Interview of John Robertson Transcript Number 39

AD:  All right, John, welcome to Barbee Library.  Please tell us what were you doing and where you, and everything, around December 7th, 1941.

JR:  December 7th, I remember, was a Sunday.  I was 18...  still had part of my high school semester left and I was watching the Washington Redskins, watching... pardon me... I was hearing the game between the Redskins and the Eagles in Philadelphia, when they made the announcement.

AD:  Where did you live then?

JR:  In Philadelphia.

AD:  So... now tell us what happened then after December 7th... and then what happened to you?

JR:  Well, I spent a nice, leisurely summer.  I wanted to enlist... my mother didn't want me to.  Uh... finally in October she said "Go ahead, I know you want to... "   So I went down to the Customs House in Philadelphia on October the 8th and enlisted.  And, I was in the Army.

AR:  Where did you go from there?

JR:  To Cumberland Reception Center in Pennsylvania.

AD:  This would have been October, 1942?

JR:  Yes, '42.

AD:  Ok, what happened there when you got to Cumberland?

JR:  I forget how long I was there.  I think the first weekend I went home... had a weekend pass. Then I left, uh... saying to my mother, "I'll be back next week, probably".  Well, it was two and a half years before I  came... three... three almost, over three years...

AD:  Wow. 

JR:  ...before I got back.

AD:  Ok... where did you go?

JR:  I went from Cumberland to Fort Riley [Kansas], which is the Cavalry uh... Training Center.  I had enlisted in the Cavalry for not very good reasons, since I'd never been on a horse in my life.  But, since I enlisted, they gave me my choice of Branch, so I wound-up in the Horse Cavalry at Fort Riley.

AD:  This is nineteen forty...

AD:  So you started horses, huh?

JR:  This is after the Polish Cavalry got decimated by the Nazis tanks and I they still had people on horseback in the U.S. Army.

AD:  Shame on 'em. (?)

JR:  Pretty crazy, huh?

AD:  How long did take to get you off a horse?

JR:  I didn't get off until I went to Fort Bliss [Texas].  I'll tell you, I had a terrible time learning to ride. There was a winter in Fort Riley [Kansas] where there was snow on the ground.  The horses slipped.  We had to ride uh... without feet in the stirrups and it took me forever to learn... just forever.  I finally did but it took a long time.  We had a red-headed Sergeant there, called Sergeant Nanny (?), and he couldn't stand me because I was too poor a rider.  And, it was always, "God Almighty, Robertson!  God Almighty!  Do this... why are you doing that?  God Almighty!"  I wrote my mother and said, "I have a new first name, it's God Almighty". (laughs)

AD:  So go ahead, then what happened?

JR:  Well, we were in January...

AD:  January, 1943?

JR:  1943... I was sent to Fort Bliss and we weren't there very long before we got the words that they were taking the horses away from us and said, "You are now Dismounted Cavalry". (laughs) I can remember thinking, boy, that sounds like Infantry to me, which of course it really was... although we still retained the old Cavalry uh... name such as Troops instead of Companies and Squadrons instead of Regimens.  So, they didn't call us Soldier, they called us Trooper.  That part of the Cavalry remained.

AD:  What outfit did you end up in?

JR:  First Cavalry Division.  I shipped overseas with them and was with them for the rest of the War.

AD:  When did you go overseas?

JR:  The end of May '43.

AD:  And where did you go?

JR:  We went to Australia on the old pleasure cruise boat named the "Maui" and it was 21 days of pure hell on that boat... where you're stacked four or five high.  Terrible, terrible mess conditions.  Terrible latrine conditions... and, we were all so glad to get off that boat.  It was filthy, dirty... its...   and... we went to a little camp near Brisbane, Australia, near the towns of Strathpine and Petrie.  Very pleasant, very nice.  It was uh... June, which is winter over there, but the conditions were pretty good.  And, then we started very intensive training over there.

AD:  How long were you in Australia before you moved out?

JR:  Moved out in February of '44 and went to New Guinea.  So we spent Christmas... uh...  I'm sorry, let me backtrack... we left in December, because we were uh... on a ship for Christmas Day, I remember that...  and there was some hassle about (laughs)... somebody stole chicken from the Officer's Mess so they locked us all down in the hold of the ship.  Finally, I think the Chaplain raised a little hell and let us up.  But we had canned salmon as I recall for Christmas Dinner.  We were in New Guinea only about two months, more training.  Uh... not much happened there, it was a terrible place. 

AD:  Where did you go from there, John?

JR:  February we went to the Admiralty Islands [Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea] and that was our first armed combat.  I should mention in the mean time I'd been transferred to the 8th Engineers Squadron which is part of the First Cavalry Division.  And uh... after they took the horses away... I'm backtracking again, they put me in the Motor Pool for which I was entirely unqualified... I didn't even know how to drive... uh... they didn't know what to do with me.  I thought when I went in the Cavalry I'd have a good shot at uh... Officer-in-Training, because my scores were very high, but once uh... we got Dismounted uh... they didn't know where I was going to go.  So I think they put a lot of misfits in the Engineers... so I always heard.  So where are we...  now we're in the Admiralties.

AD:  What island did you... what was the name of the island?

JR:   Manus and Los Negros.  Landed in Los Negros.

AD:  And this is... this is where you run into the Japanese now?

JR:  Oh yeah, yeah.  We went in as a Reconnaissance Force.  Uh... MacArthur was in the ships offshore.  And, our Units were told to hold the island... at least, overnight.  And then since we did that, MacArthur sent the rest of us in just to keep the island.  It had a very strategic airstrip... uh... Momote Airstrip which is a good taking-off spot for a lot of the planes to go further north.

AD:  And this is like January, 1944?

JR:  This is February, 1944...

AD:  February '44.

JR:  We met some pretty good resistance.  The uh... Japanese on Los Negros were... Imperial Marines and they were big guys... very fanatic... and that was the first time I had ever really seen dead Japanese and there were just heaps of them.  And I'll always remember I felt no kinship for them as human beings.  To me, they were just dead animals.  I felt that way for a long time.

AD:  How long were you on Los Negros?

JR:  Los Negros, until October and then we invaded Leyte Island in the Philippines and I went in with the first wave at Leyte on October 20th... which I always felt was the safest way to go in because the Naval bombardment had pretty well silenced the Japanese for awhile but we had a very uneventful landing.  Our mission was to take a town called Tacloban which we did in a few days.  Although, we were bombed heavily on the beach, at the time.  But... and we were... we traveled all over Leyte and sister island called Samar.  And the fighting was very intense in the Philippines... lot of rain, lot of mountains, everything was wet all the time.  But we did a good job... we were the first troops, after we got to Luzon, which was in January.  We were the first troops to capture Manila, the First Cavalry was... which is always a proud thing with the Division.

AD:  Was there much resistance at Manila, when you got there?

JR:  Yes, in the city it was terrible. 

AD:  And this is now...

JR:  The Engineers had a lot of work in the city... they said at the time it was the most heavily mined city in the world and the Engineers had the uh... job of clearing the mines.

AD:  This is like January '45 now?

JR:  Yes, when we entered there, yeah... we entered Manila... sometime in early February.  There was a famous "Flying Column", they called it, First Cavalry loaded up the whole Division in trucks... anything that had wheels... and just went on down the highway, regardless of any ambush or anything else... and hell bent for Manila.  It was a race between Divisions to see who would get there.

AD:  Were you around any place where MacArthur made his famous "Walk Ashore" coming back to the Philippines?

JR:  No... no.  I saw him come ashore at Los Negros, in the Admiralties... I did see him there.

AD:  Just thought I'd ask... its famous.

JR:  Oh yes, sure it was.

AD:  Amount of time (?), account of what happened there.  So go on... ok, you're in Manila now and its like February, 1945.

JR:  Well, we just fought our way... after Manila there was still a lot of fighting left.  And... by this time we were counting our points to go home.  We had a rough estimate of what we needed but they kept fluctuating they kept changing the rules, as I wrote to my mother, so we never knew where we stood really... And, I'll tell you when we heard news of the Atomic Bomb, because that’s kind of interesting...  We were training on a Navy ship for amphibious landings, you know, going up and down the nets into the “LSM's” (?) and that kind of stuff, and we got all our news from the Navy loudspeaker but they often played jokes on us.  And we heard one day, of course,  they dropped this huge bomb on Hiroshima and wiped-out a whole city and it looked like the war would be over.  And of course, we all looked at each other and said, "Yeah, yeah, right... sure,  another Navy trick."  And then we finally heard again over the Armed Forces Radio and we believed it.

AD:  And you were on a ship at this time?

JR:  Yeah, we were ready for the Invasion...

AD:  Let me ask you a question, we heard so much uh... at the 50th Anniversary of dropping the Bomb... how, why nasty (?) we were... what do you think, as a guy who was going into Japan, about dropping that Bomb?

JR:  Oh then I was very elated... very elated.  Later on in college I had misgivings about it and I remember in a poetry class writing a... we had a... I was going to say, mission... I'm using the wrong word.  We were told to write a sonnet, 14 line, and I wrote about that and uh...  I remember I ended it with "...a nation killed a city for the brotherhood of man..." and then I was very much against it... I thought it was a terrible thing we did.  Now I've come full circle and I've realized we saved millions of lives, Japanese as well as ours.

AD  Now the War's over, when did you get to come home?

JR:  Well, I should have been home before I... since the War was over... but the shipping was going to Japan, so... First Cavalry wound up in Japan and we were in Tokyo Bay the day of the Surrender, October... September 2... and we uh... its a sight I'll never forget... is all the B-29's flying overhead and most of the Asiatic Squadrons uh... Navy out there and we went ashore at Yokohama and then they assigned First Cavalry to be the first troops into Tokyo so our famous  sign went up outside Tokyo, "First in Manila, first in Tokyo" said "You're entering Tokyo courtesy of the First Cavalry Division"... that's pretty neat.

AD:  How did you find Japan when you got there?

JR:  Well, we didn't know what to expect...

AD:  In Tokyo...

JR:  ...the first troops in... the people would be very hostile... but they weren't... they were very frightened stiff... very polite, very cooperative, no trouble at all.  So about then I began to change my feelings for the Japanese, of course... but uh

AD:  How long... how long did you stay on Occupation Duty, John?

JR:   From the 2nd to October 10th.  Five weeks.  Five weeks...

AD:  And then they brought you home?

JR:  Yeah.  We went back uh... on an “ATA” I think it was... back to Camp Stoneman in California.  But, I didn't get home until November.  Once was my own stupidity... I went down to the PX where I had been told to wait for the train... instead, the train pulled-out while I was in the PX.  It cost me another two weeks at Camp Stoneman.

AD:  Tell us after you get home what did you do then ...  How old were you now?  About uh...

JR:  22 years old.

AD:  22 years old.

JR:  Yeah...

AD:  What did you do when you got home now?

JR:  I knew... I wanted to go to school and I had a terrible high school record... terrible.  All I was really interested in was sports.  I never studied... cut class.  And I really shouldn't have graduated except uh... I told uh... one of my Counselors that I wanted to enlist and she had to change my chemistry mark for me to do that.  She was an old spinster lady and the last thing she said was, "John, go shoot a Jap for me!"  She was a bloodthirsty old gal.  Well, so I wondered am I was fit for college and I didn't want to waste the Government's money, if I'm not.  So I used my own money and went to a preparatory school called Brown Prep in Philadelphia.  And uh... I got all A+'s and what they call "SM's", superior merits.  So, I figured I'm ready.  So I entered Upsala (?) College in June of '46 and graduated in due course.  Finally went on and got a law degree in '61... although many years later.

AD:  Where did you get the law degree?

JR:  In Baltimore, I had moved to Baltimore by then... So...

AD:  Did you get married along in this period?

JR:  I got married the year after I moved to Baltimore... I was 34 when I got married.

Ad:  Ok, so now you're living in Baltimore and you're a lawyer...

JR:  I'm a lawyer but I never practiced law.  I mean, technically, you're a lawyer when you get your law degree but I never uh... took the Bar.  I was in insurance, I liked it then... its where I stayed... until I came down here 12 years ago.

AD:  You've been retired now for 12 years? 

JR:  Yeah.

AD:  Where do you live down here?

JR:  On the Canal... up on Southwest Twenty-second...

AD:  Mh... hmm.  You have any children?

JR:  No,  no children... never had children.

AD:  And uh... so that's your experience.  And the only thing you used the GI Bill for was to go to school?

JR:  Yeah.  That was a great thing.

AD:  Did you spend most of your life in Baltimore, after that?

JR:  Well, I spent uh... I'd say, half my life in Philadelphia, because that's where I returned to after the Army and I moved to Baltimore in 1956... and that was uh... then that's when I finally got into insurance.

AD:  And uh... well...

JR:  You were saying there in the show (?) I got a Bronze Star Medal but I want to tell you about that...  It was great to have because it got me 5 points on the Point List but it was a medal I don't think I should have ever had... it was when we were on the beach in Leyte, at that time I was a Radio Operator with the "8th Engineers" sitting in a Weapons Carrier, close to the beach, and the Japs, at that time, had air control and they bombed the beach pretty heavily.  But I was just excited by it and I ran down to the beach instead of away from it... I had a camera with me and wanted to take some pictures of what was going on.  Well, they had gasoline dumped down there...  a lot of quarter mess (?) trucks and things were really blown-up all around... fire... a lot of fire... and some soldier was running up the beach... he said "Hey, Mack, there's a wounded soldier down there in the truck.  I didn't think then, well why don't you do something about it...  So, I ran down where he was...   ... you might have to shut that [video camera] off...  [ JR begins to choke-up and nods to turn camera off for a moment]  [Camera back on] ... the soldier was sitting in the cab of this truck.  His arm was blown off... looked like above the shoulder, perfectly conscious, obviously in shock, and he said "Do you have a cigarette?"  I said, "No, but I want to take you to a hospital."  So I put him over my shoulder and took him up to a field hospital... I forget how far away it was... and then I went back to do the radio but I was covered with blood... and I don't remember when it was... the Troopers came up and said "Bob, have you been hit?".  And I said, "No, but a soldier down on the beach was...".   So anyway, they wrote it up and gave me a medal for that... which was not deserved because I wasn't even nervous (?).   In fact, I probably should have been reprimanded for going on the beach.  Well, like I said, it was worth five points... I was glad to get it.

AD:  Could look at it the other way, you save some guy...

JR:  Yeah... and I never know what happened to him, never know if he lived or died and I've often thought about it... I've often wondered if he lived?

AD:  Any other experiences like that in your career there?

JR:  No, not like that... that was, I guess... for me, one of a kind. 

AD:  Well...

JR:  We weren't... Unit I was in was... we would be attached to other Units that were in combat.  So we would see a little bit of it but not day after day after day.  I did have a letter in there where I was on... Manus Island [Admiralty Islands] uh... for six days doing Patrol Duty and I can't remember why I would be out on Patrol... but, I remember and I wrote to my mother, we spent six days in foxholes but nothing but rain and rain and rain... but I related how I was sharing a hole with a boy name Arthur Mason (?) and we'd come back from Patrol and try to make ourselves comfortable in this wet foxhole and just kept raining and raining... we finally started to laugh it was so... we just... were talking about what we'd do when we got home, you know, and all our friends and... we just started... , its in the letter home, once we just started to laugh about it and laughed, I said, until we couldn't even speak!  And Mason looked over and said, "Bobby, this is pitiful."  (laughs)

AD:  Well, John, I have one question I'd like to ask...

JR:  Yeah

AD:  ...before we terminate the interview, what advice would you give to future Americans based on what you, and the likes of you, went through... and did... in this country?

JR:  I'd like to seem them be a little more patriotic and maybe realize what it takes to keep us the way we are... I think we're... I think we've forgotten a lot about what it takes.   I don't think I'm qualified to give any advice other than that.

AD:  What about education?

JR:  Get all you can!... its the greatest thing that ever happened to me.  The GI Bill was a wonderful Bill.  And, now there was a question on there about being proud to serve and I'll tell you I was extremely proud to serve.  I think it did a lot for me.  I went in as a very innocent youth really... like most of us... I think I came out better than when I went in.  I think I was... I was not a good soldier, technically, but I did everything I could and whatever I was asked to do.  I'll... if you don't...  I'll tell you one amusing incident about how inept I was as a soldier... really.  I just had a terrible time when we had to take any rifles apart or any weapons and put them together again.  I remember one incident, I think it was at Fort Bliss, it was after lunch... I took my rifle apart and they had us... fall out (?) rifle inspection and I didn't... I couldn't get that thing back together so I thought, heck, I'll stay here in the tent and hope they don't miss me.  I don't think they did miss me but we had our mess kits all arranged around the tent pole and inadvertently I back into them and they all dropped off the rack with a terrific clatter!  An instant later, Sergeant Copper (?), the First Sergeant, had his head in the tent,  "Robertson, you're on Troop Duty the rest of the week!" (laughs)

AD:  Well, John, we’ve got to thank you for your time and commitment.

JR:  Oh, you're welcome.

AD:  Now, we'll just turn this thing off...