting with? How did
you relate to each other?
R: In our case, we were machine-gunners. We were a group of eight guys. A
squad leader and [a gunner or] assistant gunner and five ammunition carriers.
We all knew how to fire the gun. Occasionally an ammunition carrier could be on
the gun. Or I could be on the gun. That was the unit for us. The section.
Sometimes we'd be together with the same platoon. Sometimes we'd be very
close to each other. Our ammunition carriers were our riflemen. The machine
gunners need the riflemen to protect them because these guys [the Japanese]
come out of the blue. At night, my God, they'd come from someplace. I was on
the gun with an ammunition carrier down in the south here about the first week
we were down here. Henry Tolda was sitting here like this and the front was out
here. There were tombs that were quite a unique structure there throughout
Okinawa. Maybe it was because the religion of the Okinawa native was different
than the Japanese. They had this dome-like thing, like an igloo, only made out of
earth and brick or mud. Inside were the jars for the ashes of the family and a
little tiny opening. About like an igloo. A little tiny thing. Out in front of it was like
a courtyard. If this would be the dome, and the door out here, and outside this
courtyard, there would be a small stone wall maybe ten or fifteen feet out there.
It's be maybe twenty feet across. We were set up and the bad guys were over
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 15
there, so our gun was facing out this way. We had just the one gun in here. Our
seven guys were there. Tolda was over there, and he's facing out this way.
You're not going to fire the machine gun for just one guy. You don't want to give
away the position of that gun too easily. You're going to get a lot of attention.
It's like this. All of a sudden, this guy comes. I'm sitting over here looking
out this way about where that chair would be. We're looking out the front like
this, and this guy comes running from back here. He didn't have a rifle, he didn't
have a sword. He had a long pole with a bayonet or something on the end of it,
running, yelling, screaming like hell and Tolda just went boom boom boom boom!
The guy came across the gun and fell along this pit where several rifleman were
down there, running the rest of the line itself. They thought we were being
banzaied with all this noise going on. Oh, my gunner and my assistant gunner
were lying down in their ponchos. It was raining lightly. They felt each other,
they didn't know what the hell was going on. They tried to stab each other. They
ripped the poncho out, didn't get a wound on them. It was a very funny night.
P: How did the Japanese soldier get that close?
R: Oh, how the hell do I know? They would dig spider-holes, little holes, you know
the small hole at the top and it would be bigger down below. They might wait
three days down there while you go back and you go beyond them. Then they'd
pop up and hold you if you stepped in it accidentally. Maybe knock off an officer
or something or several.
P: That's pretty extraordinary.
R: Can you imagine asking a Marine or a U.S. guy to do that? Crawl behind the
lines and stay there. They're coming now. Just get in this hole. You've got the
hole done and you're going to have a couple of old dead fish in there and a jar of
water and you're going to do nothing for the first two or three days. You've got
plenty to eat. You've got two fish. You've got a quart of water. You can last a
week on that, can't you? Then after everybody had gone by, they'd pop up there
and start to shoot. It's your death sentence.
P: That was the most difficult thing, I guess. These were samurai warriors, as it
were, who were willing to commit hara-kiri [ritual suicide by disembowelment,
formerly practiced by Japanese samurai; more formally known as seppuku] for
R: Even the officers were the enlisted men I don't think believed in it very strongly.
But they knew that they'd be killed if they didn't act that way. To surrender or to
act in anything other than a warrior-like way, they'd be killed.
P: Well, of course, it was the ultimate act of violation of the [Bushido; the samurai
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 16
warrior's code]. The kamikaze pilots, same way. They locked you in that plane
and sent you up and then there's no option but to crash that plane. You knew
you were going to die.
R: That's be hard to get a bunch of Navy guys on the carrier to volunteer for that.
P: As you go through this process of fighting in Okinawa, are you aware of killing
R: Sure. You shoot a lot of them. You're not so sure how many you hit. I had one
night where They take the bodies with them. We
moved out at night one night down here below Naha and Shuri Castle, which was
our front. It was a drilling night. We moved probably less than three hundred
yards. We had to kind of wander around to do this. A couple of times the flares
would go up. It wasn't our flares, but our guys knew we were doing it. Some of
the Japanese had flares You just stopped and put your head down. Don't move,
just put your head down, so they can't see your white face. They didn't see us.
We finally took up a position.
P: Those flares are pretty bright.
R: You bet your ass. They really are bright. At night, there's an unreal quality to it.
It's like a blurred black and white film. You can't see as much as you can in
daylight in full color. There is no color. It's just black and white. Anyway, we
took a position, and we just got our gun dug in, and we were now down to not too
many men. We had 256 guys in our rifle company. That included three rifle
platoons, one machine gun platoon, one light weapons [section] with sixty-
millimeter mortars and a couple of fifty-caliber machine guns. Headquarters
company, which had some radio people, two or three runners. A total of 256
guys. We landed at Okinawa, we only had about 200, which was not bad. When
we came back from the north we had about 125 or 130. We lost about sixty of
them at Mount Hitachi. At the end of the first six days, we were down to about
fifty-five men. We took this position at night.
P: So basically two-thirds of your outfit [were casualties]?
R: About seventy-five percent. We came in with two hundred and we had about
fifty men left. We dug in, and all of a sudden some flare light went on, I couldn't
tell if it was ours or theirs. I could see these guys. It looked like a Japanese
mortar squad that were running by. Damn, I got the gun and started firing at
these guys. The flare light, your heart is going fast, it's thrilling because there's a
target. You can see these bastards and they're not three miles away. They're
only one hundred, one hundred fifty yards away. How can you miss? They just
kept running right through it. So we put some tracers in there. I had the gun and
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 17
I was shooting about ten feet over their head. I don't know whether it was my
sight setting wrong, but I put those tracers in there and we took the last twenty of
P: You were sure of those?
R: I was sure of those. A couple guys moved and we put some tracers in and kept
firing at them. A couple rounds hit his pack and his pack caught on fire and he
stood up. Then we hit him with about thirty more rounds. We made a good
Japanese out of him.
P: Do you have any regrets about killing human beings?
R: Oh, God, no. We killed a lot of civilians. At night, the Japanese would make
them move to divulge our position, and that was in the morning. There was a
little baby which I remember so vividly. The kid has got his arms around his
father's chest like this, and the guy's head is about ten feet away. A thirty-caliber
machine gun; that's a big [shell].
[End of Tape A, Side 1]
R: The argument has always been in Okinawa that the Marines took the brunt of the
fighting, as opposed to the Army.
R: I don't know. We came in just north of Naha. We ran it on Oroku Peninsula.
That was my regiment, not just my division, but my regiment, that went in there.
Just north of Naha, I'm trying to think of the name, I think it was the 27th division,
it might have been the 29th division. Here's the 4th and the 29th. These are Army.
P: The northern part of the island was pretty much the 6th Marines?
R: It was the 6th Marine division only. There wasn't much opposition up there. It's a
long walk. We walked eighty miles. It's about eighty miles long. We landed right
about here. We went up there and came down and there's a place there. Then
this is Motobu [Peninsula], where we had sizable resistance. I guess they'd
drawn back there. They had a lot of heavy weapons up there. They had some
guns from Singapore that were about eight inches.
P: One of the things I hear about a lot, particularly on Iwo [Jima] and Okinawa and
Peleliu, was the great respect that everybody had for the corpsman. The medical
R: They were lost, so many of them, we had one man there who was killed on
Okinawa, who something like fifty or sixty or seventy hours earlier had been
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 18
serving in a hospital in Washington state, Seattle or somewhere up there. It was
one of the naval bases. He didn't even know that he was going to be transferred
anywhere. In less than three days, he's over there on Okinawa, getting killed. I
don't know how he died. I can't imagine what those guys did.
P: Obviously one of the things the Marines have always talked about is, you always
get your wounded, and you always get your dead back. The corpsmen would
often have to go out in an open area to try to treat the wounded Marines. They
really were not equipped to do much fighting. Although some did.
R: Most of them would carry a carbine.
P: It must be very difficult to try to deal with wounds while you're being shot at.
R: I don't know how they did it. I can't imagine. Everyone of those guys should
have been medaled. We came down here, I think it was the 29th. Maybe it was
the 27th. I thought there was four Army divisions there. I know there was the 7th
the 27th, I thought, or maybe it was the 29th. 77th and the 96th. The 96th was a
good one. The 7th was a good one. Those four Army divisions, plus the two
Marine divisions. I think we had more people than they had.
P: I can remember E.B. Sledge talking about carrying his weapon through an open
area, which was about one hundred yards, knowing that they were going to be
R: That was every day. That's what I'm telling you about. You're sitting there
waiting for the runner to come back, and you know that shit, where are all these
neat maneuvers? It's here, and they're over there. It's a little hollow here, but a
lot of it's pretty flat. Who? Supporting fire? Yeah, maybe. Some smoke?
Maybe. It's one hundred guys here, and I don't know how many were over there,
but it didn't take very many to get some automatic weapons [fire].
P: Did you zigzag or did you run straight?
R: Yeah, you would zigzag as much as you could, of course. The adrenaline, you
can't believe the adrenaline. Phew! Man. After we made this move at night
here, we were exposed. It was untenable. The guy that had the other machine
gun squad in my section was killed. They couldn't get his body out of the hole for
two days, the fire was that intense.
P: What's your view of risking a life to bring back a dead comrade?
R: I don't think anybody ever did that. I lost my assistant gunner after that second
day we were up there. One was killed and one was wounded badly. This guy,
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 19
Tolda, had the back of his head blown off and a mortar round landed between his
feet. Somehow that son of a gun ran and another guy was helping him about
one hundred yards to get back somewhere. The corpsman cracked up. A
wonderful little guy. He got a little hut, a little building there behind where they
take the human shit to fertilize with, and he's rubbing this all over himself and the
flies are covering him up, [and he's thinking], they can't see me now. Absolutely
gone. Just gone. Get him, and get him out of here too, because he was so
wacko. I don't know what the hell happened to him.
P: Did you see many of what used to be called battle fatigue?
P: Were a lot of people sent home for that?
R: Yeah, including this one.
P: What was your reaction to all of that? Were you aware of what you were going
R: No. When we landed at Oroku Peninsula, we took a little amphibious cruise
down here with our regiment. When we got off this hill here, we had twenty-three
guys left in our company. There were about six machine gunners out of sixty.
We got some new men, some new barrels for the air-cooled guns. Probably
about fifty or sixty guys. I'm talking the company as a whole, so maybe we had
eighty. Then five or ten guys wandered back from hospitalization. You can have
a bad cold or the flu or exposure or hypothermia. It was colder than hell there,
coming from Guadalcanal. Jesus, was it cold! It got down at night maybe to
forty. Rain, you're wet, you're laying in the water. If you don't, you're going to
get shot. So you're getting down and the foxhole's filled with water. And cold.
Oh God, cold! You lost people from getting sick, not shot or wounded. When we
landed here, we took some heavy casualties coming down this peninsula.
P: Was the stress that did it? The shock, the fear, the death of your comrades, the
combination of all of those things?
R: I only had one guy myself left in this entire section of two seven-men squads. Bill
Miller, and he was the other section, the squad leader. He was such a nice guy.
I guess we thought that we got through part of Saipan together, we got [through]
most of this, we didn't have too far to go. We were getting close to the end of
this island. I guess we thought, the two of us were going to make it. We were
planning a support mission. We just had one gun, and he was on the gun. I
said, let me take the gun. He said, no, I got the gun. I listened to him. We were
firing over the heads of the guys. All of a sudden I hear this whack, and he drops
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 20
his head on the gun and he's got a [bullet] hole. I figure, well, I'll just poke my
finger in there so he doesn't bleed to death or drown in his lung. He threw up
about a quart of blood and about another quart came out his ass, and he died.
And I couldn't believe it. I thought he'd just got a bullet through the upper part of
his chest. He was dead in a second or in two minutes or a minute.
P: That's awfully difficult to deal with.
R: [He] used to sing a song, "Pennies from Heaven." [He] had a kid, and it was like
a cliche. You read this shit in the books and the movies about the guy who had a
baby he'd never seen. He really never saw them. I don't remember anything for
three days, partner. They said I had a big branch and was just walking away,
sideways, halfway towards the Japanese lines and breaking off little pieces of
that. A guy hit me.
P: Did they take you to the back of the lines?
P: Then did you go back to Guadalcanal?
R: No. I was there about four days. They give you pentathol, and take you back
and walk you through it and help you rationalize it.
P: Did you go back in there?
R: Yeah, I got back in the lines again. There were only about four days left.
Fortunately it was very easy. All the guys, I didn't know anybody.
P: I know E.B. Sledge said something about that. When you're in battle like that,
friendship was the only comfort a man had. I guess there's a lot to be said about
having your buddies with you. Then when you lose one, it's devastating.
R: I think I just really thought, Jesus, we're getting near the end of this son of a
bitch. We had a lot of casualties and we're all right. We've never lost a day. It
was in June and we'd been there all April and all May. We didn't think we'd be
there that long.
P: In this process of fighting, were you fatalistic, or did you, like a lot of soldiers and
military, have superstitions?
R: I never thought it'd be me. Nobody ever thought they'd get hit. Kill everybody
else, but I'm not going to get shot.
P: Of course, that's probably the best attitude to have.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 21
R: Yeah, you bet. But we didn't have it because we were clever enough to think of
it. We just didn't want to die. We were shocked. I think I lost a lot of my religion
because of this loss of life.
P: I think there were something like twelve thousand American forces killed on
Okinawa. Does that sound about right?
R: Navy and ground forces.
R: Something like that.
P: That's a lot of people. Of course, the Japanese would have lost ten times that.
Over one hundred thousand.
R: I have no idea how many prisoners were taken.
P: My figures are...
R: In the two hundreds, maybe.
P: Yes. Because if they were in a position to be captured, they would commit
suicide before they would be captured.
R: I guess.
P: Did you see any of them?
R: No. I saw women.
P: Did you see any jump off a cliff?
R: No, not in Saipan. I was not in that area. I heard of it. It was just horrible. They
didn't just jump into the ocean. They jumped on the rocks. This was a one
hundred to one hundred fifty foot jump. I saw women walk up to our troops and
pull the pin out of a grenade in their chest, and take out a soldier or a Marine or
P: Of course, initially they might not suspect a woman.
R: No. And they were tiny women anyway, four feet tall.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 22
P: In this battle, I want to mention your story about the machine gun. He took [over]
the machine gun [when you were willing to fire it]?
R: I've got a guilt trip, Jesus Christ, to this day.
P: That's the extraordinary aspect of war. It's a matter of inches. I've talked to
people who have bent down to pick up something and a round went over their
heads. There's no way you could possibly prepare for anything like that.
R: Mount Motobu, an artillery shell landed. We'd secured this hill, I think with
seventy-seven millimeter artillery, three-inch shells, two miles away. We're done.
The things is over. It was great. We're through, thank God. About six or eight
of us were sitting around. We'd got some C-rations [combat rations; canned
foods for U.S. soldiers]. Something to eat here. We're in a circle. This round
comes in and lands not in the middle of us, but sort of, and [Slaps his hands
together] does like this. It doesn't explode, praise God, or none of us would be
alive. It went up in the air, tumbled, tumbled, tumbled, and the Army guy was
sitting there ran like hell. He ran about fifty or seventy-five yards and the shell
landed right beside him and blew him to hell. How could you know. Who the hell
P: How could you know? [He] just ran away.
R: It was his turn.
P: The random violence of war. Did you all have any Navajo code talkers?
R: No. We did have some of the guys with the new night glasses, the microscope
things. They weren't terribly effective. We had dogs occasionally, very
P: That's right. Some dogs were used. I remember that.
R: We had them once or twice.
P: To sniff out the enemy. Did you use flame-throwers?
R: Oh my God, yes. The Army had them on tanks. They'd run the hose back one,
two, three, four hundred yards to maybe a five hundred to one thousand gallon
tank that they can just spray all afternoon. We carried ours. Each rifle squad of
twelve or thirteen guys had a flame-thrower. He had to be a big sturdy guy. A
heavy son of a bitch. I don't know, it must have weighed eighty pounds full. This
guy, Jim Bishop, he loved us. Bill Ramey, he used to shoot craps to see who got
the beans and bacon in the ten-in-one rations. We won all the time and he said,
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 23
I'm staying with you guys. This guy Ramey is luckier than hell. He fired just a
few bursts in caves. I don't know, but I think they had maybe a thirty, forty
second burst, so just short ones. You'd get maybe six or eight bursts out of them
and you're out of gas. That night we moved and when I was firing at these
Japanese mortar men, he was in the trench about two guys away from me. He
had a rifle, too, of course. He's in this trench and this figure came in and he
thought it was somebody else and the figure says, Nima, Nima, Nima, Nima, and
he takes his rifle and very slowly puts it in the guy's face and pulls the trigger and
just goes click. Shit. He puts the rifle down and he's afraid to do too much. He
gets his heel up on the operating rod handle and threw that thing down, threw a
fresh round at him, and boom, shot him like that! We almost had to take him
away that night. He was a basket case.
P: That's amazing if you're face to face with an enemy and your rifle doesn't fire.
R: Same as one of the motor guys. We cut them off when we moved at night.
They're trying to get the hell back to wherever, somewhere. The same night that
a shell from, I believe, there were two New Jersey class battleships out there. I
think the Wisconsin, and maybe the New Jersey itself. One round came in and
took out our company command post. It didn't hurt any people. I had an
ammunition carrier who was in the hole. He was killed. The loudest noise I ever
heard in my life. You could see those firing down range.
P: That was a round from the New Jersey?
R: Yeah. A sixteen-inch shell.
P: A big shell.
R: POP! Your whole brain would sound. I don't mean the explosion, I mean just
P: When it hits, it's like having a concussion.
R: Yes. It dug a hole in armor piercing, so it would go into the ground and then
explode, pull the pile of dirt and cover up a bunch of guys. I think they were killed
more from that than shrapnel. Who knows. I was sitting on the head of one of
the guys the next morning and didn't even know it. It was covered up with dirt.
Some guy says, Jesus Christ, Roberts, you're sitting on his head! Some guy
laughed about it, he said, you dumb son of a bitch. I said, God, guys, I'm sorry; I
didn't see him; I'm just sitting down here. You remember the funny things like
that. That's sort of a sick funny.
P: That's the way war is. It would seem to me that being a flame-thrower would be
about the most dangerous job you could have because you're carrying all that
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 24
R: I don't think a bullet hitting the tank would set it off, but I don't know.
P: You could see where they were. Once that flame is out there.
R: You don't do it at night. You do it in the daytime. But I'm told that it sucks the
oxygen right out of a cave if you get enough in there and it burns. The guy
suffocated as much as anything.
P: That was really the best way to enter those caves, wasn't it?
R: I guess. I don't know.
P: You had to get up close either way to drop a grenade in there?
R: Absolutely. You've got to get within ten or twenty feet.
P: You couldn't get them out with howitzers or anything like that. That wouldn't
penetrate, would it?
R: Absolutely not. Well, it didn't just go straight in. They went straight in and down
P: If you dropped it straight, you might miss them.
R: We were on one hill and we were getting some fire from the side. We were
digging down as fast as we can. One guy, Harry Palatnik, who was the squad
leader and another machine gunner for the platoon, he's digging down like hell.
He digs right through and falls through in this cave. If you want to get your heart
start beating in a hurry, right? If I had been he, I would have thought, I'm going
to fall in the middle of about one thousand Japanese down there and they're just
going to shoot me a thousand times and bayonet me ten thousand times. My
heart really stopped beating. He fell about eight feet down in this hole and was in
this cave down there. It took a couple of slings off the rifle down there and finally
about twelve guys pulled him up. He was just going crazy. I think that would
have pushed me over the edge. God Almighty.
P: By the way, because of the rain and the mud, the tanks weren't much help to
you, were they?
R: During that rainy period, May 1, no. Nothing moved for about two weeks.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 25
R: Afterwards, yes. The [tanks] made it a lot easier as you were advancing. They
also drew all the artillery fire around there. Our feeling was, Jesus, guys, help
somebody else out today, would you?
P: You'd like to get behind [the tanks], but the problem is, everybody's trying to take
out the tanks.
R: Everything's coming in. Anything that's heavy, artillery and even mortar fire.
P: When you were going through the end of this battle on May 8, 1945, Germany
surrenders. Did you get the news about that?
R: If we did, it didn't mean much to us, because we were on the lines in the south
end. That's where all the Japs were. We were getting casualties that were just
horrendous. We ceased to function as a unit for about two weeks. The twenty or
thirty or forty guys and the hospital would give us a few more, we weren't very
good. It took a bunch of new men in there and a couple of new officers. We lost
almost every officer except one.
P: They were almost always gone first, weren't they?
P: I understand that part of the problem here is that you almost never get any sleep.
You know that there's infiltration. You're tired, you're muddy, it's cold.
R: You can get some because your body is just going to demand it.
P: It just stops.
R: The nights are forever. At first, they're very scary. Then you realize if you dig a
decent foxhole, and we would usually come upon a ridge, and you don't dig the
hole up at the top. You dig it back just where...
P: So you can see over the ridge.
R: We'd see them coming. Any small-arms fire, certainly, or even artilleries
probably aren't going to get us, because we're back a little bit.
P: Some protection from the enemy.
R: Where the hell was I going with this? What was your question?
P: In terms of sleep.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 26
R: At first, you were scared at night, because you couldn't see them and you
thought they'd sneak up on you. Then you got a little confidence in that. Then
you got the confidence in the guy next to you, because he wants to stay alive, too
and you know you'll cut his ear off if you ever fell asleep. They didn't do that very
often that I know of. I never heard of anybody doing that. Falling asleep. It's
pretty easy to stay awake, too. You got more sleep than maybe you're thinking.
The bad stuff is in the daytime. Then you realize that shit, in the night, they're
not coming at you. We're not going to them. That's when we got the casualties,
when we went at them. They never came at us. That's the easy part. I really
believe that I had a couple three Marine divisions on that island and the
Japanese had landed 125,000 troops. They'd never taken [that island]. Never
P: Did you have enough sustenance in terms of the food you ate? Did you have
R: We had two kinds. We had the cans, the C-rations. Then we had the ten-in-
ones, which came out late in the war.
P: Which were much better?
R: Yeah, but...
R: We don't eat. You don't have any appetite. You don't want to eat. You don't
feel like you're hungry. You don't have much appetite. There were a couple
things that I really liked. I forget what the hell they were. There was a canned
thing and some crackers. Kind of looked like those long skinny crackers now.
Kind of a heavy texture. You crumbled up those crackers in this particular can of
something, and that was about the only thing I could eat. If I couldn't get that, I
probably wouldn't eat. You just didn't eat very much. You didn't feel like it. You
needed water. The adrenaline really sucks the water out of you. Just raging
P: A lot of times you didn't have enough water.
R: That's right. We had to go back at night to get some more because your canteen
was gone. You usually move out about eight or nine o'clock in the morning.
About eleven o' clock, if you're still alive, you've kicked some Japanese guys out
of their caves, and this is the ridge here and you're coming up this way, they'd
pull out the back and go to the next ridge. You didn't see very many of them.
That was the frustrating part. It seemed like they had the easiest job of staying in
those holes and in those caves and shooting us and before we could get to them,
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 27
they'd pull out and go to the next row of caves. It was just a series of ridges.
P: Was malaria a problem at all?
R: No. Dengue [dengue fever; a flu-like illness spread by mosquitoes]. I had
malaria when I got home. I didn't have dengue fever. A terrible, terrible fever,
that dengue fever. It rained all the time in Guadalcanal. Guys who got malaria I
think got it there. Dengue as well.
P: Dysentery, I assume?
R: Not so bad. I don't remember much dysentery. We had jungle rot [a skin
disorder caused by tropical climates], you know, fungus.
P: One of the things people talk about is your feet [getting wet].
R: Feet. Cartridge belt where it would rub you'd get abrasive rubbing there under
the armpits. There were about three or four or five guys in your company every
day who would be walking around all day like this, because their armpits would
be coated with potassium permanganate [a purple crystalline compound often
used as a disinfectant], that purple stuff. That's about the only thing that would
treat it. If they put their arms down, the skin would crack and it would bleed. It
would just be a crusty ugly looking thing. Jesus. Your cartridge belt would be
around your waist. It would make a break in the skin from just the rubbing and
perspiration. Once you get a break in the skin, there's enough fungus there.
P: Plus, as you were fighting, you were on your feet. If you get fungus on your feet
and you had difficulty walking, that almost takes you out of commission, doesn't
R: It can.
P: Were you ever wounded?
R: No. It wasn't bad enough to be called a wound. I was up here in the north from
Mitaki. The last afternoon, some trenches that they had at the top. The guy
says, move your gun around to the side. He said, I think you can fire right down
in that trench. I've got the front leg, the light gun. I'm dragging that sucker on my
hands and knees. It's raining. My gunner says, there's a grenade! There's a
grenade right about where that glass is, smoking. I turned over like this to get
away from it and the thing went off. It was a concussion grenade, praise God. I
was senseless for about three, four, or five minutes. I came to, and I could feel
the blood running all down my side here like this. It had knocked the top off of
my canteen and this warm water was running down me. I said, Jesus, my guts
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 28
were all coming out. I had a couple of hunks of plastic. It was a plastic thing, not
steel, they were in my neck. I'm listed as a Purple Heart guy, and my book too,
but I never got it. I mean, who cares? After we first got done with this bad times
era around Naha, we got some new guys and some new barrels and I was hitting
these guys. They were adjusting their head space. Do you know anything about
P: Yes, I do.
R: You know, the bulging. You screwed that thing in, and you've got to have that
adjusted right. The round wasn't going all the way in the chamber. About that
much of it was staying outside, and it was exploding outside. I got my hands
underneath here. The operating right hand, but when I'm test-firing, just
squeezing off one round at a time, and boom, boom boom, I look down here and
Christ, I had shell casings all over.
P: They burned you pretty badly?
R: No, that stuff came out of me for five years, those little pieces of brass would
P: One of the things that E.B. Sledge writes about, he said, the hardest thing for him
was to go maybe the next day after battle and see dead American soldiers and to
see, in some cases, they may have been tortured or just body parts everywhere.
Did you ever learn to deal with that?
R: This guy, the other section leader that got killed and was in the foxhole, they
couldn't even get him out of the foxhole. He was laying on the side of it. We
were there several days, and his parents were from Minneapolis. They were
wealthy, and they gave an important contribution to the University of Minnesota
in his name. I don't know why I thought of that. He was about my build, and his
arms were about this big around. His head was about this big around. He was
about ready to explode and the maggots were at him. [He was] gray, that dirty,
dirt gray. You couldn't see his features anymore. That was difficult.
P: Because he'd been bloating in the sun?
P: You see people you know under those conditions and it was pretty hard, wasn't
R: Oh, that's really dead.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 29
P: Did you have any chance, at least when you were on Guadalcanal, get mail? Did
you write home very often?
R: Yeah. I don't remember whether the mail delivery was real fast or how long it
took. But yeah, I had a girlfriend at home. She would write and my family would
write. My Uncle Charley and my Uncle Harvey would write me and they'd say,
Bill, get one for me. [laughter.] I remember writing those two guys and saying
hey, come on over and get your own; there are plenty of them over here.
P: Did you feel like [Americans] had no concept back home of what you were going
R: Oh sure. Of course they didn't. Of course they couldn't. There was something I
wanted to say early on about this war that I felt, and I don't know if everyone felt
it, but I think they did. If you're not eighty, you weren't alive. You weren't mature
enough to understand the feeling of America when Pearl Harbor happened, we
were all enraged. We wanted to get those sons of bitches. But the next six,
nine, twelve months, the Japanese were so successful, they were so
unstoppable, they knocked out the Dutch Navy, which was a fine Navy, the
British Navy and a couple of major ships they had over there. I think the Ark
Royal [one of the British Royal Navy's most modern aircraft carriers at the start of
World War II], one of their biggest one aircraft carriers, was sunk over there.
Sinapore, of course, they've got great big guns pointed out to the sea. They rode
down the peninsula on bicycles, just a few of them. It didn't take more than a
regiment or two to take Sinapore. One hundred and seventy-five thousand
British soldiers. Man, they swept all over, the Philippines, my God, it took eighty
days or something. They didn't make any mistakes. They suddenly realized that
they were doing these things because their Navy was very good. They weren't
idiots that could copy things. They did things very well. Their Zero was one of
the great fighter planes of the early part of World War II, considering the
Messerschmidt [German fighter-plane]. This was a great aircraft. I don't know
anything about that, but I know guys here who say it was a damn superb aircraft.
Their organization was pretty damn good. I remember when I was, just before I
went to boot camp, I think, the end of 1942 maybe, the Japanese submarines
were shelling the oil fields off Santa Barbara. I mean, no fooling. I'm still angry,
but I was also really fearful of these sons of bitches who were just running over
Of course, the Germans on the other side, they're going to town. They're
halfway to Moscow and beating up the Brits in North Africa. Wow, these guys
are really fierce. That's when the 1st Marine Division, which I was not in, but I
stopped and saw a guy who was in it today on the way up. That division went in
to Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, I think, which was only about seven months
after Pearl Harbor. They only landed two of the regiments because the
Japanese navy chased them away before they could land the third of their
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 30
regiments and a lot of supplies that they had. They were there with the
Japanese navy right off the shore, a thousand yards out there, just shelling them
anytime they wanted to, because our navy was nonexistent and they were
beating up on them when they did show their faces. They were landing supplies
at night by submarine. They had one meal a day for a long time. They got
ammunition and they had water. Boy, that wasn't a turning point, but it certainly
helped. In the early part of the war...
P: It was pretty dark.
R: Yeah. I don't know how many people I share that with. Again, if you weren't
born then, your memory may not show that. But they were very good at what
they did, Jesus.
P: Except for Midway and Stalingrad, and El Alemain and a few other turning points.
R: Dolittle, Jimmy Dolittle.
P: Dolittle's raid on Tokyo.
R: It was a big morale booster. It didn't do a damn thing.
P: It helped.
R: It helped. Really, I think it shocked the Japanese more than it helped us.
P: They couldn't believe it. The British did a couple of bomb raids on Berlin and it's
the same sort of thing. Hitler just couldn't believe they'd done it and he was
R: He immediately stopped bombing the airfields and started bombing London. He
had the British air force just about in his hand there.
P: The RAF [Royal Air Force] was just about out of planes and pilots and
ammunition when Hitler called it off. Why do you think the Allies won this war?
R: The factories.
P: Eventually the Mustang and other U.S. planes were better. The American tanks
R: We produced more. There was a book I just read, about the numbers of
everything that we made, airplanes and ships, my God, at the end of the war, I
think,Japan made one major aircraft carrier after Pearl Harbor, and we had like
twenty-five major ones and about fifty of those lesser or shorter ones.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 31
P: Remember, Roosevelt promised that they were going to make a thousand
aircraft a month, and they ended up making more than that.
R: Yes, I don't know the numbers, but I think our factories did it. I don't think we
were better soldiers. Japanese soldiers were pretty damn good soldiers. He
was so self-reliant. [He would] did a hole, wait there for two or three days and
have the courage to start shoot at your officers.
P: Steve Ambrose, the historian, wrote a book on D-Day. One of his arguments
was, as the Allies landed on June 6, a lot of the commanders were killed. The
sergeants and platoon leaders and enlisted men, they took over. He argued that
in some sense, democracy won because the German troops were waiting on
orders from Hitler before they could move the tanks.
R: That's right.
P: Were you fighting for yourself? Were you fighting for your buddies? Were you
fighting for your country? Were you fighting for democracy?
R: I don't think I thought about fighting for democracy. I think I was trying to kill
those sons of bitches before they could kill me.
P: It's that basic.
R: Yeah. I don't think I was thinking about the Bill of Rights or the Constitution or
P: That might have influenced you when you started.
R: Oh, of course. Oh boy, I'll say. The patriotism, of course.
P: Let me go back and ask you about letters. Did you write any letters?
R: It wasn't easy to write. We didn't have the writing materials, we didn't have the
time, we didn't have a good place, we didn't have light at night in combat.
P: You had no time at all?
R: Nothing. God, we didn't get mail in combat. We didn't write letters.
P: Another thing that comes up when I talk to veterans, some of them resent the
fact that they're in harm's way and people their own age, who were capable of
being in the military were staying at home and not risking their lives. Did you
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 32
ever have any feelings like that?
R: None at all. Not any at all. I didn't think I was abused necessarily, or that I
"chosen." I wasn't chosen. I chose them. I volunteered. Most people did, I think.
They fought in the war.
P: When you talk about survival, and we've already pointed out some of it is just
sheer luck. There are also elements as well. What is the key to survival in
R: One of them that I didn't know anything about in Saipan was, you've got to get
your head up and shoot back. When [its] small-arms fire, not if there's a machine
gun firing right over your head, for Christ's sake, and several bursts that just keep
coming in there, you're not going to stick your head up. You can get away from a
piece of artillery. You see the rounds coming in, occasionally in daytime. You
get behind a hill. If you get behind a hill or a strong wall, they can't get you. In
that tomb, you know I told you about? My guy shot the Japanese guy that had a
pole, for Christ's sake, with a knife on the end of it. A Japanese 57 millimeter,
which is copied from the German 88, a very fast-shooting gun. It's a little light
tank gun, a damn good one. A fast muzzle velocity. He was shooting at us all
night and we had this wall or mound of dirt that was about twenty feet think. He
just kept hammering that thing all night long. He couldn't move that big plot of
earth. He'd blow it up and it'd plop down. You get away from those kinds of
weapons. If you hear a round coming in, you know somebody who's going by it
that's five, ten feet away, or closer. You know he can see you and he's trying to
hit you with a rifle bullet. That's not an airplane guy dropping a bomb or an
artillery guy or even a motor man. He's trying to hit you, and probably wants to
hit you in the head, if he's close enough for a body shot. Shit. So you get your
head down. You can't keep it down forever. You can't just keep it in the hole
forever. If you do, and they build up a base of fire, they're going to run over you
and there are going to be grenades, not rifle bullets coming over you. They're
going to have your ass. Somebody, eventually, had got to get up there and see
those sons up there. They start shooting. Everybody up! Get the base going!
Then five guys are up, and then forty guys are up. Then maybe the whole
company; you've got a couple hundred. Then those [bad] guys are keeping
those heads down because there's a lot of fire coming [at then], and we've got
more ammunition than they've got. Their rifles were bolt-action. They didn't
have any eight-found clip like ours. They had limited supplies of that, so they
didn't spend the ammunition we did.
P: What else was necessary for survival? Would you say character, courage?
Intelligence? Physical fitness, training?
R: I don't know. Intelligence, certainly. One of my guys said, Jesus Christ, Roberts,
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 33
what are you doing? We go this three-man foxhole where the gun is. Here's the
other two-man foxhole. Where the gun is, you've got a third guy in there. The
ammunition cans are laying around. Well, they're metal. With a flare, they might
reflect light. So I'm kneeling up over here, and I've got some soil here, and I'm
pissing on the ammunition cans and packing the mud on them. I'm over there
pissing these things and patting them. [They said] are you kidding me? I said,
I'm not kidding you. I want to stay alive all night. Don't you? We did everything
we could. I had my knives there, the grenades right there to the right of the knife.
In the dark, I didn't have to look. I knew where those sons of bitches were.
P: You could grab them instantly.
P: Obviously, preparation and precaution.
[end of Side B]
P: What did a bullet sound like that would come close to you and could you hear it
as it passed you?
R; You know, I had a lot of rounds go over my head, hitting the dirt beside me and in
front of me. Sometimes if they're going over your head, it would be almost like a
pop! Just a sharp crack. [clapping] No, I can't do it. [clapping more] Yeah, closer
to that. Bam! It 's going over your head. The dirt, you hear the round, but the
noise apparently that goes over your head you can hear, but if it's in the dirtm
you don't hear it.
P: And if it hits, you don't hear it either?
R: Yeah, in the dirt, it makes enough noise.
P: If it hits you, you probably would hear it.
R; I've never been hit, thank God. I had one of my ammunition carriers, he was the
strongest guy we ever saw, he'd been handling naval ammunition at Johnson
Island for about six months. God, he had muscles. He was the biggest, most
powerful guy. Boy, there's a guy for an ammunition carrier. About the second
day there, he got a round in the chest. He started running. He poked his finger in
his chest and ran, it must have been a half a mile back to the aid camp. He was
dead by the time he got there. I didn't hear the round hit him. I didn't even hear
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 34
P: When you finished the Battle of Okinawa, what did you do at that point? Did they
take you back to Guadalcanal?
R: No. We moved our staging area up to Guam. That was our new base as we
were getting closer to Japan and getting ready to go in.
P: That was where the big bombers were stationed at that time right?
R: Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. I think all three.
P: You were at Guam, how long were you there?
R: June 22, we left Okinawa. I think the battle officially ended about June 22. We
took a LST [long slow trip], back to Guam. Probably ten days. We got there
about July 1. We started to train lightly. I don't know when they dropped the first
P: August 6.
R: Okay, August 6. We hadn't been back too long. We got so drunk that night. We
were really young guys, we hadn't had that much to drink. We had six cans,
which was a lot. A lot of the guys really got drunk. A couple of them, not in our
platoon, but in our company or battalion, drowned. They were throwing up in the
toilet and then fell into it. Of course, we didn't know what was going on. About
the end of August, or early September, about the time the typhoon hit Okinawa
so badly it damaged it so terribly, we were on a ship going to China. The 1st and
6th Marine Division went to China. We were there for a long time.
P: Let me ask you about that. What was your reaction when you heard that Japan
had surrendered? Did you think the decision to drop both bombs was the correct
R: We couldn't believe the first one. We're not getting newspapers. I'm not even
sure what our source of information was, frankly. Whether it was our company
commanders telling us...They didn't know what the hell it was, whether it was a
bomb or an explosive thing, or a pill, this much of something. The explosion is
bigger than if the Empire State Building was full of dynamite. Just unbelievable
stories about the power of this bomb. We saw nothing. There's no film, there's
no pictures. Then the second one was dropped. Then the surrender came. W e
were deliriously happy.
P: In retrospect, with all the civilians that were killed....
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 35
R: Oh my God, anybody, Japanese, or American, or European. who doesn't
understand the logic and the mercy...They killed more Japanese people with a
firebombing a month earlier, about 120,000 people died in that thing. They killed
more people at Stuttgart [Germany] one night when they had been dropping the
leaflets. This night they didn't. They dropped them, but they didn't fly over it.
They dropped them there. It would have cost, I don't know how many lives, but it
didn't matter. It would have cost probably two million civilians, and then maybe
one million Japanese soldiers and we'd have lost maybe one million? Four million
people? They lost, what, eighty thousand at Hiroshima? Something like that. I
think I'd rather be vaporized in an atomic bomb than burned as they were. God, I
just read something about that in this book by DeMill I was mentioning to you.
P: It was horrible.
R: It must have been incredible!
P: Many of the houses were wooden, and the conditions were right. There's not
much humidity and the wind was blowing and the fire started.
R: The fire to feed thing, the winds, I'm told were one hundred mile per hour winds.
P: They were unbelievable. It just scorched their homes. So now you're in northern
China. Where did you go?
R: Tsingtao was the city on the coast.
P: What did they tell you your responsibility was?
R: They didn't tell us very much. I don't think I really understood what we were
doing over there until a year or two later. We didn't fight very much. We had
some light duty. There's a machine gunner and coal trains going back and forth
from the interior to bring coal to this major seaport, Tsingtao. It also makes the
best beer in the world.
P: I've had some.
R: Tsingtao, I'll bet. It was a gesture of support for Chiang Kai-Snek [leader of
Nationalist Forces], who of course, immediately, after the war, when the
Japanese surrendered, Mao Tse Tung [Communist leader] started to fight each
other. He wasn't doing very well, so they sent us and thought maybe that would
help. Fortunately, we didn't have to fight.
P: Would it have made a difference if you had supported Chiang in the fighting? I
think there were fifty thousand Marines there, weren't there?
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 36
R: That's right. Two full reinforced divisions.
P: If you had fought alongside Chiang Kai-Snek.
R: I don't think that I'd have been very happy about that.
P: Would that have made any difference in the civil war? Could he had won?
R: I would have said no, except these last two wars we've had over in Desert Storm
were relatively limited to the number of troops. Usually it's like three to one.
Anyone says you've got to have three guys to beat up on one guy if you're on the
offensive. Something like that. Maybe five to one is better. You mash your
people in, you've got a tink line and you've got a hell of a lot of manpower and
firepower. I don't know. It might have. I don't think the Chinese were worth a
shit anyways. Two or three Japanese divisions defeated several armies. Hell, if I
know, why we didn't use the Japanese during the Korean War when the Chinese
were coming? The Japanese had their number. They're such tough guys.
P: You were there for what?
R: Seven months.
P: At that point, what did they tell you? They just withdrew all of the troops?
R: We first took the surrender of two Japanese divisions, which were in the northern
part of China. That was part of what we were doing there. Theat didn't take
more than two or three weeks.
P: So there's still some fighting with the Japanese?
R: No. They'd surrendered and in their camps. They were peaceful and well-
organized and disciplined. I remember seeing some Japanese navy guy, he was
very fit. He had an exercise bar and I'm walking by with a rifle. He's looking at
me doing one-handed pull ups. I'm going, whoa! Way to go, Tiger!
P: Were you aware that George C. Marshall was over there trying to negotiate a
truce at the same time?
R: My God, no.
P: Nobody would have told you about that. At what point did they rotate you back to
R: I don't know how long our people were over there. I got the hell out of there,
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 37
finally, and I was delighted. I wasn't the last guy out. It wasn't a turn out the
lights and close the door. I was one of the early ones. There was still a whole
division, I thought.
P: When you got out, what date was that?
R: March 17, 1946.
P: You came back to San Diego?
R: [I came back to] San Diego [and] went to Chicago, Great Lakes, for my
P: When you were discharged, what did you do first?
R: I went to a hotel and I got drunk and I got laid.
P: What were your plans at this point? Did you intend to go back to the university?
R: I didn't have any plans. I had a girlfriend. I was a young guy. I was a young
Catholic guy, limited college. I didn't have any skills. All of a sudden, I got
married, my wife got pregnant, by herself of course. In 1948, my wife's expecting
again. I'm working at the Buick Motor Company on the line for $1.32 an hour. My
life is over.
P: Was that in Flint?
R: Yeah. My life was over. I really felt it was over. What the hell is going on here? I
felt like Rabbit: Redux [book by John Updike], have you read that?
R: I felt like that tragic, what the hell am I going to do? I'm selling life insurance
during the daytime. I'm working the third shift, $1.32 an hour, that's gross! I get a
nickel bonus. It's $1.27 for most guys. I worked the third shift, 10:18 at night till
6:18 in the morning.
P: Plus the manufacturing production hadn't been cut back.
R: Oh, no.
P: They were building cars then.
R: Yeah. You had to wait a year and a half for a car.
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 38
P: There was a lot of money, but no product.
R: Literally, a year and a half. $500 under the table, and you'd get it faster. Literally.
I bought a Plymouth. I wanted a Chevrolet. I put in an order for a Chevrolet and
a Plymouth. Plymouth came first and I bought the thing. Then the Chevrolet
came in and I sold my Plymouth. I paid $1,550 for the Plymouth. I sold it for
$2,025. I made almost $500. Almost a third!
P: That was a lot of money.
R: My God, yes. For $1.32 an hour, that's about three months wages. I don't know,
it was a lot of money. I sold a bunch of insurance to a guy one time who needed
it and he had a jewelry business. He asked me if I'd want to try jewelry sales. I
went on the road. It was a small company, one hundred bodies down in Detroit.
I ran that company in twelve years. I stayed there for twenty-three years.
P: What company was that?
R: Orange Blossom Diamond Rings. The number two brand name in America. I
took the sales from 1.2 million to seventeen million. I licensed it overseas. I was
a fairly bright guy. I had a couple of chances to learn. The owner was smart
enough, he gave me a lot of opportunity to learn. He sent me to Syracuse
University, [they] had some summer courses I could take in marketing. I went as
far as I could go. I made $80,000 a year there for about fifteen years.
P: Did you use the G.I. Bill for your courses at Syracuse University?
R: No, the company paid for it.
P: When you finished with your service and you came back to the United States,
how were you treated? How did your family deal with your experience? Did you
talk about it? Did you tell them? Were you perceived as a hero?
R: I don't know. I was so skinny. I was so nervous. I was so underweight. I still
had a little malaria. I had some mental problems. I had combat fatigue.
P: Did you have flashbacks?
R: No. At night, things would start to go very fast. I'd get a drink of water and turn
the water on and the water would just feel like it was running twenty times faster
than it should. I'd flush the toilet and it would look like there was twenty times
more water coming in. Things were just going so fast. It would disturb me. It
was very disturbing to me. I couldn't sleep. They sent me to a personal hospital,
it wasn't a military hospital, to a guy in Flint, Michigan. They didn't have the kind
of medications they have today, but they had some things, and they were fairly
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 39
effective. It snapped me out of it. It took a while for it to take effect, as it does
today, I guess. I was a little nervous. I'm looking around for snipers in trees.
P: Sounds probably frightened you.
R: Sounds, oh boy. I went to church with Donnally, a friend of mine from the
Philippines, an army guy. We're sitting there in Mass, and here's a lady sitting in
front of us that's got kind of a crocheted hat, white and gray, and I looked at that
thing, he looked at me and he said, I've got to get out of here. I said, me too.
We went out and threw up. It looked like a head full of maggots. Jesus. The
sound of a jackhammer one time in a construction zone, which sounds not too
dissimilar from a heavy machine gun, I just fell down. Oh, my heart. I was afraid.
I was functional, I was working, but sounds would get to me. And Ramey, that
boy who I thought I should be on the gun. I'll never forget that.
P: How would you see your war experience as influencing the rest of your life?
R: I don't think it had any influence. I don't know, but I don't think so. Oh, that's not
true. My boss told me a couple of times, we've got these jewelers from Michigan
State Jewelers Association in there, you went in there, and got in front of about
two hundred of those guys and gave a really brilliant talk. God, you looked like
you've been in the business for about forty years.
P: Weren't you afraid?
R: Shit, they weren't going to shoot at me. They're not going to kill me. They
stopped shooting at me about four years before. Hell, what were they going to
do to me? I thought I could do anything.
P: There are some veterans I've talked to who feel a sense of obligation since they
survived, they want to make the most of their lives.
R: I didn't feel that. I felt guilt, like why did I survive? How did I survive? My
assistant gunner, badly shot, lost the use of his hands, a gunner killed outright,
Toler, shit, I don't know. I had no desire to contact my associations. The guy
down the street here that I play golf with, he's about fifty years old, he's a Marine
guy. He sends me this Leatherneck magazine, I said, come on. I don't want to
go to conventions and reunions. I wouldn't have much in common with these
guys today. I don't want to go back. It wasn't a pleasant thing. I don't want to go
back. I feel lucky I survived, and just that. Luck.
P: Do you keep up with any of your old buddies at all?
R: No. Not one. A couple of them I did, Bob Russell, he died of cancer about twenty
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 40
years ago. We used to correspond a lot. Phil Roberson, who was a lieutenant of
a rifle platoon. He was a former roommate at Duke University also. He's an
older guy. He went on to overseas and came back and had I talked
to him. He's dead.
P: Would you agree with Tom Brokaw [NBC anchor and author of The Greatest
Generation] characterization of that group as "the greatest generation"?
R: Yes, I would. I don't know if it was the military stuff as much as what we did after
the war. I had very little training, very little formal education, and I started and
[owned] for years a business that did $125 million a year in sales, the largest
buying group in the world of jewelry.
P: You employed a lot of people?
R: That one didn't employ so many. We didn't make the jewelry. We were like
True Value Hardware. True Value and Ace Hardware don't own the jewelry
store. They don't make the stuff. But if you want to buy a hammer, a good
hammer, I'm told, you've got to have the hammerheads made in one of those
thousands of factories in China that make them so bloody cheap and well.
Cheaper than hell. That's what True Value does. They get the stuff as cheap as
they can. They also design the store physically. They also hire and train the
salesmen for them and tell them how to do it and do their advertising and do their
inventory control and provide them the data processing and have a national
convention where they can come once or twice a year and complain or brag
about what their store's been doing and share their knowledge together. That's
what I did. I took a page out of their business book and tried to do the same
thing for jewelers. It worked quite well.
P: Also, that generation lived through the Depression and World War II.
R: That's a good point. I have a picture that my kids have not seen. I just got it
recently. [A picture of] 516 West 6th Street in Michigan. My dad left home when I
was six months old. I never saw him until I was twelve. He took me to Kentucky
for a week. Then I didn't see him until I was out of the Marine Corps. My mother
had two other boys [besides] me. She raised us in this house [showing
photograph]. In this little house, she had fourteen roomers, and about half of
them were boarders as well. In that bloody little house, fourteen guys and four of
us. Eighteen of us [all together].
P: That's what kept you going? The borders and renters?
R: Yes. That little house on the side there. We used to play horseshoes there. I
really wanted out. I wanted up. I wanted better. I was a very young kid. I
[would] go over to the Court Street section where they had the nicer houses and
WWII-13: Roberts. Page 41
green lawns in front, bigger houses. One day, Donald Haggerman and I, he was
not a bright kid, he was a rich kid though, he and I are downstairs, we're about
fourteen or fifteen, he got one of these little funny booklets. The little naughty
booklets. You flip the page rapidly and it was like a movie. It showed Blondie
and Dagwood in intimate action. Oh my God, we had never seen anything like
this. We're hiding behind the furnace down in his basement, and his mother
came down and caught us. She says, give me that. She says, where did you
get that? He didn't answer. She says, did you bring that over here? You little
piece of shit. Get out of here, low rent. Get out of here. That lady, to this day, if I
ever saw her, I think I'd spit in her eye or something. My family was poor. I
didn't know we were poor. I wanted out. I wanted to live on Court Street. So I
worked my ass off. I think I worked harder than anybody that worked for that
company. I really did. I studied. I learned how to speak French. I know speak
about 1,500 words of French fairly effectively, because I was negotiating with
some German companies and some Belgium companies where French was
spoken, and Swiss companies where French is spoken. I put a factory in Turin,
Italy over there for a consortium of manufacturers. I thought I could do it. I
thought I should do it, and I had the courage to try it and it worked. It created a
lot of volume for my [company].
P: The very fact that you were able to overcome a poor background and frankly, be
successful in the military....
R: I wasn't very successful in the military.
P: You survived, and you survived the Depression. Obviously that takes some skill
and knowledge. Did it give you some amount of self-confidence when you went
R: Yes. I walked away from this job with this company that I'd worked for twenty-
three years. I was a general manager for about six. I really ran it for about a
dozen years. I quit that job and started a business with very little money. That's
the business I just sold and the volume peaked out at $125 million, I think. I
walked away, after being taxed by some stockholders, about $9 million in cash.
P: That'll do you pretty well.
R: My God, Julian, I get up in the morning here and I look out here and I think, my
God, they're going to take this away from me tomorrow.
P: Is there anything we've not talked about with the war, or any incident or special
memory you have that you'd like to bring up?
R: You kep asking about, did you know where you were, did you know why you
WVlII-13: Roberts. Page 42
were doing this? I think that was a feeling that many Marines, and soldiers, and
sailors, I'm sure, had. I know there's security limitations on how much they can
tell people. Certainly after the fact, certainly after you're there and you've fought
for the island and taken it, I think they should be able to tell you what the hell the
part of the puzzle was, why we did this. I wish there had been more of that. I
think it would have been good for the next campaign, for them to tell us what they
could as soon as they could. They told us nothing. Maybe they didn't have to,
They taught us to kill the other guy so they couldn't kill you.
P: Is there anything else?
R: I don't believe so.
P: That's great. On that note, I will end our conversation. Thanks very much for
[End of Interview.]