Some highly-decorated military heroes have long and distinguished careers. But Harold W. Roberts, for whom Camp Roberts was renamed, served just two years in the U.S. Army before sacrificing his life to rescue another in battle. Roberts was 22.
In 1916, the University of California, Berkeley student had just taken a brief trip to Mexico as The Great War raged in Europe. A patriotic young man, Roberts hoped to be among the first to see service when the United States fought abroad. On his birthday on October 14, Roberts enlisted in the Army, just a week after German forces invaded Romania in the Battle of Brasov and intensified their hold on Central Europe.
As he returned to California after serving in the Philippines as a cavalryman, Roberts’ regiment was sent to France, where he transferred into the Tank Corps and fought with Company A, 344th Light Battalion. On October 4, 1918, Cpl. Roberts participated in the historic Argonne Offensive that would end the war just weeks later.
The San Francisco Chronicle published the news on November 18, 1918:
“While his friends and family were celebrating the news of victory and rejoicing in the hope of his speedy return, a cablegram from France yesterday announced the death in action on October 6 of Corporal Harold William Roberts, only son of John Roberts and the late Freda Seifert Roberts of San Francisco.”
Stars and Stripes Newspaper also published riveting accounts of 47 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, 16 of whom had died, including Cpl. Harold W. Roberts:
“Corporal Roberts, a tank driver, was moving his tank into a clump of bushes to afford protection to another tank which had been disabled. The tank slid into a shell hole ten feet deep, filled with water, and was immediately submerged. Knowing that only one of the two men in the tank could escape, Corporal Roberts said to the gunner, ‘Well, only one of us can get out, and out you go,’ whereupon he pushed his companion through the back door of the tank and was himself drowned.”
Since becoming curator of Camp Roberts Historical Museum, Gary McMaster has arranged for flowers to be delivered to Cpl. Roberts’ grave every Memorial Day.
“I thought that since I spent a year and a half putting Roberts’ life together for the first time several years ago in a biography — not only as a fundraiser for the museum but also as a tribute to him — that it fell on me to be at his actual gravesite on the centenary of his sacrifice,” McMaster said. “I took a train up to Verdun. From there, it was a 40-minute drive to the cemetery north of town. I pre-ordered a large floral arrangement through a French florist and it was placed on his grave. This was a much larger arrangement, since it was his centenary.”
“The Argonne Offensive of World War I was the bloodiest battle in our nation’s entire history,” McMaster said, “and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery where Roberts is buried holds more than 14,000 American soldiers who participated in it. It’s the largest of all our overseas cemeteries.”
Cpl. Roberts was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, the French Military Medal and the Italian War Cross. For his gallantry, Cpl. Roberts was the second tanker to be awarded America’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, the whereabouts of which to this day are unknown.