|Oral history interview with Joseph Robl by Gordon Doule. He discusses his experiences in the 32nd Division during World War II.
Interview with Joe Robl
January 13, 1994
R: I am eighty years old. I was born right here in Oshkosh on September 20, 1913. My wife's maiden name was Viola Juedes. I was married in 1946. And at that time I ah, worked at Lakeview Cemetery, digging graves. Later on I got a job with a sheet metal group. Richard Muza sheet metal.
I have one child. Her name is Judith Ann Robl. No, I'll take that back. It's not Robl, it's [ ]. Judith Ann [ ].
I went to school in a couple places; Sacred Heart first, St. Vincent then Jefferson School. And then later on to the Vocational School. I lived in Oshkosh all my life.
I was in H Company, [127th Infantry, Wisconsin] National Guard before, six years before service. And altogether I had about sixteen years in service. That's with my federal service alone. I enlisted, I can't remember the date but like I said, I had six years already before, before 1940 when we were ah, put into federal service and we went to, we were supposed to go to train for a year. We went to Louisiana. Later on to different places.
D: Was that Camp Beauregard?
R: Beauregard, yeah. Thank you. I was discharged, I can't remember the date there either but it was in late 1945. I think.
D: What do you remember about Oshkosh before you went into the service? I know that you were raised like many of us, during the Depression. Can you remember anything about that?
R: Well, what I could say, I thought it was a nice quiet little town where people could come and go and they don't have to worry about lockin' doors. And travel was mostly, you were lucky if you had a car. Most people didn't. I know my folks never owned a car. Well I liked the little town. I never cared about a big town. And I thought this was a nice little town.
But when I returned, things started turning. I noticed there was more cars. City seemed to be going on at a little bit faster pace. 'Course when I was in Australia they were way behind us. They were at such a slow pace there. They had old ice boxes and stuff like that. When I come back here, they were talking about refrigerators and things like that.
D: Where did you go after you were in boot camp, at Camp Beauregard. You came back to Oshkosh for awhile before you went overseas?
R: The only time I came back to Oshkosh was on pass, on, I mean on leave - furlough. Yeah. 'Cause from Beauregard see, we were, as a unit. We went away to train for fighting in the European Theatre. That's what we were training for in Beauregard. By the way when we went to Beauregard, we trained with, instead of having guns, we trained with broomsticks, and stuff like that. Ah, but anyway then Pearl Harbor happened. I remember I was in my squad tent. We had squad tents at that time, not buildings. Each squad had their own tents. I was sittin in there and we heard about Pearl Harbor and we, "Oh, Oh, now this is it." So while, not long after that then we ah, we got the word that we were going to Fort Devons. Massachusetts. For jump off. I thought we were going to the European Theatre. But that was all changed when the Japs started threatening Australia. MacArthur wanted a division that was ready, trained and ready to go over in the South Pacific. And we were it. Even though we trained with broomsticks and stuff like that. Believe me, we got our stuff fast from then on. And then we were shipped clear across the country to Fort Ord, California. Where we trained some more and ah, then of course then we were shipped off to ah, Australia. By way of Fort Adelaide. But that was a long, long trip because of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The navy had some kind of a battle and we were just barely missing it. So we had to around, quite a round about way to get there.
Then when we finally go to ah, to Australia, then we trained some more. We thought we were going to have to fight right there, in their country. And I remember the one thing that I just hated when we were training, to eat grub, to eat grub worms in case we couldn't get food no other way. And they kept telling us how the Aborigines could survive on it. And they were showing, but I was never fortunate enough to eat one. [ ] Glad of that.
Well, by that time I was made a sergeant, I was in charge of an antitank weapon which was called then a 37 millimeter, which wasn't much of a weapon against a tank. So I was trained for that, and then later on I was ah, I was transferred to Second Battalion, Headquarters Company.
D: This was still in…
R: Still in Australia.
D: Was that in Adelaide did you say?
R: That was Fort Adelaide, yeah. And from… I don't want to keep on going until you ask me some questions.
D: Well, just keep right on going 'cause as long as you remember it , that's what we're her here for, your memory, not…
R: Well, while we were training there in Fort Adelaide, sometimes I remember. The first thing I remember is the mutton we got. You know, I guess they kinda like their mutton. But boy, us guys just couldn't under… just couldn't stand it. Oh, that's strong [ ] stuff. And then later on of course we got our beef shipped from here I suppose. And I remember, another thing I remember in [ ]. It wasn't all training. We had some fun too. The Australians were very gracious. They'd invite us into their homes. And I remember standing around the piano and singin songs with them. One of the songs was ah, "God Bless 'Em All." Did you ever hear that song?
D: Oh, yes indeed, yes. I can almost hum that one…
R: Yeah, me too. I can play it on the mouth organ by the way. Yeah, my wife sent me a mouth organ when I was overseas
D: Oh, boy.
R: Boy, and sometimes, when we'd have a little time, time off, we'd get back of the lines some place, I'd play for the guys and they'd sing .
D: Great. Now how long were you in Australia before you finally left to go into combat?
R: Well, I'd just be guessing because I know you're gonna ask….
D: Oh, sure …
R: I would say couple months maybe.
D: Then where did you go?
R: Then we went . From there the Aussies were having a little success driving the Japs out of the Owen Stanley Range back in towards Buna and ah. So then we were able to land at Port Moresby in New Guinea. And ah, they were after the airport mostly. The Japs were after the airport over in Fort [ ] New Guinea. I remember the first thing we did after we got off ship was dig foxholes and get us dug in because they was after the airport then already.
D: I, if memory serves me correctly, the 32nd was the first American infantry to go into combat.
R: Yeah, you're right there too. [ ] The first division to go in. Ah, one of the things there, let's see, we got. We did fly over the Owen Stanley Range. The Aussies marched it. But we were flown over the Owen Stanley Range and then we were dropped off…
R: Yeah, C-47's. They sounded like a big bus. But not a good one either. We hadda carry full packs and all that stuff. We had to march quite a ways after they let us off. They gave us maps, not me but the lieutenant had a map. Where to go and we were supposed to go and I think we got lost half the time. And it was so hot. I think by the time, most of the time, before we got most of the way we had dropped a lot of our stuff we couldn't carry it no more. And on the way there we saw sticks with skulls on and gun on top of it and stuff like that. Strange [ ] with gold colored stones on it. We thought we were running into gold things, oh. [ ] something.
But anyway then we did finally did get near New Guinea. Because the Aussies had pushed them back a little bit, we got to New Guinea. But that's where we, that's where our first battle, we had our first battle in New Guinea. And I remember the H Company which was where I was formerly from before I go transferred to headquarters, they had to ah, first there was a lot of shelling. There, lot of shelling. There was a river there and I can't figure if that was the [ ] river - what they called a river was no wider than a big creek. Maybe it was wide as this house. They called that a river and I think we could walk across it. But we weren't sure about it and they had a bridge built there out of whatever they could find, logs and stuff and ropes to hang things. I remember H Company had to go across there when they thought it was safe enough. They had tried, [ ] the Japs off that little island there. It was kind of a coconut grove. And they had to, it was up to all of those companies, the rifle companies and H Company, they were part of it, they was a machine gun outfit, they had to get across the bridge and I remember one of my best friends, his name was Spain Clement…
D: What was his name?
R: Spain, we called him Spain Clement. He was a big fellow. Very husky. And he was the fellow from H Company. He got hit there on that bridge.
D: That was like the country Spain? S-P-A-I -N?
R: Yes, we just called him that. Now I don't know [ ] . I can't think of his right name. He was a buddy with another fella that was in my outfit by the name of Clare Orr.
D: Clare Orr.
R: Clare Orr. I still write to him and he writes to me.
Later on, after we were there awhile, of course we were in fox holes. We hadda dig in fox holes, and by the way, you drank the water out of your fox hole. You dug a little hole a little deeper and water would seep up. And of course you got Atabrine, we had stuff to purify the water. And you just drank it 'cause that's the water you had. Sometimes we'd be in those foxholes for days at a time. Before we could move. ''Course I wasn't right up there until one day that hey asked me to help them guys out and I my platoon to help them guys out. We hadda go up there and I remember [ ] Orr got hit. He got hit in the head. He had his helmet, steel helmet on but somehow them fragments got into his head and I asked for volunteers 'cause I was the sergeant in charge then. I asked for volunteers to help get him out of there because he was alive yet, you know. And ah, well, one guy volunteered and I didn't think that was enough so I went, I volunteered myself. I told my corporal to stay back there and hold the platoon. And myself and this other guy just went and got him out. Laying on our bellies we pushed, I pushed, got ahead of him and I pushed then the other guy dragged on him and we got him back into ah, what the medics took care, I don't know. They took him to battalion aide and ah, he was sent home then. And he's living to this day. His name is Bud Orr and he lives in Loveland, Colorado.
R: O-R-R. Yeah. He's so… Loveland. He's so grateful to us you know. What we did. Not that I wasn't scared, but I wasn't going to leave a guy laying there even if I was scared. What's the difference? Well, I went in with the attitude that I was scared even when I was told were going to go to a place like this. But I says, 'well, what's gonna be is gonna be.' Either I come out of it or I don't. So we had to do what we had to do.
D: Anybody said that they weren't scared…
R: Ohhh. That's B.S. I don't care how brave you think you are. You do things because you have to do 'em. [ ]. So, while after, I was in there, there was some battles, we finally got the Japs out of that coconut grove by the way. Ah, you hadda blast them outta their bunkers and get right in there, throw hand grenades and stuff like that after them. I didn't personally have to do that because I was with the 37 millimeter. I was back a little ways at that time again. But ah, the rifle companies, they hadda do that. They had to get [ ] there and they blasted them out with hand grenades and stuff. You could see the Japs floatin' in the water, you know. Our people too though. The ones that, they killed people too. We lost a lot of people there doing that.
And while, later on, just before they got ah, I remember just before they got ready to go to ah, the Philippine Islands, back to the Philippines again, then I was, I had enough points by that time to get back to the United States. So I was ah, me and a guy by the name of Dick Gauger who lived in [ ]. Him and I were sent back to a place called Finch Haven for a rest period.
D: Can you spell that?
R: Gauger. G-A-U-G-E-R.
D: Was he local?
R: He's local. He lives at Carmel now. [ ] So ah, him and I were sent back to Finch Haven, we stayed there for oh, 'til I guess it was safe or 'til some transportation come for us. Which was maybe a month or so.
D: Finch Haven. Where was that?
R: That was part of New Guinea, down the coast a little ways.
D: It wasn't anywhere near Guadalcanal?
R: No. Guadalcanal, you're talkin' about the Philippines. I'm talkin' about the ah, Buna yet.
D: Oh, I see, oh.
R: I never got to the Philippines. I had enough points, I forgot how many points it takes to get out. Get outta here…
D: Eighty five [ ].
R: But ah, I had enough points, Dick and I both had enough points because we were the original guys. By that time we probably had two batches of, I know I make this sound fast but we had two batches of different people already. Because we'd lose ah, quite a few from malaria as fast as they were getting killed off. And there, you know, when we first trained, I gotta get back to when we were first training here. They talk about ah, why it's better to have the training before you go in there, and it was by the time we got there, us guys had trained a lot we were cautious and we had taken care to keep our heads down and all this and that. But those recruits that we got, they didn't know enough even though, they hadda be trained so fast that they didn't have enough knowledge and they were the ones that were getting killed off. Mostly.
I remember one of the fellows that I had, that I got while we were over. He come to me from ah, when we were in Australia. He was a corporal of mine and he was always near me. He was my right hand man but he was in for a messenger too. He got shot right in the neck. And all I could hear was [ ] that's all I could hear and I looked back and here he was done for. And the reason he got shot, he had his head sticking up lookin' for me. If he'd a yelled, there was so much noise going on there anyway I could'a heard him. You know, keep that head down. I told the guys in the unit, 'keep your heads down.' But he hadda see what was goin' on and that was him.
D: That was fatal.
R: Yeah that was fatal for him. But Bud was behind him. He was a squad leader too. But he was behind him and I would say he got hit from a stray bullet because Bud knew enough to keep down.
Well anyway, this fellow that took my place then as the platoon sergeant, his name was Lloyd Benson. And he was from Michigan. [Coughing] I don't know if I got a allergy, I get a little dust in my throat and I just gotta cough. I don't have a cold. You don't have to worry about that.
D: Oh, I'm not worried.
R: Ah, but Lloyd Benson, he took over my squad and they had to drive, there was a few Japs left yet on the next jumping off place where they were going to take off for the Philippines. There was a few stray Japs left there yet and one of 'em got him. [ ] So I always thought, had I had to go that far, you know it probably would've been me, you know he was taking my place.
So from there they jumped off for the Philippines and from then I can't tell you what happened except from what I heard.
D: You remember when they went into Leyte.
R: Yeah, I remember that. [ ]
D: Right in the beginning. Retaking the whole. [ ] About how long would you say that you were in the Buna area?
R: Buna area? We were in and out of there several times. I know. We got back to ah, the mainland, to Australia for a rest period. Most of us had malaria by that time. I landed in the hospital a couple times. And we were in the rest area there. And of course there, I'm trying to remember the gal's name that came to put a show on for us. She sang. Just [ ]. She couldn't sing very good either. But she could say it you know. She was good looking.
D: That was the most important part.
R: Yeah. I can't think of her name now. Well, anyway we did get some people there to you know, to put on a show for us. That was in Australia though. We were in Brisbane at that time. A place called Brisbane. They talk about Australia, I mean about the fires in Sydney, I was around in Sydney on pass when I was there. And I can just picture some of those places.
D: A big city. Sydney is one of the biggest…
R: A very big city. [ ] Adelaide was a smaller one, then Brisbane and then Sydney. See there were only, Australia is only populated around the outskir… around the shore. The ocean shores. Inside wasn't, that was all Aborigine country. Sand and dessert and Aborigines.
D: I'd like to go there. My wife [ ]…
R: I'd like to go too if somebody paid my way. I'd like to see how it is now. I'd like to go to Buna too, to those coconut groves. Rich people, rich Aussies had those places. Selling coconuts. And they used coconuts for so many things. Outside of eating them.
D: No ah, then ah, from there, you went from Buna to then back to the 'states.
R: Yeah. We got on a ship and we sailed all the way back….
D: Did you have any experiences on board the ship on the way back?
R: Well, just like plain boredom on the way back. Playing cards and stuff. [ ] we played Crazy Eights and stuff like that. But when we got back here we didn't get out of the ar… we didn't get out yet. I did get a pass to go home but we were shipped to ah, Arkansas. [ ] Anyway, we had a regular hotel there in Arkansas. Hot Springs? Down there in Hot Springs?
D: The 32nd never got to Europe, then.
R: No. They never got to Europe. No…
D: They were there in World War I though.
R: Oh yes. Absolutely. You know about that.
D: Just for the record ah, the little red line that goes through the red arrow for the 32nd Division, tell me what that represents.
R: Jeez, I should know. Oh, I know they were never defeated. That's the line that always kept on going.
D: This is mostly for posterity because ah, as you pointed out to me before we started the interview, the Red Arrow Park, ah, I don't mean to embarrass you because I bet I could ask this question of a whole lot of 32nd Division members. It was the 32nd that reached the Siegfried Line. [ ] That's what that little line through the arrow means.
R: You know, had he been living yet, General Smith…
D: Beetle Smith?
R: General. Well I don't know if he had a nickname or not. [ ] He was my first Company Commander in the National Guard. We went to ah, Camp Douglas. He was my first Company Commander and I can remember I was a young pup then, full of the dickens. And I was raisin' some hell and I can remember one night he come there and he kicked me in the ass and he says, "Roble, If you don't behave, you're gonna get worse than that." And I remember that so well. Then he turned out to be general yet. He joined our club and every year we have a banquet and we'd make him our speaker because then most of the time he'd tell us the history of the 32nd Division from World War I. And he'd always tell that story about the arrow.
D: Is he still around?
R: No. General Smith died about ah, four or five years ago. And his wife died a couple years ago.
D: He was quite prominent in the military museum there…
R: Well he should be. Yeah.
D: Well then ah, you came back to the 'states and of course you didn't get out right away. Did you have any interesting experiences when you got back to the 'states, when…
R: Well yeah. I was ah, I was put into a company that was ah, holding prisoners. And ah, I remember this one guy - well I should say first it was in Texas - it had to be [ ] see I can't even remember the, some place in Texas where we were in charge of some prisoners of war. And I was ah, at that time I was made ah, I was in charge of the dishing the stuff out to them. [ ] And I remember this one guy, German, he was a U-boat commander. And he liked to come to me and, I didn't have nothin' against these guys. They were fighting, doing what they thought was right and I was doin' what I thought was right. That's why the war was fought of course. And he used to be a school teacher and here he ended up being a German U-boat commander. And he liked to come to me because I could talk German pretty good at that time. I've forgotten a lot of it now but I could talk to him. When he asked me a question, I knew what he was saying. [ ] Then I got to talking to him and he painted a picture for me. He told me where he lived. In the mountains and he painted a picture for me and gave it to me. After while I'll show it to you. I've got it hanging in a [ ] downstairs.
So that was one of my things and you know, we got to talking pretty good, almost friends you know. Although he was a German and I was… well he was a schoolteacher so he didn't want to fight that, he said, "that damn war." 'Course he talked broken English and I can't talk like that. But I remember that much of it yet.
Well, and then later on my enlistment ran out and then I got a chance to get out.
D: Tell me a little bit about the treatment that we gave to the German POWs?
R: Oh I think they got treated real royal [ ], now I shouldn't say royally but they got treated O.K. Let's put it that way. I remember they liked ah, hot, no, cold lemonade. And they made lemonade in G.I. cans, you know the [ ] ones. And of course they put it in the middle of the compound there and they would all dip in and have their lemonade. This was one of the things and I couldn't see nothin' wrong, and a few of them tried to get out but I wasn't ah wasn't on the wall or anything. I was inside the …
D: But they were, they were, they had clean beds to sleep in and…
R: Oh, sure. Oh yes, they had absol…[ ] Right.
D: Radios. Of course in those days they didn't have television. The big corrupter. [ ] O.K. I've asked you that because ah, because somebody's liable to say we treated our prisoners of war…
R: Oh, no. No, no, the ones I was in contact with, they got treated O.K. Good enough. Better than they should have, really. Probably but,
D: The war was over for them and the war was over for you…
R: [ ] Although I think they fought in Europe longer than they did in the Philippines. Well no, Hey my brother got to the…
D: Well we were through the eighth of May 1945 and [ ] it was August before the war was over.
R: O.K. Because then they had to go to Japan. That's right. My brother was over there. And, I know he was in Japan but I don't know if he told me where it was. That's Al now, the younger one. He's my youngest brother. So that had to be after [ ]
D: O.K. Then when you got back to Oshkosh ah, ah, I don't think they brought out the bands and all of the ticker tape and …
R: Not like you say in New York and all them [ ] no, no. Well of course we got out one, a few at a time anyway. [ ] like altogether…I thought it was going to be so great after I got back. I wasn't going to do anything, take off. You know I wasn't going to go to work right away, have all kinds of fun and here I gets back and nobody around. Go in the tavern and sit there all by yourself. Nobody to talk to, so it was a big disappointment that way.
D: 'Cause you got out a little early.
R: Earlier than the whole bunch did, you know.
D: Sure. Well I came back [ ] they didn't bring out the brass bands and the…
D: They might have done that in New York but they didn't do that on every boat that came in.
R: That's right.
D: Not like Desert Storm. Every community rolled out a brass band. Well…
R: We come back someplace, I don't know if it was back in Fort Ord, not in Fort Ord. Some place in San Francisco, near San Francisco where they left us out and I remember we had to stay there awhile and how they were feeding us, you know, by battalion. And I remember the sign on the wall that says, "Take all you want but eat all you take." I remember that. When you eat by battalion you stand there [ ]
D: Well very good. Now this tape is being, has been made on the 13th of January, 1994. And it's being made and we hope that the tape is going to be used wisely by posterity. It's a tape that's being made ah, right from the heart, from our hearts, not drawing a picture that war is a lovely thing. It isn't, after all war is about breaking things and killing people. That's all it is.
R: Yeah. Kill or be killed.
D: That's right. And we don't mean to glorify war. Yet on the other hand there comes times when you have to fight in defense of your country. So with that we will conclude this communication with Joe Roble.
R: Thank you.
D: Thanks very much, Joe.
Oral History Interview with Joseph J. Robl
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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