First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Winston Roche: World War I from the Trenches, Part I

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Lt. Col. Winston M. Roche enlisted in the US Army at 17 and served as a combat engineer in the trenches in France for nearly two years. He recorded this interview with the Honor Project at the age of 93 and passed away in 1994 at the age of 95.

Learn more about Lt. Col. Roche in his Los Angeles Times obituary and tune in next time to hear the rest of his interview on Warriors in Their Own Words.

Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who wear our country’s uniform. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today, in the first of a two-part episode, we’ll hear from Lieutenant Colonel Winston M. Roche. Lt. Col. Roche served in the National Guard during World War I. He was 93 years old when he recorded this interview.

Winston Roche: I'm retired Lieutenant Colonel Winston M. Roche of the United States Army 7th Engineer. So the fifth division, regular division. I'm 93 years old and I served in World War I for over twenty-two months. Then when they came out after the armistice, I enlisted in the National Guard and retired in 1943.

All we had were a few regulars who were on the Mexican border fighting the Mexican bandits who are continually sniping at Texas and those border states. I suppose they had desires of getting California and the West Coast back into their hands. But they were rebels and they never lasted long, they were just a continued nuisance. They would come in over the border. I served in the last portions of the famous 7th Cavalry organization that was on the border under John J. Pershing, who later became the commanding general of all World War I troops. I think he was the first five star general that we had. But basically it was a real citizens army and was composed mostly of young men. Oh, in their teens up to 25 or so that were in business school or just graduating from school and on the farms. Of course, I could ride a horse. I was raised on a farm, but I knew nothing about cavalry warfare. So just some background, but the officers faced a terrific job that they had ahead of them: to train us and bring us up to a stature that would withstand modern warfare. They, of course, knew a hell of a lot more than we did about what we were going to face in France. That war had been going on since 1914, and we didn't go in until April the 6th, 1917, and I went in late May in ‘17.

So naturally we were aggressive, cocky, well-protected kids who had all, had been brought up by good families. We went to church, all of my friends went to church. I still go - I just came home from church. We had ideal boyhoods. We had all the things- swimming holes and everything, nothing technologically advanced or anything like that. We had the telephones to ring and to turn the bell on, to talk through stuff like that and so on.

In our movie theaters, all of the pictures were accompanied by a pianist. So when the action got wild and furious, all of the cowboys and Indians or the soldiers and the Indians, the pianist would go into some rock and rolling deal, make a lot of noise, and try to raise your excitement and he'd be banging around a little piano. This would affect us- instill in us the desire to get on one of those horses and chase those Indians and get into the fray. Then the magazines would carry, once in a while, pictures. Wonderful pictures, drawn by artists, of the action on the Western Front and show the dashing cavalry with all the beautiful white and black horses, chasing the enemy with their sabers flashing in the sun. This all had a terrific impact on me. And I saw myself on one of those horses, chasing after the dirty Huns.

I enlisted right after getting out of high school by permission. My daddy wrote a letter to the commandant here in the old Pacific Electric building on Sixth and Main Streets. He put it into work as a superintendent of the street maintenance department, so naturally he was in politics. All politicians having sons wanted a boy in the Army or the Navy. So I got his permission and that's how I got in. I was sent to San Francisco, Angel Island, through the Presidio, got my uniform and everything. Then I was sent from there down to Camp Houston in San Antonio, Texas. There I was transferred to the early Air Force. When they found out that I was specializing in mathematics in school, I had a bent for math. So I was desirous in my mind when I went into the Army that, of course, I didn't dream of any Air Force activity because we didn't have an Air Force. I had seen the pictures of the daring young men and their flying machines and their dogfights and all that stuff, but it never dawned on me until I was transferred to the Air Force and I learned that Kelly Field was adjacent to Camp Upton.

So I qualified in JN-4 Jennys, with the OX-5 engine in them, the famous Curtiss engine. Then, when, as I say, when they got to the point where they got organized enough to find out that I was a mathematician, even at that age, 17, why they just arbitrarily transferred me to the engineers. They had a fighter single wing, low wing, monoplane fighter Thomas-Morse Scout. I even flew that on a couple of short hops and that aircraft was so mean and treacherous. It killed more men than could qualify in it, so they had to let that go. Later on, they imported some Spatz and Neiuports and some DH.4s, the de Havilland. It was more sophisticated- it was an English aircraft. The English and the French by this time had some good airplanes. Spatz, Nieuports... English had the Bristol Fives and the Sopwith Camels. So they were way ahead of us. We were just in kindergarten and everything. So I went where I was told. The last thing my dad told me said, be a good soldier. So I being a good kid, I minded him. All through the war, I remember what my dad told me, be a good soldier. And I was.

But I became an engineer trainee, was sent immediately- we had earthworks trenches at the camp in Texas, San Antonio. We learned how to build trenches and fire steps and how to build them out of nothing. Just dig them up out of the dirt and get support. We had to in those days. Digging a hole was one of the first things you learned to do. So I progressed on through and of course I was in France thirty days after I enlisted here. I was 3,000 miles from home in 30 days.

We went to training camps right away. It took us 14 days to cross in a 13 ship convoy, and we didn't lose any, we got across OK. We landed in Liverpool first and trained at Winchester for a while with the British troops. Then we were sent and landed at Le Havre and that was an all night trip across that channel in those days. But let me get on with my training. I got my training mostly in France. Of course, I was working with French troops because we had no American training camps there yet. I trained with two different French divisions and I served under Marshal Giraud and I served under Pétain and of course under the direction of Joffre. "Marshal Joff", we used to call him. Most of my instruction came from French and British officers.

When we went into action, the first action was in 1918, we would be sent up to the line with nothing but our sidearm and our trench knives as observers. We would go along with the British or the French, whichever we were assigned to, and we would watch them. We didn't participate unless we were attacked, of course then we would do our best to shoot at the enemy. But we were students actually, learning how to build readouts and trenches. In my entire point of action with the American army, I never saw the beauty of France. Everything I went through, the path that I took, all the towns we went through were devastated. They were just husks standing, bare walls. All the fields were shot up. The forests we went through were mostly just bare stacks, trunks towering into the sky with all the leaves shot off, most of the branches shot off. So to us, France was a completely devastated country.

The trenches had to have what they call observation trenches. Now the observation trench is a thin, narrow, one man style of highway out into No Man's Land. You would dig under the wire. Of course, remember, I told you we had no radio. Nothing like that. So we were equipped with flares. White and red flares. There'd be a man out there standing guard, and you could be set upon any moment from raiding parties, they’d send a group of 10 troops out. They would try to take a prisoner, to get into our sector and get a prisoner or two and take them back with them and get some information. So we had two men in these observation trenches who went out, every so many hundreds of yards there’d be an observation trench out there. One man would get the information, try to make an estimation on how many they were in the raiding party. We'd get one man to go back to the main dug out and tell them what was going on. Then they'd have a soldier from the nearest supporting observation point shoot a flare so as not to disturb these people in front of us, if you get what I mean, because they are actually mostly in our area. When that fire went off, the second or third one down on the other side was shooting flares up to light up No Man's Land so we could zero in on this raiding party.

There were some vicious hand-to-hand combat out there in the dark some time when you couldn't see much more than 10 feet or so from you, black night and maybe it might be raining.

To talk about combat and tell you what it's like is impossible. Think for a moment, how would you feel if I told you now and there was someone in my driveway was threatening us and I gave you one of my old trench knives and told you to go out there and stick this guy, if he had to be stuck. If he wouldn't leave, stick him in the stomach. You don't think about killing a man, per se. My reactions were, oh, it's just an object, there's a dark object out there right in front of me, and I had to put two or three shots into it, which I did, because I didn’t, I couldn’t stop and think I might be killing some father or son. You can't think about those things. It's either him or you. That's the main thing that kept me going when I got in - and I had some vicious hand-to-hand combat. But this time I was a man, I wasn't a kid anymore. You grow up overnight when you're under fire, in the situation with these crashing shells all around you and the constant noise, the misery, the uncomfortableness. You're either always sleepy as hell, hungry, or tired. So to talk about and think about killing a man, you don't. You just do your job and take care of the enemy to keep him from getting you or your buddies. The minute you do that you're a dead duck, because you're going to hesitate a second and let him get off the first shot or the first jab. You got to go after him and do it first. You got to be aggressive. And you adopt and adapt to a fatalistic attitude of: you don't know whether you're going to be here tomorrow or not. And so you live for today. You never make any plans. We also were instructed: try not to make too good of friendship. Be friendly to everybody, of course, cooperative, but don't make any- if you can help it, don’t make any buddy-buddy, because you might be transferred the next day. Or you might be killed. So then you'll be devastated and you won't be a good soldier anymore. You have to be a professional. You have to learn that it is either him or you, and that will sustain you. Then you have your own private thoughts of your home, your loved ones, the wonderful comforts you've left behind. It gets to the point, if you’ve been there six or eight months in almost constant action and this continual deafening noise, you can't believe how this affects you. Now, you've heard of PTSD, post-traumatic syndrome from Vietnam. I know what they mean. What they're talking about is shell shock, and we had it in gobs in World War I. I had two bad attacks of it, and it affected my nerves and I've been like this ever since I came out of the army. This is post-traumatic syndrome and it's a big deal in Vietnam. We came home with no treatment whatsoever for it, but that's another story.

So we had everything. We were taken in like a bunch of city kids by a bunch of slick gamblers, by the vicissitudes of war. In the French villages, when we'd have to be withdrawn to replace our casualties, to replace our ammunition, to replace a lost gas mask or something, the troops would be besieged by the French women, young and old. There were no French men in the villages, the little villages. And as the front moved, they would come back to their homes and try to pick up life before they were driven out. That's a homing instinct that all of you have. Everybody wants to go home sooner or later. We were all suckers for these people. I was no angel by any means, but I was a good kid. I had seen many of my comrades put up against the firing squad for deserting a post under fire, or some other action that they engaged in detrimental to the safety of the army. So I've seen my own people executed.

OK, now there are basically three types of artillery shells in my experiences. The 155s (that's a hundred fifty five millimeter) and our main backup gun was the French 75 mm and then the 155. 155s were used for demolition in the rear. Support bases, ammunition dumps, roads preceding an assault and things of this kind. Then we had the 4.09, we had the 75 mm and we had the machine guns and the mortars, Stokes mortars, and things like that.

There's an old saying in the army you never hear the one that hits you. So if you hear them coming, you get to the point where you think, well, I hear that sucker and it's not going to hit me, and so you hit the dirt or get in the trench and duck. Or you get in a shell hole and then you have a concussion. I've actually had my helmet blown off with chinstrap under my chin. And as I pointed out, they always say you don't ever have to worry about the bullet that’s going to hit you because you never hear it. If it kills you, it kills you. You have to be a fatalist. You get so used to the buzzing of bullets, explosions of shells, and the funny “zinging” sound of a mortar coming at you. Those were the things that were every day. Just like going out and having breakfast. When you come out of the dugout or from wherever you are sleeping, you're back into your world. You felt comfortable. Actually, you felt comfortable. Of course now I don't mean to give that impression that we were happy to be there, but this is what we had to do. We knew we were going to be there until we were either wounded or killed or the war stopped. So this is your life. If you know you're going over in the morning, you sleep fitfully because you know that this could be your last night on earth as a mortal. You really feel that way. You really think maybe this is my time. As I say, your stomach is in butterflies and if you're not scared, you're in trouble. There's something wrong with you because, boy, you better be scared and you better duck and you better hit those shell holes when you get a chance. Just like trying to tell you how good a good glass of beer is on a hot day, you can't explain it, you had to be there.

KH: That was World War I veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Winston Roche. We’ll hear more from him in the next episode of Warriors in Their Own Words. Make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast to see Part II in your feed.

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Assistant producer is Declan Rohrs. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.

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