Photographer’s legacy alive in WWII shots

By Dawn Gagnon, BDN Staff
Posted July 31, 2009, at 9:01 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Barbara Roberts of Owls Head said she was pleasantly surprised on Monday to see on the front page of the Bangor Daily News a photograph that her husband had snapped while serving as a World War II combat photographer.

The photograph, taken by her late husband, Harold Roberts, depicts soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division taking shelter from enemy fire behind a tank among the ruins of Geich, Germany, in December 1944.

The photograph was among a series of vintage WWII shots shown in a slide show during last weekend’s reunion of the 9th Infantry Division held at the Ramada Inn in Bangor. The photo also was used in Monday’s paper to help illustrate a story about the reunion.

One of the couple’s sons, David Roberts, who lives with his wife and two children in Bangor, also was touched to see his dad’s work in the local daily, she said. Barbara and Harold Roberts’ other son, Joshua Roberts, is a photographer with White House credentials who works for such news outlets as Reuters and Bloomberg.

“That was such a surprise,” Barbara Roberts said of the photo during an interview Wednesday.

“You know, pictures like that mean a lot, not only to the survivors of World War II, but to their children,” she said.

As a combat photographer with the Army Signal Corps, Harold Roberts was an eyewitness to some of the most powerful scenes in the history of 20th century warfare. His photos capture scenes that words can’t describe, some so graphic that they can’t be published in a family newspaper.

Though Roberts died in 2001 at age 83, almost 20 years after settling down in Owls Head, his legacy lives on through the stories he told and the photographs he took — including some that made the covers of Life and Time magazines — during World War II. His photographs are among those preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., his wife said.

Among the most poignant scenes for Roberts, who was Jewish, were the photographs he took as U.S. troops began liberating the Nazi concentration camps, where millions of Jews were forced to work as slaves and were starved, beaten and killed.

“He went into a couple of [concentration camps] and he did the photographs,” she said. Those who survived “were just skin and bones. They couldn’t even stand up they were so weak.”

Besides all the photos, Roberts said, she has the memories of what her husband described having seen.

“He saw, like boxes and boxes — big boxes like the ones that canned goods come in — filled with weddings rings” taken from Jews who had been rounded up and sent to the concentration camps, she said. “You know how many rings it would take to fill up one of those boxes?

“Hal said he was so overcome with emotion that it was hard for him to just keep going, but he did,” Roberts said of her husband, whose wartime service in Europe spanned four years. He arrived on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy and he served through numerous military operations, including the Battle of the Bulge, she said.

Though a job at a Massachusetts shipyard had made him exempt from the draft, Roberts still decided to enlist in the U.S. Army at the age of 23, his wife said.

“He felt strongly about it,” she said, adding that he initially was a military policeman but became a combat photographer because they were in short supply.

“So many of the combat photographers were killed,” she said. “Hal said 80 percent of them were either badly wounded or killed.”

Her husband, Roberts said, was one of the lucky ones.

“He led a charmed life, only to be wounded one time. He was very fortunate,” she said.

“He was a very witty person. He could be the life of the party. He was very quick-witted and a lot of fun. I’ve thought about all that he saw and I know it must have affected his entire life.

“He was very easygoing and he didn’t let little things bother him, and he was a lovely man and a great father,” she said.

In addition to photographs of U.S. troops during WWII, Roberts has copies of photographs of her husband taken at various points during the war.

“He would hand his camera to someone and say, ‘Here, take my picture,’ and when he could he sent them home to his mother in Malden [Mass.]. It’s a chronicle of the entire time he was there,” she said.

These are the stories behind some of the photos Roberts shared with the BDN.

Slave laborer vs. Nazi guard

“That was a Russian slave laborer, and the other man was a Nazi guard. Hal shot [the photograph with] a big 4-by-5 camera that had slides in it. In those days, that’s what they gave them,” Roberts said.

“He said he shot that picture and the very next thing — he said he missed the best picture in the world — that slave laborer socked the Nazi guard in the face,” Roberts said.

Wounded by shrapnel

“That was [taken] in winter and they were in the Battle of the Bulge. None of [the troops] had clothes really that were warm enough, so he had found a German pistol which he traded for that bomber jacket,” Roberts said. “Believe it or not, I still have it in a box up in the attic. And I also have the helmet. Now there’s a story about the helmet,” she said.

“If you notice, he is pointing at a hole in the helmet. That was from shrapnel that went through his helmet and cut his head and that’s why he’s got that bandage,” Roberts said.

“He said that with that shellfire, there were several men who were outright killed. It hit him and kind of knocked him out and he thought he was dead, too, but he was able to get up and keep going.”

Roberts was awarded a Purple Heart for that injury.

Receiving the Bronze Star

Roberts had someone take a photo of himself being presented the Bronze Star by Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins.

“Hal was always ahead of the lines because he was taking pictures of what was going on,” Roberts said. “When they went into Cologne, most of the Germans had left.”

Despite that, “he got shot at by a tank. So to escape that he jumped up into [the window of a cathedral]. He said there was no way anybody could jump that high, but he said when a tank is pointing its cannon at you, you can jump pretty high,” she said.

“And then he and [a fellow soldier] went into the basement of the cathedral at Cologne and there were all these German officers and their lady friends,” Roberts said.

“Hal went in there and he had a pistol — he never carried a rifle, he always had a pistol because he carried a camera — and he looked at all these men and he said in German ‘I am Jewish,’ which he was. And then he pointed the pistol at them and he told them to file out of the cathedral, which they did in single file.”

The two U.S. soldiers “made sure to disarm them. They dropped their weapons anyway because they knew that Cologne was being taken by the Americans.”

Wearing Gen. Patton’s helmet

“Hal was never a drinking man,” Roberts said. Before this photograph was taken, Hal had been on the front lines. “He then was called to a beautiful chalet where Gen. [George] Patton and all his underlings were meeting and he was to take pictures,” she said.

“So he got himself dressed up as best he could and they told him to wait in this room that was actually set up as a bar,” she said. The bartender offered him a martini, the first he’d ever had. “And Hal said, ‘Sure.’ He had two or three of those. Before they called him in he saw Patton’s helmet hanging on a hook on the wall. And he put on the helmet and he gave the bartender his camera and said, ‘Here, take my picture,’ and the bartender did.”

After photographing the Army brass gathered at the chalet, Roberts found his driver and took his film to be processed. “None of the pictures came out except that one,” his wife said.

dgagnon@bangordailynews.net

990-8189

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/07/31/news/photographerrsquos-legacy-alive-in-wwii-shots/ printed on August 27, 2014