Lost in the Ardennes: The Story of Sgt. John Roberts
On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched what became known as the Battle of the Bulge through the thinly defended Ardennes Forest of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg. The surprise attack trapped thousands of American troops within 48 hours. Many of those were from the 106th Infantry Division. Almost 7,000 were forced to surrender. But from every disaster, hope can spring. Some managed to escape the encirclement. One of these determined GIs was artillery Corporal (T/5) Jack Roberts of Hamilton, Ohio.
Roberts became a member of the 592nd Field Artillery (155mm) of the 106th Infantry Division in 1943. His aptitude quickly earned him stripes and an assignment to his battery’s instrument section (survey section). When the Division went overseas in the fall of 1944, Roberts had no idea that he would face to face with his enemy within a few short weeks and living through experiences he’d only seen in movies. After all, the men had been assured that it would be a while before facing any serious combat. They were supposed have a couple of months to get used to front line conditions. So their biggest enemy was probably going to be the weather. But like all things in war, these plans went awry because someone forgot to tell the Germans they were finished.
The battalion was enjoying a good night’s sleep when the attack began. Roberts was tucked away on the second floor of an old farmhouse that housed many of the enlisted. As a scout corporal and member of the Survey Section, Roberts was scheduled to go with his forward observation team up to the front at Roth, Germany that morning; so every wink in a warm bed counted. Even after five days, many of the men were still feeling the effects of their tortuous 500 mile journey from Le Havre, where they had landed after a stomach-churning trip across the English Channel. At 0530, he was awakened by a thunderous barrage hitting all around him. The rumbling ground beneath him and the sound of trees being ripped apart made for a unique alarm clock. Those in the house came running out to find their lieutenants, who like everyone else, not sure of what was happening. After the initial barrage lifted, things became eerily quiet again. So Roberts and his men were left with no choice but to go about their business. After a quick breakfast, they prepared to move out.
The intense fog and cold did not help the mood as Roberts packed his bedroll and the others checked on their K rations. Two vehicles, one jeep carrying Roberts, his CO Lieutenant Matson, and his driver Private Loudon, and a ¼ ton Dodge weapons carrier which held nine others moved out at around 0800 hours. In the rear of the weapons carrier was their only real defense, a pedestal-mounted .50 caliber machine gun. Also in the back of the weapons carrier, was Roberts’ good friend, Howard Hoffmeyer. Before moving on to Roth, they checked in at a Division Intelligence post to find out if anything was really going on. The men were told that the shelling was normal and that they needed to proceed on with their mission. The Army has always seemed to have a different definition of normal, and this day was no different.
Though the ride from Laudesfeld to Roth was only about five miles, the weather and the destruction they saw made for an ominous drive. Uprooted trees and large, black craters in the snow could be seen on both sides of the two lane road. The aroma of cordite filled the air. Although the sounds of battle had died down, their anxiety only increased. Fog made visibility difficult. They could barely see the forest that straddled the road.
About halfway to their destination, they had to pass through a clearing. With the cloud cover and fog, the party thought that they would be safe from artillery fire. No one had any idea they had just driven right into the enemy’s midst. Germans were all around them. Small arms fire of all kinds ripped the air and began hitting their vehicles about halfway through the clearing. The jeep and the weapons carrier skidded to a halt. Round after round clanked against its sides. Loudon was hit in the shoulder, and two of the men in the weapons carrier were killed, including Roberts’ buddy, Hoffmeyer. Those still left jumped out and ran for cover on either side of the road.
Luck was with Roberts that day. He leapt into a ditch on the left side of the road which provided better cover. His comrades dove to the right, and were being cut down by the Germans one by one. Roberts screamed for his Lieutenant, who upon hearing his advice to move left, ran over. A couple of the others who tried to get up were mowed down. The moaning wounded and the piercing sound of tires being blown out confirmed that escape was impossible. Despite this, Lieutenant Matson wanted to try to use the .50 cal machine gun on the weapons carrier. Roberts begged him not to try, but the obstinate Lieutenant insisted. Upon reaching the edge of the ditch, he was hit, and fell back into the hole. The two remaining unwounded men, along with Roberts, looked up to see an immense collection of armored vehicles and enemy soldiers arrayed in their direction. It was hopeless. The lieutenant gave the order, and Roberts reached in to grab a white handkerchief to tie to his carbine.
The firing stopped and a horde of crazed German soldiers surged toward the stunned group. It seemed that the Krauts were either very drunk or on drugs. They were wild-eyed and mumbling. The Americans were disposed of their weapons and any personal possessions the Germans deemed valuable. Roberts lost his wristwatch, which had been a graduation present from his grandmother. As their captors continued to shout at them (they spoke no English), they motioned for Roberts and his men to move towards a cluster of trees down the road. After gathering themselves, and trying to aid the wounded, the men were then marched toward the Germans’ forward CP.
Long Day's Journey
On the way, Roberts had decided against staying a prisoner. He could not stand the thought of being locked up for the rest of the war. As soon as he got the chance, he would have to do something. The march continued, but this time back towards Belgium. His mind raced with worry. Where were they taking him? Will his folks be notified? The pressure was unbearable, along with the physical struggles of carrying wounded comrades. Onward they marched, through deep snow and mud. Crossing a frozen stream, Roberts and his wounded friend, Larry Loudon, fell through the ice, causing their boots to fill up with water, only adding to their misery. The Germans stood and laughed at them.
After trekking for about two miles, a village appeared up ahead. This turned out to be Weckerath. Roberts’ chance for escape came just before reaching the outskirts of the village. An American light tank from one of the Cavalry units came into view. He quickly realized an opportunity, or so he thought.
The turret gunner on top of the tank looked down the hedge row and saw the group coming, so Roberts hollered to the guy, "Hit the dirt!" The Americans all dove for the ground and that gave the turret gunner a clear view of our German guards. The Germans, not understanding English, had no idea as to what was said and just stood there. But by the time the turret gunner pointed his machine gun down the lane toward the Germans for a line of fire, the tank driver, being down inside the tank and unaware of their plight, continued driving past the intersection.
Thankfully, an alert American sergeant marching behind the tank toting a Thompson pursued Roberts’ captors and finished them off. Upon reaching the village, they were met by a Captain from the 14th Calvary, who told them to hold off on any celebrations, for their freedom might only be temporary. They were still surrounded, and had to make a run for Manderfeld, one mile to the west. Both the Americans and Germans had the village zeroed, and signs of destruction were all around. Weapons were scarce. The troopers had no rifle for Roberts, but handed him four grenades. The Captain came up with a plan to get every one out in two waves, including the wounded. Basically, the two groups, separated by a few minutes, would just drive down the road at top speed. By some miracle, they all made it, though once again, relief was temporary.
Manderfeld was about to be surrounded as well, the Cavalry could not hold and their aid station was getting full. Roberts was determined to get back to the 592nd. He borrowed a compass from one of the Cavalry officers and along with two others from the ill-fated convoy, Terrill Rigdon and Harold Hallberg, disappeared into the darkness. It was nearly 1800 hours. There was no moon. The sky was overcast. Without a map or watch, keeping time and direction was almost impossible. In order to get out, they would have to follow the Germans towards the frontline, bypass their enemy, and infiltrate through American lines, all while trying to convince nervous GIs that they were not the enemy.
Upon setting off, Roberts and his two comrades found themselves immediately surrounded by the advancing enemy. Intermittent artillery fire added to their plight. Edging deeper into the forest, they managed to get around the Germans positioned just outside the village. At first light, clad in olive drab, they were like sitting ducks silhouetted against the milky whiteness of the snow. Rain that had begun to fall overnight had now turned to sleet. As the swiftly advancing Germans kept to the roads, the dense woods turned out to be their best friend.
By mid- morning of the 17th, they had come upon a small village which miraculously emerged from the morning fog. Cold and wet, the three desperate men needed shelter quickly. At the risk of falling even further behind the ever more distant American lines, they made the decision to rest. A few minutes respite from the weather, they argued, might save their lives. Finding a barn at the edge of the village, they sneaked inside to find a huge hayloft. It was the perfect place for drying off and hiding out. A German patrol soon sauntered up to the barn to take a look inside and get dry as well. Luckily, they left after a few tense minutes without searching the place.
Days Without End
Satisfied they were in the clear, the men started out again just before dark. Overhead, V-1 and V-2 rockets flew westward; their telltale exhaust lit up the dark sky. Flares shot by both sides also illuminated the way. They were still without sleep or a change of clothes. As they marched, the sights, sounds and aroma of battle were everywhere. The burning hulks of destroyed vehicles, German and American, littered the landscape. The frozen bodies of dozens of soldiers lay in their path; their outstretched arms made for a macabre sight. They inhaled cordite and sulphur with every breath. Nearing the front line, Roberts found a Thompson lying next to a dead American sergeant. Armed with a real working weapon, he began to feel more heavily armed than he had with just the four hand grenades. Machine gun fire now rattled in the distance and the men strained to figure out who was doing the firing. Each step was carefully chosen to minimize noise. Hope increased as the firing became closer. Idling engine noise came within earshot. A yellow flare burst in front of them suddenly. It illuminated the tank they were hearing just long enough for Roberts to see it was American. They made a run for it, stopping just short of the American lines. Approaching cautiously, no one seemed to particularly notice the three men. After all they had been through, to be killed by a nervous GI would have been tragic. No one challenged them, so they began mingling among the platoon until they found an officer.
After hitching numerous rides west, the three exhausted and frostbitten men found the gun positions of the 592nd on December 21. The men of C Battery were shocked at the sight of their buddies, but relieved. They were astonished at their miraculous story of survival. For Roberts, there would be one more surprise. He was made Chief of Detail and promoted to Staff Sergeant. Then his Captain made him an ‘Acting Officer’ which meant all the responsibility without the title (or the pay).
Over the next two months, as the counteroffensive gained steam, the 592nd displaced an untold number of times during the march into Germany, passing through some familiar places like St. Vith, Commanster, Werbomont, Manhay and Anthisneses. They provided support for various units, most notably the XVIII Airborne Corps. In one four day period alone, the Battalion fired 1850 rounds of high explosive (HE) ordinance. By New Year’s Day, 1945, the Battalion had fired almost 5,000 rounds in nearly 750 fire missions.
Roberts was later transferred to the newly reconstituted 589th, Battery A in the spring and eventually received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant. After staying on for occupation duty in Austria, he made it home to Ohio in July 1946.
Jack Roberts returned home to work for General Motors, serving as personnel director for several plants and offices, retiring in 1986. He traveled back to the Ardennes during his retirement, and found the spot where he was ambushed. While gathering information to write about his wartime experiences, a WWII researcher based in Europe uncovered a photo in the German archives of the ambushed weapons carrier from his convoy that also showed the body of his friend, Howard Hoffmeyer. It was confirmed when the researcher realized the unit designation on the back of the weapons carrier: 592 C.