Harry Roberson Harry Roberson

My WWII Service with the Third Marine Division

 As told to Jim McDonald and Cathy Lemp

Roberson with early 1945 photo taken on Guam shortly before he went to Iwo Jima


“I saw so many people over there who were blown up that I don’t care for any more wars.” — Harry Roberson

The Beginning

I was born in Ucross, Wyoming toward the end of the summer in 1920. Today I’m blessed with at least 70 relatives here in Tuolumne County.

I only lived in Ucross about two years. My dad, Lloyd Roberson, just kind of always thought things were a little better over the next hill. So we moved around quite a bit. We homesteaded in Wyoming on 40 or 50 acres, which he sold when we left Wyoming. He had far more things he would master. He was a barber for a while, then he was a lumberman for a while, and he was even a cowboy.

Dad moved us to Idaho for a time where he worked on the Pocatello Dam for probably three or four years. Then he built what I think was one of the first ever motorhomes. He built it on a Model T truck frame, and we went to Oregon in it. We didn’t stay there very long; my mother, Nora Roberson, wanted to go see her dad in Harrington, Delaware. So we all got on the train and went to Delaware.

My dad did a little bit of everything while we were there, and after we got done visiting, he took us to Philadelphia, where he worked as a streetcar conductor. I started school in Philadelphia. From there we moved back to Delaware, and we farmed a piece of land for a few years. After that, we moved to New Jersey, and my dad worked on a dam there.  Next we returned again to farm in Delaware, and we stayed there until about 1929 or 1930. When we got flooded out on the farm for two years in a row, we decided enough of that, and so we moved to Payson, Arizona.

After a couple winters in Payson, living at an elevation of over 4,000 feet, we moved to California. That would have been around 1934 during the Depression. The whole family worked up and down the Valley picking and drying fruit of all different types. We had to make a living. I eventually finished high school in Payson.

Joining the Marines

I enlisted in 1940 when we lived in Escalon. It was before the war, and I was 19. I was tired of working in the Valley for nothing, so I went into the Marine Corps and worked for nothing.

I guess I went into the Marines for glory … you know, “The Marines!”  My family didn’t seem to be too worried about the war in Europe, and they were probably glad to get rid of one mouth to feed.

I wasn’t worried about the war either. I thought if I got in early, I’d have a little bit of a head start on the guys, you know, because I thought we would eventually get into it. And so I enlisted in Stockton, got on a train with a bunch of other recruits and went to San Diego.

Once down there they loaded us on a bus and took us to the Recruit Depot where we would be trained. Once I got there and heard all the hollering and one thing and another – the DI’s and what-not – I thought, “Boy, I don’t know if I did the right thing or not!” But I was used to hard work because I had worked all the time when I was a kid, and it didn’t really bother me. And I could take orders. As it turned out I got along great during the nine weeks of boot camp and in the military.

After I got out of boot camp, I went to sea school, also there in San Diego. Sea school was to prepare you to serve two years aboard ship, working the guard duty and manning the guns.

In late 1940, for my sea duty, I was assigned to the battleship USS Idaho stationed in Honolulu. Six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, they sent the ship to the East Coast. Going through the locks in the Panama Canal, we had about four inch3es on each side of the Idaho. It was a big ship!

The Idaho had a complement of about 1,400 men. It had three turrets of 14-inch guns, and then the Marines manned the broadside guns, which were 6-inch guns, about six on each side of the ship. Then they had all the anti-aircraft stuff up on top. Our ship had about 30 Marines aboard. We got along pretty well with all the Navy personnel. We slept close together in hammocks hung from the bulkheads.

Protecting Liberty Ships

We sailed up to Norfolk, Virginia, and stayed there for a while. After that we went on up to Boston, and we started escorting Liberty ships to Iceland. We convoyed them because there were so many German submarines active out there. We were there to protect those ships because they carried the lifeblood of England. So we’d take a convoy to Iceland, and then the British fleet would pick it up and take it on to England.

In a convoy there would be all together maybe 15 ships. Usually there would be one battleship and maybe five or six destroyers and maybe a cruiser or two to escort the liberty ships.

We started the convoys around June, 1941. At the end of each convoy, we were given a week off. I remember one time I went to Reykjavik, Iceland. That was quite an experience. It was winter and the streets had about two feet of mud on them. They were just dirt streets — no pavement — and they had boardwalks all over the town. They had thermal heat from the earth that heated the whole town through pipelines. It was some sort of volcanic action, and they made good use of it.

I remember one time in Reykjavik I was getting some coffee in a little place, and they brought a little pitcher with a demitasse cup, and it was chicory! Whew, strong? I couldn’t take much of that.

Rough Seas

Aboard ship the marines had to man the broadside guns, and we had watch duty, watching for submarine periscopes. During one trip in the North Atlantic, we got in a terrible storm. One minute you’d be way up at the top of a wave, the next minute you’d be 100 feet down in a trough. You’d see one ship up there at the top and another way down. Oh, it was terrible.

We had to stay inside with all the hatches and portholes shut. We couldn’t see a whole lot. The cooks had a pretty rough time trying to get meals out because they didn’t set up mess tables, but they fed us what they could put out. I never heard of a ship like that sinking in a storm. The bad part went on for two or three days, and then we got out of it.

A lot of people were seasick but not me; the only time I got sick aboard ship was when we were laying off San Francisco harbor. We had to anchor out overnight before we came in, and they had those waves that just make a gradual up and down motion, and that got to me. But I was never sick in the rough seas.

Submarine Sighted

It was a good life aboard ship, and I liked it. I liked the solitude, really. I could easily find a place to be alone. The nights are beautiful out to sea. There’s phosphorous in the water, and when the ship throws it up on each side, it gets in the light and it just shines.

I was a PFC, then I became a corporal and eventually I made sergeant. I think I was easy to get along with. We had different ceremonies that we attended, like when we crossed the equator they had a big party.

When you get that many men together, there’s always someone who doesn’t want to get along. They had what they called a brig on board, and we had to stand guard on it. I never could figure out why—we’re out to sea, we’re down three decks on the ship, and we had a locked brig…and we had to stand duty out there!

We saw a submarine once. We saw a scope just off the ship about 100 feet. I reported it. I was sitting there at the guns, and I was looking out. It was during the day, and I saw this thing and I said, “What in the world is that?”

I decided I’d better call it in so I did, and they gave us permission to fire at it. We fired our broadside gun. I don’t know what happened; we had shells that went down and then exploded. The sub would have been German or Italian. But no submarines ever attacked the ships we were convoying.

Hundreds of ships were lost over there, hundreds of them. They were loaded with tanks and guns and ammunition and food and clothes — everything going to England, all down the drink.

They sank some of our ships right off the North Carolina coast. And they sank one right in the mouth of the Mississippi. They were Liberty ships, the ones that they made up in Washington. They were turning out one ship a day up there, and they were big.

Stocking Up

We had some free time on board the Idaho during those convoys. I’d spend that time writing letters and whatnot. The food was always good! They had huge freezers aboard, and before we’d go on a trip they’d reload the ship with food for the period that we’d be gone. And if we ran out of food or we needed fuel, they would restock it or refuel it while we were out sailing along. A ship out there waiting in the area would come alongside.

They also had what we called a “gedunk stand” on board, where you could go buy ice cream and candy bars.

If we ever had someone who was real sick and had to have an operation or something, they would send them in a gurney over to a ship that was going back while we were still under way.

We did the convoys up until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Panama Canal to Hawaii

On December 7, 1941, we were in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland, waiting to bring a convoy back. We got word of what the Japanese had done. Because they had sunk all our battleships over in Pearl Harbor, we got the ship ready for battle and came back without a convoy.

We stopped at Norfolk, VA, refitted the guns and the ship, and then we went through the Panama Canal and back to Honolulu. We could travel about 18-25 knots so it didn’t take too long to get back.

In Hawaii, we just rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed. There would be something out there that we would be firing at. The 14-inch guns had a large shell and you could see it at night. It would be kind of fiery, and you could watch it go.

And then there were airplanes pulling sleeves and other targets — that was for anti-aircraft practice.

We did bombardment practice at a target or an island. We’d have a maneuver lasting 12 to 14 hours, and the ships would all be going like they were in a battle, sometimes in daytime and sometimes at night.

From Honolulu we went up to the Aleutians where the Japanese had already landed and did some bombardment up there. There were about five ships with us. We were the battleship and we had cruisers, heavy cruisers and light cruisers, destroyers, supply ships — all kinds of stuff.

That was the first time I saw any type of action. We were only up there for about two weeks, then returned to San Francisco and reloaded with ammunition at the depot there. My two years of sea duty were up and I left the ship there.

I was sent to a distributing center at Yerba Buena Island, and that’s when I met Lois. We had some good dates, and I got to know her family real well. They were grape and almond growers there in Modesto.

I was only at Yerba Buena about two months, I guess, before they sent me to Camp Pendleton for training. It was a lot of schooling, all about the rifles and machine guns. They take you out in the field where we would use them and get used to them. I was there for two months, and then they shipped me overseas.

Joe and Harry study a map

Brothers Reunited

I was headed for Guadalcanal. I knew what was going on there, but I was young and I was looking for adventure. We first went to Noumea in New Caledonia where we got a few days off the ship, and then we got back aboard and headed to Guadalcanal. I joined the Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division. And guess what? I met my brother there!

Joe, my older brother, didn’t enlist until after I did—I think war was declared when he enlisted. For a while, we were both in the same outfit. I was 21 then and he was 23, just a year and three months older. He was a corporal too.

We met a war correspondent there, and he took pictures and wrote an article about us. We had a beer or two and had a good time.

We were only together for about two or three months, and then he got shipped back to the States. The last time I heard from him, he was in New Zealand, in the Marines, and they were there to protect New Zealand from the Japanese coming in. Then he went to Ireland.

Invasion of Guam

From Guadalcanal our division headed for Guam. We made the landing there and took Guam. It was a lot of noise. I don’t know how war works as well as it does.

I don’t really remember a lot about the Guam invasion. We went ashore there early one morning just south of the capital of Guam, I think. I remember there were a bunch of cliffs that we went around, and we just hit the general area.

We landed in several different places at the same time, you know, different places on the island, and so we kind of kept the Japanese pretty busy. But it wasn’t as bad as some of the other landings. We didn’t lose as many men there, you might say. It was kind of mostly general fighting.

Guam wasn’t as bad as Guadalcanal was, I guess, but they had a lot of snipers there. They also had a lot of tunnels and trenches. They had little railroad track carts that they rolled in and out with the heavier stuff. I tell you, they were pretty hard to root out. We had to use backpacks full of explosives and lots of grenades and mortar shells.

I didn’t get injured or anything, but I did get Dengue fever there. It didn’t bother me at the time, but after the fighting, I was hospitalized with it.

A lot of soldiers got malaria on Guadalcanal from the mosquitoes there. After Guam, we made our home base on Guadalcanal after we got it secure. That was my home base until I left the Ninth Marines.

Fierce Fight for Iwo Jima

In the meantime, we went to Iwo Jima. When we landed on Iwo Jima the enemy had miles of tunnels. The island wasn’t very big — only five miles long and two and a half miles wide at the widest place, and they had this big mountain, Mt. Suribachi, up on the narrow end. That’s where the Japanese were — up there. They were heavily armed. They really gave us a bad time down on the beach.

The sand was terrible. It was volcanic ash type stuff. Our vehicles all got stuck on the beach because of the black sand. You’d step in it and sink. The quicker you can get off the beach, the better off you are.

Our division went in five days after D-Day. By then we had lost so many men. We got off the ship on the beach and then we went up to the front, which wasn’t very far, just a couple of miles.

Our division was in the center, and the 5th and 6th Divisions were on the right and left, but they had really lost an awful lot of men. Before it was over, they would fly in recruits from San Diego that just had eight weeks of training.

They brought  ‘em in by plane. We had an airstrip that we had taken and repaired so they could land. Some of them had their big backpacks on, and they would turn them in for a combat pack. They would get their ammunition for whatever group they were attached to — a mortar group or machine gun group or whatever. They were sent up to the front, and many of them were dead within 30 minutes.

You’re either fortunate or you’re not so fortunate. I saw so many people over there who were blown up that I don’t care for any more wars.

I ended up in a machine gun crew with the 3rd Battalion, but that wasn’t what I was to do when I went ashore. When I went ashore, I was in charge of motor transport in our company. I was a sergeant at that time, and they needed people on the front, so they sent me up there.

The Japanese had tunnels from one end of the island to the other and clear across it. All the bombing we had done before the invasion didn’t do any good because they were all underground in tunnels, deep tunnels. So we had to root ‘em out and close up the caves. Night was the worst — you never knew when they were going to pull something like a banzai charge.

Nighttime Attack

I remember one night I was out at a machine gun set-up. Down the hill were some tents that nurses and some air corps people were staying in. The Japanese pulled a banzai on them that night. It was about a thousand yards from where we were, and they killed a bunch of the flyers and nurses.

They went in with bayonets and grenades and they did hand-to-hand combat. We heard they got all high on sake and stuff, and then they’d pull one of those charges. They were vicious fighters, really. Not today, maybe, but they were then.

We were at Iwo Jima about six weeks, and then we went back to Guam and stayed there. We were there when we heard the war had ended. I still had more time to do in my contract with the Marines because I had extended two years on Guadalcanal.

I came home on a troop ship and made it back to San Diego about the 15th of December in 1945. Those troop ships were something else, with seven or eight bunks, one above the other and very narrow. People get sick. You didn’t want to be on one of the bottom bunks!

Honor Flight

Several years ago I was invited to go on an Honor Flight to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. My granddaughter works for the county, and she heard about the Honor Flights. She looked it up and did all the paperwork.

Her husband is the one who went with me, and because he is a World War II history buff, it really fit in nicely for him, too. We flew out of Fresno on a chartered flight. We stopped in Kansas to refuel, and then we went to Washington, where it was nighttime when we arrived. We went to a nice hotel; the Waldorf, I think it was.

The next morning we had breakfast and then we started out. We went to memorials and a number of other sites. At every one of them there were busloads of school children lined up as we were coming in, all shouting “Hurrah,” “Hurrah.” It was fantastic! Oh God, it makes you feel like you’re really wanted in this world, you know?

And when we got back to Fresno, they had mail call; that’s what they used to have in the service, mail call. They said, “We got mail call! Mail call!” And they had arranged for all your relatives to write letters to you. I received many from all the wonderful family I have here in Tuolumne County.

Dorothy and Harry’s 1946 wedding photo

Postwar Postscript: Love Stories

In 1946 Harry returned and reunited with his girlfriend Dorothy Jean, with whom he had been corresponding throughout the war.  They married and Harry eventually brought his family to Tuolumne County in 1955 where he bought a plumbing business in Twain Harte.

“It was pretty good — there were a few tough years, being in a new area, and it was a very small area at that time. But we managed to get through it, my wife and I and our four boys.”

He and Dorothy Jean raised their family in Twain Harte and eventually converted his business into underground sewer and water plumbing for large community developments. He did the entire water sewer layout for the Pine Mountain Lake and other developments in Tuolumne County.

He also found success in buying properties, fixing them up and selling them for a profit.

Sadly, tragedy struck twice when their twin sons died in separate accidents.

After 52 years of marriage, Dorothy Jean passed away in 1997.

‘Ten Wonderful Years’

Harry later married his second wife, Lois. Lois was a young woman he had met at a UFO dance in Modesto in 1942. They had dated for a few months, but then Harry reenlisted for a second tour and shipped out in 1943.

Their lives were reunited 54 years later when they saw each other at the Lodge in Twain Harte and rekindled the spark that occurred at the UFO dance in 1942.

Lois had lost her husband after many years of marriage. Together she and Harry enjoyed  “ten wonderful years.”

As Harry fondly recalled, “I had a motorhome, and we did a lot of travelling all over: Canada, Mexico, Arizona, and we had a wonderful time. She was kind of like my first wife … she was a very steady woman. When I got married to Lois, I had no responsibilities; it was like being young again.”

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