It is Thursday afternoon, and Centennial High School’s baseball team takes the field for fall practice, playing a game of T-ball in order to hammer out kinks in fielding and give players a little batting practice.
A few eager dads trickle in to the stands to watch, hoping to soothe the longing they suffer during baseball’s interminable off-season.
Isn’t that like being a spectator at competitive bird watching?
Not so for one familiar face, who hasn’t missed a handful of games since Centennial High School opened in 1993.
E.T. Roberts, with his folding chair and Golden Hawks hat, takes his usual spot beside the home team’s dugout and reaches into his bag for his peanuts and bubble gum.
It doesn’t matter to E.T. that the boys are playing each other, or that there isn’t even a pitcher on the mound.
It’s Centennial baseball, and that’s all he needs to know.
While many people in Northwest Bakersfield recognize E.T. Roberts as the father of Centennial’s varsity baseball coach, Randy Roberts, few people realize that the elder Roberts holds a title that was as distinguished in 1943 as a coveted Valley Championship ring is today.
“I was the boxing champion of Camp Walters, Texas!” reports Roberts with a sparkle in his eye.
|Young E.T. Roberts|
Drafted by the Army in 1943, Earnest Thomas Roberts left a small town in Oklahoma and traveled to Camp Walters, Texas. There, he went through basic training and channeled his combative spirit into boxing, where he became a champion boxer in his division.
He stayed in Texas until he was shipped to Europe with the 29th Infantry Division.
World War II was underway, and Hitler’s army had taken over Europe and was making a feverish bid to maintain occupation.
For the now 82-year old Roberts, boxing and making friends during basic training at Camp Walters were the memories he can recall with a smile on his face.
Others, not so much.
E.T. Roberts couldn’t have known it then, but just one year later, he would become a part of World War II’s most legendary and bloody battle: Normandy, otherwise known as D-Day.
It has taken most of Roberts’ life to share his stories of June 6, 1944.
In fact, he was not able to speak of events of that day until his children were nearly grown.
Lola Roberts (passed away Dec. 2011), E.T.’s wife of 60 years, explains that when she first met her husband,
he was disturbed by his experience and would not speak of the events he witnessed that day in Normandy, France.
She says that she did not discover anything about her husband’s memories of Omaha Beach until Roberts began sharing
his stories with the couple’s teenage sons and their friends.
“I learned what he’d been through by listening to the stories he told the boys,” she recalls.
It isn’t surprising that it took Roberts so long to share.
His memories of the D-Day invasion are difficult to listen to, much less to have experienced.
Armed with a heavy flamethrower and combating nausea from the choppy waves of the English Channel, Roberts and members of C Company headed toward Omaha Beach on LCIL landing crafts, unsure what to expect. The tide was high. General Eisenhower had already delayed Operation Overlord one day due to bad weather conditions, but because paratroopers had already landed in France, Allied troops had to move forward as planned.
In a brief moment of levity, Roberts recalls the cramped quarters on the landing craft. “There wasn’t a soldier on there who wasn’t sick!” he says with a chuckle. “I didn’t care what [the Germans] did to me after that!”
But the memory of what quickly followed will haunt Roberts indefinitely.
The tide was so high that Roberts plunged under water when he jumped from his landing craft, and to survive, he had to immediately release the 70-pound flamethrower that was pulling him beneath the crimson-colored waves. Once on the beach, he quickly stumbled upon a fatally wounded young man. Having no weapon, Roberts eyed the dying man’s firearm.
“I said,‘Soldier, I’d like to take your rifle,’” recalls Roberts with a noticeable tremor in his voice. “And he let me.” He takes a moment to compose himself. “It was a horrible day.”
When the battle at Omaha Beach was over, Roberts had lost 215 of the 272 men aboard the landing craft from C Company, 29th Infantry Division.
“There were just 57 left from my group,” he remembers.
Even those numbers continued to dwindle.
As Roberts served out his three-year term with the Army, he took part in another major engagement, the Battle at St. Lo, where the bloodshed continued. And this time, it was his own blood.
“I got shot, lost all my buddies and everyone else,” he says of that historic campaign.
When his service was finally over, E.T. Roberts returned to Oklahoma, where he met his future bride,Lola.
|E.T. in 2006|
Lola says that E.T. has been more vocal about his experience in Normandy over the last few years. He has appeared as a guest in history classes at Centennial High School, and Discovery Elementary School honored him during a ceremony for veterans of WWII.
“He got real joy out of that,” she says.
These days, Lola reports that her husband spends a lot of time attending local sporting events. She considers him “the oldest fan in Kern County.”
Anyone else living in Northwest Bakersfield might agree. Always in Centennial red and gold, Roberts knows all of the baseball players and treats them like his own grandchildren. From his seat near the batter’s circle, he offers tips and tells players what they’re doing wrong. Sometimes he even chastises them for not playing to their potential. The players love him for it. Roberts enjoys watching other local teams, too. He is also a familiar presence on the sidelines of Bakersfield College football games.
The best part of it, according to Lola, is the manner in which people treat her husband. “He never has to pay for a thing!” she claims.
Well, that seems fair. E.T. Roberts, along with 600,000 other American service members, paid an enormous price during WWII. They gave up their youth, their innocence, their peace of mind, and, in many cases, their lives in order to prevent tyrants from taking over the world.
If an 82-year-old man can enjoy a few sporting events and a couple of steaks free of charge, then perhaps younger Americans aren’t so far removed from “The Greatest Generation” after all. Maybe the younger generations have realized that it is their turn to pick up the tab. With luck, a few more free dinners, and some heartfelt words of thanks, maybe “The Greatest Generation” of men and women will finally realize the impact their sacrifices have made on us all.
(Writer’s note: I conducted this interview in 2006 for The Northwest Voice magazine. I am grateful to report that we still have E.T. Roberts and am blessed to know him.)