Aug 082016
John Robas

John Robas

The man who fired the BAR and saved me was John Stoddard Robas. He was slim, apple-cheeked, quick, and had only one eye. When we were sent to the 334th Infantry Regiment to become combat soldiers we were told it would only be a matter of time before he and I would be transferred. The Company Commander never took us seriously and John and I never took basic training seriously. I was a myopic miscast as a rifleman; he was a half-blind misfit carrying a Browning automatic rifle.  The BAR was designed as a two man sub-machine gun, but the Company Commander was so sure Robas was a misfit that he never gave John a partner.  I was called the other misfit or the nearsighted goldbrick.

In Louisiana, John and I had combat instruction only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we broadcast a radio program from KALB, Alexandria: Fatigues and Leggings. KALB was a few miles from Camp Claiborne but far enough removed that we missed garbage details and some tedious, strenuous hikes. We both found girl friends who were announcers at the radio station.

“Muff” Ayres announced in a southern accent when she broadcast, but otherwise she was unaccented, beautiful and literate. She helped me forget the girl at Wisconsin who said she would never forget me, but who quickly forgot to write.  “Muff” and I got along well, but I never knew whether the kisses we exchanged were lip-synced southern hospitality or more than a moment in a magnolia scented evening. She did invite me to her very rich home and introduced me to a father who tolerated my watered-down Marxism, and my earnest civil rights innuendoes. Miss Ayres became a famous southern writer, “Ellen Douglas” and while I laid a hand on her, that’s as far as it went.

John Robas went farther and farther with the other lady announcer. He counseled patience.

“It will happen, Perry. I can see it will happen. Despite her genteel southern accent, her body language is yelling.”

When it didn’t happen, he said, “I was sure you’d bed her. I owe you one.”

He paid me back—and later I paid him back. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

We were suddenly quarantined. No phone calls, no goodbyes. I wrote “Muff” and she wrote me a letter I received during the Battle of the Bulge. By then she was married, and had a stomach ache that later turned out to be a son.

John Robas and I remained foot soldiers. Our division was shipped to England, and then to Europe.  On the boat coming over the Regimental Commanding Colonel lectured us.

“We are a well-trained fighting outfit. I can’t say who will be hurt in combat, but those of you who are best trained, the odds are on your side. Those who are poorly trained had better get lucky.”

As if the enemy’s artillery could make the distinction.

The twelve day crossing was cramped and boring. Half the time we were above decks rolling in seasickness, and the other half we were below in smelly cots and slings, three men atop each other. I found our ship had quarters for prisoners. On this trip the cells were empty and gave us more room and fewer odors than our assigned quarters. We slung our bed packs into the cells and John sat on the toilet playing his guitar for two comrades, Ralph Loeff and Benjamin Levin. Ben had aspirations to be a night club comedian and we made up a skit based on the inherent hostility between enlisted ranks and the officer class. Ben choreographed a chorus line for the three of us, and Robas improvised a tune.

It is strange that in all the movies I have seen about World War II, the class warfare between enlisted men and commissioned officers is almost never mentioned. Germans and Japanese did not incite dislike as rabid as that between ranks. Here we were: eating standing, sleeping so close together that our farts could be smelled three sleeping bags away, and there they were dining with tablecloths and napkins—being served at tables.

We college boys improvised a song and dance citing our dislike of our rulers.

          A golden bar, a shiny bar, a semi-private jeep!

          A separate mess, and wouldn’tcha guess,

          Sheets in which to sleep!

I forget the rest of the doggerel. The GI’s were amused. By chance the officer in charge of Special Services thought it might entertain the brass, and asked us to sing and dance at the officers’ mess. We recruited three more privates to the chorus line, and did the ditty for the brass, who, being predominantly civilians in uniforms took our griping in good cheer.

          War’s disaster

          For a Quartermaster

         Doesn’t seem too great.

Those few minutes of enjoyment saved my life in World War II. The officer in charge of Special Services needed one more man in his Table of Organization, and I was temporarily assigned to him. It meant in part getting two bottle of whiskey to each officer once a month (enlisted men received no free alcohol, rationed or not rationed). Along with offloading booze from cargo trucks driven by black service troops, I was appointed Regimental Historian. I was to compile reports from the battlefield, write them up, and send them to the Division Historian.  I took the assignment seriously. At the time nobody else did. Because Lieutenant Redfield needed only one man. Loeff, Levin, and Robas remained in the rifle company.

The 334th Infantry went into battle early in November 1944. One week later, one third of its soldiers and officers were casualties. In the first advance, lasting two days, 55 men were killed, wounded, or missing. James Grey, a professional boxer, the man who had replaced me, was killed on the first day. That would have been me. John Robas and his Browning survived the first advance. I don’t know what happened to Loeff, but Levin was killed a few weeks later. The Company Commander was so inept, he was replaced and assigned to the Graves Registration Unit. He commanded the detail that picked up and wrapped the dead in mattress covers.

While they fought, I guarded the duffel bags containing the officers’ personal effects, and I prepared to write the regiment’s history. In my first days as regimental historian I found something had gone terribly wrong north of Geilenkirchen. The officers who were responsible to see that our regiment connected properly with the unit on our right had not gone to the front lines to see that had taken place. They should have verified our right flank, but instead there was a gap, a salient, in our lines. The approach road below was exposed to enemy fire. None of the reports they sent and I read noted anything about the mistake. The Germans had infiltrated and taken high ground looking down on us, into our foxholes. That was one of the reasons the regiment had taken so many casualties.

Robas saw it happen and told me about it. John’s word was as good as the official statements. I wrote the error into the report: We were flanked and exposed to German small arms, artillery and mortars. Robas told me the story and added: “’Wolff, I’ve had too much. Maybe a self-inflicted wound. Maybe I’ll run away.”

My report went forward and I heard nothing more until the Division was pulled out of the lines. Lieutenant Redfield appeared.

“They want you to change the report,” he said.

“How, sir?”

“Re-file, and get rid of that stuff about mistakes. Drop the section on the casualties.”

“Sir, that’s what happened. I went to the aid stations, and I went over the ground myself.”

“I want it edited.”

I said, “Sir, this report has to go forward over your name. The Regulation requires the signature of a commissioned officer and I am not an officer. You are.”

We hung. A deal could be made.

“Wolff, what do you want?”

“I want John Robas sent to a rear echelon job.”

“I can transfer him to a job as a Military Policeman.”

“I appreciate that, sir. And I’ll edit the report.”

So much for accuracy and honest journalism. I edited out the officers’ errors. I violated journalistic principles to save the life of a friend. I had no pangs, then or since. Until the Battle of the Bulge my friend John Stoddard Robas was safe, as I was. I wrote a fable to save my friend. As Napoleon Bonaparte surmised, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”

Years later I searched the official history of the division. The story of the gap had been left out. The losses to the enemy artillery were emphasized. The fable had been written and frozen into the official after-battle record, and I had helped write it.

I saw John once in the Battle of the Bulge and twice after the war. He flew bananas from the Caribbean. He and his wife came to New York for a visit. Then we lost touch. War had brought us together but peace separated us.



John Robas, p. 199, Fortune Favored the Brave, A History of the 334th Infantry 84th Division, by Cpl. Perry S. Wolff,  Mannheim Press, 1945