Colonel -U.S. Army, 83rd Infantry Division & Army Military Police
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 if John could approach his prey in silence, he could get away from the Germans in silence too.
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. 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 went to Santa Clara University for a year. He had been studying engineering when he was called up and sent to Camp Roberts for basic training. 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 cadets 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, having spent a year at Santa Clara studying engineering, as well as meeting the required IQ score for admission to the program. He was sent to Texas for six months, where he was trained in an engineering unit. Upon completion, John was assigned to go to Europe as a sergeant in the 83rd Infantry.
When John and the 83rd division landed at Omaha Beach, France in 1944, 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 dug up about 50 mines in Normandy. The accomplishment came up after the war when John, “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.”
Shortly after landing in Normandy, John was selected to go to Officer Candidate School in France. Infantry lieutenants were in very high demand throughout the war because the casualty rate was about 90 percent wounded or killed. So John was rushed through OCS, where he did extensive training seven days a week, 12 hours each day. He quickly received a promotion from sergeant to second lieutenant and upon graduation John was assigned to be an infantry platoon leader.
By late September, the 83rd Infantry Division 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 and his men had captured a schoolhouse in Holland, which they used as a little 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, a common tune on most nights. 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 gosh 40-50 years and I’d only seen him once.” When the roaring engine zoomed by overhead, John ran back down. He looked up again and saw the Messerschmitt circling back around for an attack on the schoolhouse. John and his men scrambled to find safety. He dove into a ditch of mud, face down trying to get as low to the ground as possible. The fighter plane dropped magnesium incendiary bombs, exploding in a ball of fire, 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 83rd Division was fighting toward 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 completely 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 – and subsequent retaliatory killings by the Americans. It was a time of infectious horror. Rumors floated around that there were German soldiers dressed in American uniforms, speaking excellent English, infiltrating their 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 could get to sleep either in a foxhole, in the mud, or in a pup tent. 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.
John and the 83rd 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 was a lingering problem with the vestiges 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 seem to 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 plastic bags under a mound of beets. They recovered the weapons without incident, realizing that this German had been rather helpful. 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 for over a year. He received a promotion to reach the rank of major in the Military Police before he was sent home in July 1946.
When John returned to San Francisco he 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 by the time he returned, and with all the other returning veterans shopping for clothes, it was nearly impossible to find anything that fit. Happy as he was to see his brother, he was left with nothing to wear, and nowhere to find it. 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, his medals and a one-of-a-kind painting of Holland.
Interview by Matthew Bourhis on June 25, 2012.