World War II Vet still haunted by the horrors of war

Published 8:00 am Sunday, November 26, 2023

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By Clark Curtis for the Washington Daily News

At the age of 104, Belhaven resident Roscoe Lee Joyner has pretty much “seen it all” as he would say. Joyner was born on March 11, 1919 to Berry and Ella Joyner in the small town of Spring Hope, which dots the map about halfway between Rocky Mount and Raleigh. After graduating from high school in 1937, Joyner enrolled at State College in Raleigh in 1938. In 1940, during his junior year, the military draft was instituted. Every man of military age had to sign up for 12 months. “I had a pretty low number, but there were those ahead of me that received deferments because they were married and had families,” said Joyner. “So my number came up quickly and at 22, they grabbed me. I could have gotten deferred and tried to finish up school, but I decided to go on and get it over with. On July 15, 1941, just six months before Pearl Harbor, I enlisted at Fort Bragg.  I didn’t get out of the Army until December 1, 1945, and I saw the whole nine yards.”

Joyner boarded a train with hundreds of other green recruits, headed for Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training. George Patton, a colonel at the time, was his regimental commander. After three months he was assigned to tank school. “They picked me to be an instructor of the school, teaching others how to be mechanics,” said Joyner. “That lasted until the Spring of 1943 because I wanted to get out of there, as it was always the same thing every day. I wasn’t getting anywhere and I wanted to advance.”

Joyner said he saw a notice posted on a bulletin board about a new air observation school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and requested transfer. “As soon as I got there they assigned me to the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery of the 203rd Field Artillery Group. Our job was to provide air and ground observation about potential targets for artillery battalions that had been assigned to us. That became my job for the duration of the war, having been trained both as a pilot and ground support.”

In 1944, Joyner was transferred to Camp Forest, Tennessee where he would assist the Air Corp of Engineers to map out an area that could be cleared for firing heavy artillery rounds. “I was laying in my tent one morning before sunup and flipped the radio on to get some news before heading out to do some more mapping,” said Joyner. “Every channel I found they were talking about the D Day invasion. All of a sudden a Lieutenant came running down to our barracks and started hollering “get up, we are going in.” We gathered up all of our earth belongings and loaded up on a train headed to Camp Campbell, New Jersey. We spent about two or three days there for some quick gas training before being shipped out to England. I remember passing by the Statue of Liberty as we headed out to sea.”

Joyner said they remained in England until the end of June before receiving their orders to be shipped out to France. “Everything was happening so fast at the time, but I believe it was the first part of July that we boarded the Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) headed for Omaha Beach in France. Was I afraid? Sure I was scared! If you wasn’t scared you would be crazy.”

Once in France, the 203rd Field Artillery Group was assigned to Pattons’ 3rd U.S. Army. Joyner said the first fighting they encountered was at the Battle of Saint-Lô in Normandy, France. “We fought there for about a month before taking the city, and then began to make our way forward through the hedgerows. Once we broke through, I remember seeing the Germans running all around and they began retreating. We continued our push from there to Betz in northern France, where we were bogged down for a bit that Fall. Then on to Luxembourg right before the Battle of the Bulge.”

Joyner said they continued their advance from there as far up as the Rhine River, capturing several small towns along the way. From there they continued into Belgium, arriving in Bastogne by mid December. “It was snowy and very cold,” said Joyner. “Hitler was making his last ditch push, trying to cut our battle lines in half. Just before Christmas, 1944,  the Germans had us surrounded pretty good and sent in orders to surrender or they would kill us. We managed to get out and set up camp about two miles away. Before the Battle of the Bulge erupted, some of our troops by then were totally surrounded, after General McAuliffe had replied with the word NUTS to the German command when told to surrender. The Air Force started bombing day and night and the 203rd started laying heavy artillery in there. The fight continued until the Germans simply ran out of fuel, ammunition, food, and finally surrendered.”

The “mop-up” operations, Joyner said, continued until the middle of January. “I can’t remember how many German prisoners we took, but we gathered them up and sent them behind the lines to the stockade.”

By April of 1945 the 203rd had made its way to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia and from there into Germany. “We were ordered to meet the Russians near the Elbe River and halt our forward advance to allow the Russian troops to attack and take Berlin.”

That same month, Joyner and the 203rd were ordered by General Patton to tour the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany following its liberation by the 3rd Army. In September, the war was over. “The enlisted men are the ones who won the war,” said Joyner. “We did all of the fighting. The generals just handed out the orders and we carried them out.” Joyner made his way back to Marseilles, France. “It was November 11, 1945 and I got on the boat to head home.”

After arriving in New York, Joyner tried to catch some sleep at the Army barracks with nothing but a duffle bag full of his earth belongings as a pillow. He said a sergeant came walking through  and said three trains were headed out––one for Pennsylvania, one for Illinois, and one for Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “I jumped up and was the first guy out the door, and said “where is that train?” I immediately found the guy holding the sign for Fort Bragg, hugged him, and hopped on the train headed for North Carolina. The next day, December 1, 1945 we arrived at Fort Bragg, which was a very happy day for me. I received my discharge papers and it was all over.”

In 1949, Joyner married Sylvia Childress, whom he had met while at Fort Knox. They had two children, Sarah and David. Joyner worked for Standard Oil for three years before taking a job for a farming company in Richmond, Virgina. In 1955 he opened his own farm machinery dealership in Spring Hope. He sold the business in 1968, but would continue to work in the farming industry until his retirement in 1978. Over the years Joyner made his way to Belhaven to fish with a good friend, bringing the kids every summer. In 2013 he purchased a cedar style home on the river that has been his permanent residence since 2020.

For Joyner, the memories from the war are very vivid. Like the last time that he saw General Patton with General Eisenhower, when he had to drive to Luxembourg City in his brand new jeep to get some new maps for aerial recognizance to determine where the front lines were. “I asked my captain to go inside headquarters and get the maps while I waited outside in my brand new jeep to make sure nobody ran off with it,” said Joyner. “I was sitting there and out walks Patton and Eisenhower. I jumped out of my jeep and got behind a big ol’ tree about four feet in diameter. I hugged that thing like a tick on a dogs’ back. They were so close I could have reached out and shook their hands. Old Patton was babbling away and talking so fast you couldn’t understand him. Old Eisenhower had his hands behind his back and was just nodding his head. That was the last time I saw either one of them.”

Joyner also jokingly remembers how he was alway keeping one step away from being thrown into the brig. “I had ROTC training in college, so I always knew just how much I could get away before I got in trouble,” said Joyner. I was alway pushing it to the limits,” he said with a big chuckle.

But even 80 years later, there are still those stories that are too painful and are best left untold. “I could tell you all kinds of tales, but I would rather not go through all of that again, ” said Joyner. “It just brings back all kinds of old memories that get you all bothered up. If I get started up with you, I won’t sleep tonight because I would keep thinking about what we talked about, and I’d rather not try to remember them. If I go to bed and I don’t think about them I can sleep pretty good. But if I get to thinking about where I was at Buchenwald or some artillery barrage, I won’t sleep the rest of the night.”