Winston Roche: World War I from the Trenches, Part II
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.
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.
Last episode, we heard from Lieutenant Colonel Winston M. Roche and today we’re finishing his story. Lt. Col. Roche served in the United States Army 7th Engineer Regiment in the 5th Infantry Division.
Winston Roche: I was in four major battles: Chateau-Thierry, and the Aisne Marne Front and then St. Mihiel was the first major American push and Meuse-Argonne was what's the worst. That was the bitterest, wickedest battle we were in.
But as I say, when the night before, you know, you're going to attack. You hardly sleep at all. You just sleep fitfully and you dread it. I did too. But you go and you do the job you're told to do and then you're elated when you have success.
When we got our troops into no man's land, then the wave is moving. The engineers go on ahead and cut the enemy wire. If this is in daylight, of course, you usually would not set up an attack on a beautiful, sunny day. That's the time you stay in your holes because you're sitting ducks. That's the way we fought. In the early days of the war, they would mass formation shoulder to shoulder, like they did way back in the 1800s, when the troops would be one long, solid line where you could just level your gun and just shoot at them like clay pigeons. The casualties were terrible. At some spots in World War I, we had to attack like that. Sometimes we were given orders on a day where it did rain. It would be murky, cloudy and not too sharp in the air. But you could see very clearly lots of times we had to advance on an objective and right in the face of it.
I was wounded three times. I was a machine gunned once, through the side. I didn't even know I was hit until my rifle flew out of my hand and the bullet had already gone through my side- clean as a whistle between two ribs and took off a chunk of my thumb, chunk out of this finger and the top of that finger off. I wondered at first what to do. Or how'd that happen? I didn't even know I was hit. Then I thought, oh, boy, was I lucky. It just hit my rifle. Then later on, I got real wet in my drawers. I thought I peed in my pants. Because I was so scared, but it was the blood running down my legs and down my side, down my leg.
It happened so quick and you have to deal with it. Like me, I picked my rifle up and kept on going. I did know that I was wounded. I knew I'd been hit by something, but I didn't think it was anything. Luckily of course, if that bullet had gone through my leg or my chest or something and hit something inside of me in a different matter. But I kept on going.
We dreaded the gas. If the enemy had been used to using gas in our sector we was in, we dreaded it because the gas masks were a bulky pain in the neck and your arm on your chest already. They were in the way of everything you did and they were hard to get on and off and took time to get them out of their case. The manufacturers didn't make every one perfect and some of them didn't fit good, so that all you had to hang on to was keeping your nose plugged up, and tried to keep it out of your eyes. Once the gas got into your eyes or your nose, well you were a dead duck as far as any more action is concerned, because you couldn't breathe, you couldn't see, and your eyes would flow like a faucet. The water just ran down your cheeks and burn. You've seen pictures probably in magazines of men coming back from gas attacks, holding onto one another’s shoulder with bandages over their eyes. That's because they're temporarily blind. I've been that way twice. The second time it was very bad. I was in the hospital for several weeks before I got back. You think you're a goner. You choke, you can't see, and you burn to hell. You just think you're a goner. You're going to die right there. It’s a terrible feeling. It's a lot worse than a bullet.
Now we'll talk about tank warfare for a moment. We just happened to be in an area and fighting over terrain that was not amicable to tank warfare. So I never fought in front of or behind one of the big tanks. We had, for it’s time, a very good tank invented by the British. I forget the name of it, but it had a track that went clear around the tread and the length of that tank. It just moved all the time on this track. Modern tanks have tracks just around the wheels under the armor plating, but this one, the tread went clear around the length of the tank, one continuous length. It just crawled on these two treads. We never saw one of those in action. Those were mostly in action on the British front and in the northern part of France.
The tank that I did see, and I got to drive one, was a one-man French Renault. It's a little tiny tank, like a Model T automobile would have been in those days, just room for one man in there, and you had your machine gun. A .30 caliber French machine gun. Of course, they fended off the bullets and they were a ball to drive. I've driven one of those and the noise is terrible. The engines right there in your lap practically. It's right under you, and the smell is terrible. If you get into one of those in a gas attack, you're in bad trouble. You have to have some clear air and you can't wear your gas mask and drive one of those tanks- at least I couldn't because you just had little slits to see out of it. But I’ve been in them, and I've heard the bullets hit them like rain - hit the tin roof.
So anyhow, that was that was what you might call a fun caper just to see what it was like to drive a tank under fire. So it didn't amount to too much, but I did feel a great security in them. I know the average bullet would have torn me to pieces. What's going to hurt me? It just bounced off the armor of the tank. They were great little tanks. If you had the open country where you could move with them and take them right up to pillbox machine guns and put a .50 caliber machine gun out of commission right now because you’d shoot right into the aperture. They couldn't do a thing about it.
Gas warfare is terrible because first you can't see it in the dark and usually most of the gas encounters we had were in the night - a dry night when it wasn’t raining and usually on a quiet front where a gas attack usually preceded a big attack. This is a way they hope to get the first break through our lines by sneaking up on us and knocking us out with a gas attack. It's similar to the smell of a skunk. Once you get a whiff of it, you'll never forget it. You know, the minute you get a little tiny whiff, you know right away there's gas in the air and you can even smell in your own house. It's practically just cooking gas when there's a burner on. If you're at all sharp, you’ll smell it, “hey, the gas burner’s on somewhere” so you shut it off.
Well, it penetrates everything, penetrates your clothes, and in World War I, we had one uniform. One. We did everything in that one uniform. You kept it as long as you're in action. No extra pair of boots. We had two pairs of underwear, one you had on.. We had one shirt, two pairs of socks, one pair of pants, one blouse, one helmet, that’s all.
We left on a cold coffee we had in our canteen and biscuits. A hardtack biscuit about that thick and about an inch and a half square where you dumped it in cold coffee. If you tried to bite it you'd break your teeth. To break it was so tough, so we’d just dunk it in coffee. We lived on those things.
We were in the Argonne Forest where, by the way, we saw some of the most beautiful air battles. As I sy, we didn't have radio from airplanes to the ground observers. We had to wait until the aircraft landed to give us the information that there were several thousand troops massing on the hill. “So and so” are coming up the ravine, “so and so” for an attack. This all had to be done vocally, orally.
On our front, the Saint Mihiel Front, there are three sausage balloons, observation balloons. One about thirty miles to our left, one almost immediately in front of us. Saint Mihiel was to our left, Regnéville over here and there's one out there maybe five miles away. All of them observing. This was just before we went into the Argonne Woods, which would be the battle that finished World War I. So we had won the Battle of Saint Mihiel - and Saint Mihiel was just a big bulge in the line, been there four years. That bulge stayed there all through the war - until the Americans picked it as their first major action for an American army.
So General Pershing and his generals worked out and they flanked it. We cut off all of the main line troops, they were surrounded. We flattened it out in eight hours and pushed it three miles into German territory. That thing had been there for four years. They hadn’t been able to get it out.
We were resting because we were going over the top and the next morning into the Argonne, which proved to be 42 days of pure hell. 42 days we were in there without a bath or relief. Under fire all the time. Losing men, that beat hell. I hear these three balloons and there's a dog fight, beautiful dog fight going on in the sky. To watch these little biplanes, they look like little toys and they looked - they were slow, you know, 150 miles an hour was fast in those days. For instance, I remember that when I was flying the DH.4, I'd have to put it into a dive to get it 135 knots. They cruise along, and you could land a Jenny at 30 miles an hour. You took off at about 40.
So that's how simple they were, see? Here were these biplanes, graceful circles and the loops and chandelles and immelmanns. Trying to get on each other's tail. Many, many times we've seen three or four of them going on and suddenly here will come black smoke - a trail of black smoke when one gets shot down.
And we were focused on this dogfight going on. Finally, one of the fellows said, "Hey, look! Here comes the balloons. They’re gonna attack the balloons!" So, we all shift our attention, and sure enough, here comes this Fokker aircraft that had the old Black Cross on it, heading right for this balloon over Regnéville. They shoot tracer bullets. This is in order for the pilot to see if he hits the balloon. You can see the white trail of the tracers going in one side of the balloon and coming out the other.
Of course, on the ground, we had a ring of Lewis and Browning machine guns shooting up, and they shot this one down. We could see very plain the bullets entering it and going out, coming out the other side. I think I was the one that said "Oh, God, he missed all three of them!" because there they were, they were all still hanging. He zoomed off into the distance. Then here comes another one chasing towards him, and it was an American. They said later, I can't verify this, but they said it was Eddie Rickenbacker. He was on that front. His squadron was on that front. So it could have been that it was him.
About that time that we saw Rickenbacker (if that was him) go across, the first one exploded. One great big explosion, just like that. Then suddenly, in one second, this thing goes up and then all three of them go up. See, the bullet ignites it inside. It doesn't explode right now. It kind of builds I guess, until it gets a certain amount of air and up it goes. Just like an explosion. So it was a beautiful show right there, everything right in front of us. So you never forget that.
So naturally, the first thing that the Americans, and I guess the French did that too during parts of the war, was think about making your own bombs. So we take three inch shell casings, and just chunk them full of all kinds of stuff. Everything we could put in there and make our own bombs. Seal them up, put the fuse in. We had different types of fuses, of course, we had detonators and as well as five fuses. American kids - that's the beauty of an American soldier. He's so resourceful.
We would get over a road while we were supposed to be observing for enemy activity and everything, and we'd get over a roadway to see a line of trucks. We’d try to work out our windage and we'd let them go, see. Then we'd fire them back and we would try to watch that trajectory as they dropped. Sometimes we'd be two, three hundred yards off target because you’ve got to figure the windage. You have to work out the trajectory.
So we made some good hits. We got pretty good. After you did it maybe three or four times, you got pretty good where you could come pretty close to it, so the bomb that we used to make and dump out of the sides, they did pretty good damage.
KH: That was World War I veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Winston Roche. Lt. Col. Roche was 93 years old when he recorded this interview. Two years later, in 1994, Roche died in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 95.
Next time on Warriors in Their Own Words, we’ll hear from an altogether different kind of warrior, one who served in the shadows. CIA agent Mike Howard served as an operations officer, from the Cold War to the Global War on Terror. Make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast to see this interview in your feed.
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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.