WEST WARWICK — Tucked inside an aluminum briefcase, a collection of medals and badges offer a glimpse into Ernie Roberts’ heroism during World War II; of his bravery in the Battle of the Bulge, and of the time he was injured by a blast from a German tank.
Certainly, the items tell a story on their own. A more detailed account of the West Warwick resident’s experience overseas, however, can be found in a book that was released last month.
“I’m a veteran, and I am for the veterans,” Roberts, who just turned 96, said last week, “and if I tell my story, maybe there’s somebody out there who knows me.”
Written by Massachusetts resident Andrew Biggio, “The Rifle” was released June 1 and already nearly 10,000 books, ebooks and audiobooks have been sold.
Biggio, who served in the Marine Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, was inspired after returning home to track down some of the remaining World War II veterans and document their histories, to record their stories of combat and of life after combat while they’re still around to tell them.
“He came here,” Roberts said, a copy of “The Rifle” on the table before him as recalled the day in 2018 when he was interviewed by Biggio,” “and I told him the whole story of what I’d done while I was overseas. It’s all in that book.”
Each of the book’s chapters tells the story of a different World War II veteran, with 18 veterans featured in total. Roberts is the focus of Chapter 2.
Originally from North Providence, Roberts was just 17 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. His three brothers were serving in the Navy, all of his friends were gone, and Roberts had been stuck at home caring for his mother since his dad died.
Roberts was working at the Walsh-Kaiser shipyard at the time, he said, but he was eager for the chance to serve his country.
“The doctor said [to his mother], ‘you don’t sign for him, he’ll never forgive you,’” Crystal Roberts said, sitting across from her husband of nearly 40 years.
So, she finally agreed.
Roberts served as a machine gunner in the 87th Infantry Division. All told, he spent around nine months in Europe, earning a number of medals — a Silver Star, a Purple Heart — and a collection of stories that even after 75 years are still fresh in his mind.
“We slept in foxholes for nine months, all through the winter,” Roberts recalled. “Some people, their feet froze so bad they turned black and had to be cut off.”
To save his own feet, Roberts rotated two pairs of socks, keeping whichever set he wasn’t wearing hidden in his shirt to be warmed by his body.
“God was with me, all the way,” he said.
Roberts belonged to a green division with no combat experience, and they were quickly thrust into battle.
He fought in half a dozen smaller battles in France and in Belgium, before The Battle of the Bulge began in December of 1944.
“That was the big one,” Roberts said of the six-week battle, the last major offensive by the Germans in World War II.
The Allies won the Battle of the Bulge, but not without heavy casualties.
“We fought day and night — we didn’t stop, didn’t sleep,” Roberts continued. “That was the Germans last push.”
Eventually, he said, “we got them on the run.” Roberts can still picture dead horses in the streets, and the guns that had been discarded along the roadside.
“They ran out of gas,” Roberts recalled. “They were moving so fast — if they didn’t move so fast they would have beat us.”
When Roberts returned to the United States in April of 1945, he attended a camp at Lake Placid along with hundreds of others who, like him, were suffering from battle fatigue. There, the young veterans spent their days boating and swimming and recuperating after their time in the European Theatre.
“I had the shakes for 10 years,” Roberts said. “You figure, sleeping in a foxhole, you don’t know from one minute to the next whether you’ll be dead. It works on your nerves.”
Roberts was supposed to head to Japan then, but just as he was meant to leave, Japan surrendered.
These days, Roberts spends much of his time painting from a studio set up in his house on Buckley Avenue. His home is filled with hundreds of original paintings; scenes of owls and flowers decorate the walls. In the living room, canvases depicting foliage and seaports lay stacked on the floor.
Art, he said, has been his therapy.
“He paints, and he paints, and he paints,” Crystal Roberts said, a glittering oil panting framed on the wall beside her.
Seven and a half decades later, Roberts is still haunted by some of his war memories. Still, if it’ll help other veterans, he’s happy to talk about his experience.
“I’ll do anything for the veterans,” he said.
Roberts will join Biggio and others featured in “The Rifle” on Aug. 1 for a book-signing event in Massachusetts. The book has sold out, but more copies are being printed and should be available sometime next month.
Anyone interested in the military or in history should enjoy “The Rifle,” Roberts said.
“I like that people like to hear the story,” he added. “It’s something you don’t realize could happen to a person, and we lived it.”