Joseph C. Roberts
Private First Class – US Marines, 5th Marine Division, Artillery Specialist
World War II (1940-1945)
Shortly after moving into their home in San Rafael’s Dominican neighborhood in 1982, Stephanie and Robert Acree were rummaging in their small basement. They opened a dresser and found a stack of documents, including a fancy certificate. It read: “This is to certify that the President of the United States of America pursuant to authority vested in him by Congress has awarded the Purple Heart … to Private First Class Joseph C. Roberts, U.S. Marine Corps, for military merit and for wounds received in action resulting in his death.” It was dated May 10, 1945.
Sixty-three years after his death, the soldier from Mill Valley will be honored on Veterans Day on Tuesday when his name is added to the Marin Center monument dedicated to World War II soldiers from Marin who died in battle.
Why was Roberts’ name not on the plaque already? “This poor guy was just forgotten,” said John Sammons, a retired Navy commander from Novato who has been researching Roberts for about six months.
In the days before the ceremony, much about Private Roberts remains a mystery. There has been a scramble to track down a family member and see if the Purple Heart certificate, as well as a Purple Heart medal, can be passed to next of kin. Even if that does not work out, Roberts won’t be forgotten much longer because the Acrees, with the help of local veterans such as Sammons and retired Colonel Jack Potter, have confirmed that the fallen private is a homegrown war hero.
To have his name on the World War II monument, a soldier must have been recognized as a Marin citizen at the time he joined the service. Potter said he’s dealt with people who have expected to find a family member’s name on the Civic Center monument, but records to prove the Marin roots are hard to obtain. There are a few known facts in this case.
Plot D-306 at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno is the grave of Private First Class Joseph C. Roberts, an artillery specialist who was wounded by a Japanese grenade on March 3, 1945, and died two days later. Right after he was killed, he was buried at the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, but records indicate that he was reburied stateside on April 14, 1948.
Roberts enlisted in August 1940, according to military records obtained in September by the Marin County United Veterans Council. He shipped out on the USS Saratoga on Oct. 12, 1940, and arrived in Hawaii a week later. Scribbled under “distinguished service” is a note that Roberts participated in the defense of Pearl Harbor, and his four-paragraph obituary published in the Marin Journal mentions that he was “raising the American flag when the Jap bombers began coming over.”
Roberts made several voyages across the Pacific on ships such as the USS Rainier and USS Middleton and spent time at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton near Oceanside. Discharged in March 1944 after his four-year commitment, Roberts re-upped in September of that year. He left Hawaii on Jan. 27, 1945, aboard the USS Darke, an attack transport ship, and trained off Saipan for several weeks. The Marines stormed the black-sand beaches of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19 and rudely discovered how well the Japanese had fortified the island. About halfway through the battle, Roberts was in a foxhole when a charging Japanese soldier lobbed hand grenades his way, according to an account of his company’s history. He suffered undetermined wounds and died two days later.
More than a month after Roberts was killed, three-paragraph obituaries were published in two local papers. The June 14, 1945, edition of the Marin Journal has a short front-page story about Roberts’ parents receiving notice via War Department telegram of their son’s death on Iwo Jima. The report says he was a graduate of Tamalpais High School and that the last time he had been home was August 1942.
The story mentions that his brother, Harvey F. Roberts, was serving on a submarine somewhere in the Pacific. Not included in the stories was Joe Roberts’ other younger brother, Charles J. Roberts. Part of the mystery is that Joe Roberts is not found in Tam High yearbooks from that era, yet his name is on the plaque outside the school’s Wood Hall as being a former student who died during the war.
Until last week, the Acrees didn’t know that Roberts’ name was on the Tam High plaque. ”I went to Tam and I never saw that plaque,” Robert Acree said. Stephanie Acree spent more than a year trying to find information on Roberts’ life before the war came up with tidbits, but nothing substantial.
He was born June 18, 1920, in Sausalito to Joseph A. Roberts and his wife, Lydia. His father was born in San Rafael in 1892 and his mother 1903. Roberts and his wife, whose maiden name was Simas, were of Portuguese descent. Joe Sr. was a ranch hand and truck driver for Nunes Bros. dairy in Sausalito.
Paperwork found by the Acrees indicate that the Roberts family moved to 543 Ethel Ave. in Mill Valley, just west of Tamalpais High, when Joe Jr. was 4 years old. Mill Valley School District records show that he enrolled at Homestead School in 1928 and finished eighth grade at Old Mill School in 1935. Since there is no transcript at Tam High in his name, it’s thought that he attended but didn’t graduate. He was a member of the Sausalito branch of the Foresters of America, according to his obituary, so he might have quit Tam High to take a job.
The Acrees purchased their 1926 home from a Harvey Roberts, whose mother had died in the home. It was either Harvey or Lydia Roberts who held onto the stash of paperwork that included young Joe Roberts’ Purple Heart certificate. Harvey Roberts had a daughter, Sheila, “and I always thought that Sheila would eventually stop by so we could give everything to her, but she never did,” Stephanie Acree said.
Robert Acree had attended military ceremonies at the Civic Center, but it wasn’t until Memorial Day this year that he noticed Roberts’ name missing. “I thought to myself, ‘Here’s a guy who gave his life to his country and he’s not there. Nobody can give any more to his country than he did,’” he said. ”I don’t know who he was or much about his family, but I thought he was short-changed. I’d like to know how his name got lost and nobody did anything about it.”
The Memorial Day ceremony included the addition of a long-lost name, Tony Damos, to the list of fallen World War II soldiers. Acree figured if they can add Damos, they can they add Roberts. Afterward the ceremony, Acree approached Potter about the missing name and Potter and John Sammonds got to work immediately to seek official records. “This involved quite a bit of extra effort that we hadn’t needed to have before,” Potter said. “All we really had was the Purple Heart certificate.”
Sammons, a 30-year Navy veteran, said he has been focused on finding relatives of Roberts for six months. He said he called every Roberts listed in Grass Valley, where it’s known that Harvey Roberts retired after selling the San Rafael home and where his daughter, Sheila, lived at the time of her father’s death in 2001.
In the past few weeks, the Independent Journal has made dozens of calls to Tamalpais High graduates from the World War II era and local historical societies in an effort to find details about Roberts or find names of his relatives, to no avail.
Gregory Allen, a San Rafael retired Marine Corps lieutenant who is vice president-elect of the Marin County Military Officers Association, said he is determined to give fallen soldiers the credit they deserve. “If a family member (of Roberts) shows up, I have a Purple Heart ready,” he said. ”I will give them one of mine until I can get another one.”
Potter holds the slim hope that some attention prior to Veterans Day will lead to a relative popping up in time for the ceremony. Even if an old friend shows to provide more details about Roberts’ life, that would be a fitting and timely tribute. If not, the Acrees will be the recipients of a folded American flag.
“Joe was 20 years old in 1940. If these people knew him, they’re getting up there, like me,” he said. ”I’m glad the Acrees were dedicated and it’s been worth the exercise to get the information out.”
Narrative prepared by Brent Ainsworth, Bay Area Journalist, on November 9, 2008.