WW II HEROES: Photographs by Zach Coco

Earnest “E.T.” Roberts

12/23/1923  McAlester, OK  Army

Mankato Style Spur Strap Buckles on Custom Straps by Baru Forrel
Early morning on June 6, 1944, the hungry, sea-sick men of the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, knew the “time had come.” Aboard their LCI and now making their way to Omaha Beach where they would become part of the second assault wave ashore in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.  Unable to see over the landing ramp, the men knew they were approaching hell as both the sound of artillery fire and machine guns as well as the reek of gunpowder flooded the boat. PFC Earnest “E.T.” Roberts was stoically prepared to do the job that he knew had to be done. He was the lead man as the bow ramp came down. Born on December 23, 1923, Earnest Thomas Roberts’ childhood was shielded from the harshest effects of the Great Depression because an oil boom had brought prosperity to McAlester, Oklahoma. The streets had even been paved with concrete and brick to replace the rutted dirt roads of his early childhood. As the son of a meat cutter with other family in the oil business, Earnest could devote his childhood to school and sports, like boxing and horses. The war that began in Europe was in the consciousness of most young men, and when the U.S. became involved, it was no surprise that E.T. was drafted at the age of 18. Roberts did not travel far from home as his initial training took place at Camp Wolters, Texas, a bare 220 miles from where he grew up. While in training, he won the Camp Wolters Golden Gloves boxing championship and remained undefeated since soon after he shipped out to Fort Dix, New Jersey. After arrival and further training, Roberts was scheduled leave to New York since the soldiers were on a schedule that depended on the troopships departing. The Queen Mary, however, arrived and was large enough to carry almost all the waiting troops. Just before departing on leave, Roberts was recalled to duty—and given the name of the AWOL soldier whose place he would be taking on the Queen Mary—as he was hustled aboard the ship to maximize troop capacity. Once in England, training continued. Big training events involved landing on the English coast in small assault craft, moving inland several miles and digging into defensive positions, and conducting patrols and live ammunition firing for several days. In between these exercises, the men would march with full packs for 10-12 miles every day and practice digging constantly. After 17 months of training, Roberts felt he was an “Iron Man,” trained and ready for what lay ahead. On June 4, 1944, the harbor was full. Before Roberts and the men loaded aboard their respective ships, he was able to watch as General Eisenhower spoke of their upcoming duty. With full packs, full loads of ammunition, and one field ration, they waited for their imminent movement to the beaches of France. That night as men ate their ration, the weather raged, and their small assault ships tossed about at anchor, but they did not depart. The following day, approval was given to initiate the assault with Roberts landing in the 2nd assault wave, scheduled to hit the beach at 0820 hours on June 6. After a long two days aboard the storm-tossed ship, the men hit the beach, sea-sick, tired, hungry, and as ready as their training and preparations could make them. Roberts, the first man off the boat and into the frigid water which towered over him. His body went straight down with the weight of his pack, and everything he was carrying. His helmet caught the water and violently wrenched his neck causing him to drop his flamethrower and flounder through the water to the beach. As the sound deafened and the smoke choked, Roberts and his fellow soldiers crawled across the beach. E.T. crawled to one of the men who’d been shot and, E.T. having lost everything he was carrying, the young man told him to take his rifle. He’d been mortally wounded; his eyes turned blood red by the force of the shell blasts. Nonetheless, he urged Roberts to “shoot as many so-and-so’s as you can.” Roberts was eventually “gathered up by a sergeant” and moved inland to their first objective. By the end of the day, only he and seven others from his landing craft were still together. Replacements would start coming in a constant stream. On July 5, 1944, as his unit approached Saint-Lo with artillery fire and flares lighting the way, they crossed an open field with only ¼ mile visibility. Suddenly, the enemy were among them.  “I was slamming clips in from a bandolier. The M-1 was so hot I could hardly touch it.” One of his fellow soldiers hollered “Get him off my back!” Roberts turned and saw an enemy soldier clinging to his comrade. He shot the enemy off the man’s back. “When I turned back around, here come one right in my face just like that. I put the gun on him, pulled the trigger. He fired back; I saw nothing but flame.” E.T. describes when several rounds were fired by an enemy automatic weapon, one grazed his helmet, two penetrated his field jacket, and one hit his arm, passing through his bicep. Evacuated from the battlefield, he later returned and accompanied his unit fighting in the Netherlands and Belgium. “You’re not trying to protect yourself; you’re trying to protect others. You’re trained as a group to take care of one another.” E.T. reflected on the actualities of combat compared to what is shown on TV or in the movies. “You’re carrying a 72-lb pack, wearing a 5-lb helmet, carrying a canteen and a heavy belt of ammo around you. You’re constantly having to lay down then get up, run, duck. And you do that until you get ‘er done.” 26 days after being shot at Saint-Lo, Roberts returned to duty. He recalled the intense pain of having his wound cleaned out and his admiration for the grit of a fellow patient, a lieutenant who had been shot 27 times, who had to have been in terrible pain but never complained. “He was one tough dude,” E.T. recalled, “I don’t know if he made it or not.” During one combat operation, his lieutenant issued an order that Roberts knew would result in his men being killed. “He was a 90-day wonder; everything he knew was out of a book,” Roberts recalled. “I objected. I explained to him what I had to say about moving them up there. There was artillery fire being laid down right where he ordered me to move them.” The lieutenant re-issued his order over ET’s objections. Roberts moved his men into position. When he was able to check on them, seven had been killed. One man, who Roberts had taken a liking to, had been gutted by mortar fire, his feet torn off, but still recognized E.T. Roberts paused in tears from the memory. “I went back to the lieutenant and said, ‘You have three left. The rest of them are dead,” he remembered. The lieutenant took offense and sent Roberts to report to the lieutenant colonel. “I don’t want to listen to you,” he snapped. The lieutenant colonel accused E.T. of being yellow-bellied. When Roberts explained that in his opinion soldiers had been unnecessarily slaughtered, the lieutenant colonel told him he would be court-martialed. Ordered back to his lieutenant, Roberts recalled, “That was the last I ever heard of that.” “I’m really lucky to be alive,” he continued. “What with the leadership we had at the last part of the war.” For his service, Mr. Roberts was awarded a Purple Heart and five Bronze Stars. Returning to civilian life in Oklahoma, he didn’t find work that paid as much as he wanted so he headed to California after marrying his wife. They had two sons and were married for 66 years until she passed away. Mr. Roberts believed two years of compulsory military service would be beneficial for all young men. “It would bring out the goodness in them.” He observed that young men didn’t seem to want to work or provide for their families the way they used to. Military service he believed would help. “This is the type of stuff that needs to be cleaned up.”