WASHINGTON- U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) recognized the service and sacrifice of WWII veteran Eustace O. Roberts Jr. “June,” in ‘Salute to Veterans,’ a series recognizing the military service of Arkansans.
Roberts was born in Magazine, Arkansas in 1919. As a seventh grader, he quit school so he could work to help his parents support the family. His well-established work ethic undoubtedly helped him endure more than three years as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese.
During the winter of 1941, when he was taking a pause from his job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he followed a girl to Fort Smith. Instead of gaining a new love interest, he got a new job. “I saw a picture of Uncle Sam,” Roberts said. “I went to the old Goldman Hotel and said can I join the Army?”
He joined the Army on May 8, 1941 in Little Rock and headed to San Francisco days later where he boarded a ship to begin the long journey to his assignment in the 60th Coast Artillery on Corregidor, the largest island in Manila Bay. “I was seasick before I got out from under the Golden Gate Bridge,” Roberts said.
He was trained as an automotive mechanic. “Everything was mostly WWI stuff. Old petrol trucks and old equipment,” Roberts said.
The mission of the 60th was to defend the bay. Roberts and his fellow soldiers valiantly did so at all costs.
“We were playing poker in the parts room and a bomb hit in the back of our building,” Roberts said. He recalled his friend saying it was a test fire, but he knew it was much more severe. “It set off a lot of ammunition. We got all of our trucks out of there.” It earned his friend the nickname “Test Fire Nichols,” and for safeguarding the trucks, Roberts was awarded the Silver Star.
Roberts remembers the battering of Corregidor by the Japanese military following the fall of the Philippines. For nearly a month, Roberts and Allied soldiers were hammered by bombs and artillery. “You get out of your hole or tunnel and go out to relieve yourself and there’s shrapnel be whizzing around everywhere,” he said.
On May 6, the Commander of Allied forces in the Philippines surrendered Corregidor and Roberts and his fellow comrades were taken to a POW camp.
For more than three years, Roberts was known by his POW number, four digits that are still easy for the 100-year-old to remember in both English and Japanese. You had to know it or “they’d beat the hell out of you,” he said.
Roberts was one of 1,619 POWs loaded onto a ship to be transported to a camp in Japan in late 1944. “A lot of them were smothered to death within the first two hours because it was packed too full,” he said. “There were bodies two deep.”
At one point during his captivity he was too weak to work in the coal mines as he was expected to do, so he was reassigned to farm detail. He survived harsh conditions, performing tiring forced work and receiving little food. “I got to be good ole friends with the boys on butchering detail because they’d bring in a bunch of meat all cooked up and get them to give me a little cup,” Roberts said.
After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese soldiers abandoned the POW camp. Roberts and fellow POWs, including others from Arkansas, found their way to safety.
“I always thought I was going to make it back home. I always had that in mind,” Roberts said.
In addition to the Silver Star, Roberts also earned the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and other military awards for his selfless sacrifice.
After returning home from the war, Roberts married Glenda Marie Jones. They had four children and were married for 70 years.
“June Roberts lived through unimaginable circumstances as a prisoner of war for more than three years. The accounts of his time as a POW are an important part of his life and our nation’s history. I am pleased to be able to collect and preserve his memories and share with future generations about the horrific events he lived through as a reminder that freedom is not free,” Boozman said.
Boozman will submit Roberts’ entire interview to the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans.