by Major William Carraway, Historian, Georgia Army National Guard
The United States observes National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day on the third Friday in September. On this day, when Americans remember those who have been held as prisoners of war during our nation’s conflicts and those listed as missing in action, the Georgia National Guard’s History office looked back one hundred years to the return of the only Georgia Guardsmen held as a POW during World War I.
Vivian Hill Roberts Sr. was born September 29, 1887, in Jackson Georgia. He enlisted in the Macon Hussars, then Company F of the 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment as a private July 26, 1906. Roberts served in every enlisted rank, culminating in a stint as first sergeant of Company F before accepting a commission as a second lieutenant March 1, 1915. He was working as a bookkeeper for Benson Clothing Company in Macon when the Georgia Guard was deployed to the Mexican Border in August 1916. Returning with his regiment in 1917, Roberts company was re-designated Company A, 151st Machine Gun Battalion (MGB) and assigned to the 42nd Division which sailed to France in October 1917.
As a platoon leader, Roberts led his machine gun sections from the Baccarat Sector near the southern terminus of the Western Front through the fiery Champagne Marne Defensive. He was promoted to first lieutenant May 15, 1918. On July 28, 1918, Roberts’ Company was heavily engaged while supporting infantry assaults on German positions near Sergy, France. The men of the 151st MGB were ordered to move forward with the Infantry Regiments of the 84th Brigade, 42nd Division. As the machine gunners were already overly-burdened with heavy machine guns and ammunition, Roberts ordered the men to remove unnecessary gear–including packs and canteens. In the assault, the men would only carry ammunition and gas masks.
Roberts recalled moving forward with four machine guns and establishing firing positions for his sections. Unable to proceed due to the presence of enemy machine guns positioned near the crest of the hill upon which he was advancing, Roberts requested infantry support which came in the form of a company from the 167th under command of Capt. Wyatt. Roberts recalls what happened next.
“As we reached the crest of the hill, instead of the five or six Germans I had been firing upon, a solid line of Germans arose stretching all across the hill. Machine guns opened up on us from the woods on the right and from the church steeple and buildings from the little village of La Ferte on our left, pouring a terrific fire into our ranks. Hearing a groan at my side, I turned and saw little F. H. Dent from Macon, his shirt on fire; a bullet had struck a clip of cartridges in his belt, exploding them, setting his shirt on fire as well as badly wounding him. I put the fire out, gave him first aid and sending him to the rear and took his rifle… A German plane swooped down over our line strafing, mowing down it seemed about every sixth man in our line. A bullet struck me in my right thigh breaking the bone and passing on through the leg and lodging in the lower leg… I asked two infantrymen to carry me back. They tried to do it but as my right leg was dangling, giving me so much pain and bullets were singing all around us. I asked them to put me in a shell hole and make their escape.”
Roberts was found by German Soldiers. One gave him a blanket and told Roberts that they would come back for him that evening. When they returned it was only to leave Roberts once more with the knowledge that the Germans anticipated an American attack to come in the morning. Roberts remained in the shell hole for 30 hours without food or water and with three exposed wounds before a German non-commissioned officer and three Red Cross men found him and bore him into German lines in a shelter half. His wounds were dressed, and he was taken via stretcher to a horse-drawn ambulance while American artillery shells crashed all around. Roberts grimly recalled the ambulance ride.
“As my leg had not been put into a splint you can imagine the condition I was in after about a two hours’ ride. We arrived at what I took to be Fismes; here we were taken to a German Field Hospital. And my leg was set and put in a splint. As the hospital was being evacuated that night due to the advance of the Americans, I was soon put into an automobile ambulance with three wounded Germans. We travelled all night, arriving early in the morning at what I took to be Laon.”
In Laon, Roberts along with wounded French and German Soldiers were loaded onto freight rail cars on pallets of blood-soaked straw and blankets for transport to Formies, France, near the Belgian border. Here he was asked by an English-speaking nurse when his wound had last been dressed. As jarring as this was, Roberts soon discovered that he was one of 800 wounded Soldiers being treated at the hospital by one doctor and two nurses.
On August 25, 1918, Roberts was reported as missing in action. Roberts’ family endured weeks of uncertainty, then on September 13, the Macon Telegraph reported that the 151st MGB had listed Roberts as killed in action. It was not until November 1, that Roberts’ family learned that Lt. Roberts was indeed alive and being held in a prison at Langensalza Thuringen, Germany.
Roberts would remain at Langensalza until December 21, 1918, when he began his journey home. Arriving at the American Base Hospital Number 45 on December 24, 1918, Roberts realized his earnest wish to be free by Christmas. He did not return to the United States until February 25, 1919. Roberts would remain hospitalized due to the effects of his wound until December 22, 1922, when he was released from federal service. While still a patient at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Roberts married Antoinette Lipgens. For more than 20 years, Roberts served as the Clerk of Bibb County Superior Court. He died August 24, 1946 at the age of 57 and is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Macon, Georgia.