Colonel – U.S. Army
83rd Infantry Division (Platoon Leader); Army Military Police (Unit Commander); & Army Reserves, 91st Infantry Division (Company Commander)
World War II (1942-1975)
It was a cold, miserable night in Europe when John Roush and another six riflemen were on patrol in the woods. They carried weapons, but were not looking for a fight, their mission was to do reconnaissance of the area. They moved quietly when the silence of their patrol was suddenly disrupted by an autocratic voice that came booming through the woods. “Surrender!” screamed a German in the dark, jolting the small American patrol into a mad scramble. They must have encountered a German combat patrol, likely 20 to 30 men, John thought. The common procedure was that the Germans would try to capture someone for interrogation – to gather information about the American position, their supplies, and their strength. John took cover behind a tree, thankful that the moon was not overhead on this night. He soon realized that his fellow soldiers had disappeared, leaving him alone in the woods within reach of the enemy. There was no way that he could shoot his way out of this predicament, it would give away his position, but he could sense that the Germans were close, at one point no more than ten feet away. He needed to act with stealth and prudence if he wanted to get back to his unit. He moved surreptitiously from tree to tree, sneaking away from the Germans while they searched around the woods. John was the last one to make it back.
Basic training alone would not have been enough to get John out of that situation. Fortunately, as a youngster he was an avid hunter and had developed some woodsman skills. Being able to move silently was one of them. Deer have more acute senses than people, so those skills enabled him to get away.
Having hunting experience at a young age proved to be useful for John as soon as he began training. He enlisted in the Army in December 1942, already a Sergeant in the newly formed California State Guard, which he served in while attending San Francisco Junior College (SFJC). The Army wanted him to stay in school until they called him up, anticipating that they would need people with higher IQs and higher qualifications in reserve, so after graduating SFJC he was called up to basic training at Camp Roberts, California. He was trained extensively in a heavy weapons company of infantry, which involved learning how to use mortars and machineguns. Towards the end of basic training, the soldiers were firing machineguns for a score. John tied the camp record, a testament to his experience and marksmanship in hunting. Following basic training, John qualified for the Army Specialized Training Program, and was sent to Santa Clara University to study engineering. He was then sent to Texas for six months, where he was trained in an engineering unit. Upon completion, John was assigned to go to Europe.
When John landed at Omaha Beach, France in 1944, one morning he hastily organized a crew to dig up minefields in Normandy. They used their bayonets to dig up the mines, a dangerous job requiring intense focus. Sometimes the mines were wired together, meaning that if one guy was careless with his mine, the one next to him might blow up too. With much skill and a little luck, John and his squad dug up about 50 mines in Normandy. John recalled this accomplishment after the war when he, “attended a luncheon where a woman was talking about raising money to clear minefields throughout the world and she said it cost 20-30 thousand dollars to clear out a mine… per mine.” John humbly responded, “’where do I apply, I dug up 50 of them.’ And she looked at me rather strangely.”
Later in the war, John was selected to go to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in France. Infantry lieutenants were in very high demand throughout the war because the casualty rate was about 90 percent captured, wounded or killed. So John was rushed through a short term OCS, where he did extensive training seven days a week, 12 hours each day. He quickly received a Commission to Second Lieutenant and John was assigned to be an infantry platoon leader.
By late September, the Army had entered Luxemburg, having fought northeast towards Germany for the past couple of months. The scene was grim to say the least. John noted that, “people were very deprived, they had nothing to heat their buildings with and had very little food. It was a difficult time, they were really brave, very happy to see us helping them.” As the days got colder, the division moved further north, into Holland. The people of Holland were also in very poor shape – cold, melancholic and starving for food. John and his men had very little food themselves, eating small meals out of their mess kits, but saving a little bit to give to starving children. John’s unit had occupied a schoolhouse in Holland which they used as headquarters. Next-door was an art store, where John purchased a painting of Holland, a dreary, cold, unhappy looking painting that perfectly fit the impression he had of the war torn country. He shipped it home.
Late one night, when John was working on plans in the schoolhouse headquarters, he decided he needed some fresh air. Bleary eyed and tired, he went up on the roof. As he stood up there, inhaling the cold air and exhaling plumes of steam, John stared off into the distance. He could hear the hum of an airplane engine. At first he could scarcely make out if it was friend or foe, but soon enough he saw it – a German Messerschmitt fighter plane flying low right towards the schoolhouse. As it drew in closer, no more than 25 feet away, John stared into the cockpit and saw the pilot. “I looked him right straight in the eye, and I never had such an impression of a man having such vivid hatred, and I can remember that expression, that vision of that man’s face for 40-50 years and I’d only seen him once.” When the roaring engine zoomed by overhead, John ran back down. The fighter plane dropped magnesium incendiary missiles burning right through the roof he had recently been standing on. They fought fires all night long, saving the schoolhouse, but not the art store.
The cold nights of the fall season soon became the frigid months of dreadful winter. The Army was fighting on the western fringes of Germany when Hitler launched his massive counter attack in the middle of December 1944. Three armies – each containing several corps of several divisions – attacked through the Ardennes, a densely forested, mountainous region of Germany’s western front. John and his division were on the north side of the Ardennes, on the upper flank of the German offensive. The American divisions that were directly hit suffered enormous casualties. One of them was the 106th Division, which had just recently been introduced to the theater and had been in Europe for only a few weeks before they were directly hit by the attack and almost decimated. The Battle of the Bulge was a terrible and devastating fight, with incidents of wanton violence like the Malmedy massacre – where 84 American prisoners of war were murdered by their German captors. It was a time of infectious horror. Rumors floated around that there were German soldiers dressed in American uniforms, speaking excellent English, infiltrating units. Stories like that caused great apprehension among the troops, and distressed everybody. Of course, the cold was intense as well, people were getting frozen feet, and the ground was so hard that it made digging a foxhole maddening. Rations were scarce, as were much needed time and solace for the troops to get some sleep. When possible, John would use what little time he had to get some much needed sleep. In addition to the dire conditions, there was fierce fighting going on. Hitler had thrown everything he had at the Americans – tanks, airplanes, troops well armed, and an excess of artillery. The shelling created pure chaos. On one occasion John was stuck in the side with a piece of expended, flat, shrapnel that did not wound him. Most men were not so remarkably lucky if shrapnel hit them. Of the Battle of the Bulge, John recalls his experience with the simple statement, “We lost a lot of people… but I was very fortunate to get through all that.”
The Americans suffered enormous casualties in the Battle of the Bulge, making it one of the most famous and bloody battles in military history. By January, things began to improve. The Germans had been suffering huge casualties as well and their offensive was beginning to be repelled. Low on fuel, the Germans were forced to abandon their armor and heavy weapons during their retreat. As a result their supplies dwindled rapidly and Hitler was forced to withdraw his forces. The seemingly never-ending combat in the Ardennes finally slowed to a more sporadic rate as springtime came. When the tide turned in favor of the Allies, the Germans began to surrender en masse, sensing their chances for victory had been shattered in the Ardennes.
Our Army fought their way throughout Germany until the end of the war came rather quickly in May. John remembers, “There was such intense happiness, people were absolutely out of their mind with joy, it was all over.” Of course, the war in the pacific was still going on, so John expected that his division would be trained and sent over there very soon. But before they could be sent off to Asia, the Japanese surrendered. John had been without leave for so long that he took his due trip to the Riviera. Upon his return, he was presented an opportunity to join the Military Police. After the war, there were little problems with any vestige of Nazi resistance.
John got word that there was a group of Nazis that had some weapons and were located on a remote farm. He and a group of MPs went out to the farm to search for them. They did a thorough inspection of the farm house, but could not find them. John was checking the attic when his fellow MP’s below heard a crash and saw his legs dangling through a hole in the rotten ceiling. Needless to say, the weapons had not been stashed up there. They completed the search and found nothing. Later on, they got a tip from a German that the Nazis had stashed the weapons in water proof containers under a mound of beets. The informant Germans had been rather helpful, but upon a second search the arms had been removed. John was learning that not all Germans supported the Nazis, in fact, most of them followed their orders and caused no trouble, except on one occasion. A few young-teenaged German boys got hold of a machine gun, and were setting it up for an attack. “They had to be taken out and the soldiers who took them down realized they were just boys…” That was the only occasion of any fighting after the war that John had heard of, and he served as a MP Leader for over a year. He received a promotion to reach the rank of major in the Military Police. In reminiscing about his service, John “saw a lot of the horrors of war and of the repugnant bestiality of the Nazi regime, and was happy to see the end of it.”
Upon his return to San Francisco in 1946, John was received graciously by his fellow Americans, but found that adjusting to civilian life was more difficult than he had expected. Finding a job was easy enough, he was hired at an insurance company, but finding clothes was another story. His brother, who had served as a pilot during the war, had taken all of John’s clothes upon his return. With all the other returning veterans shopping for clothes, it was nearly impossible for John to find civilian clothing. An insignificant issue compared to the conditions he had just endured during World War II, but still annoying. John did not have much, but a few things to wear, a small amount of souvenirs and a one-of-a-kind painting of Holland.
Despite a busy new career in insurance, John joined the Army Reserves and became a Company Commander of a reserve unit, the 91st Infantry Division. His tireless service to his country and leadership did not go unnoticed by the Army. In 1980, John was inducted into the Infantry OCS Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Interview by Matthew Bourhis on June 25, 2012.