ROBERT A. WHITE
Command Sergeant Major | Artillery
The first time Sybil saw Bob White, she was swaying on her porch swing and was just stunned when he entered through the front gate – he appeared to sparkle in his polished jump boots and gleaming wings. Upon seeing him for the first time, she was taken and they stayed in touch until he inevitably sailed for Europe in late 1944. Their meeting seemed destined, as it was only by chance that Bob decided to accompany his buddy on leave from Camp Toccoa to Sybil’s family home that was only a few miles from the Army base. He was unable to take leave outside of 300 miles, which prevented him from returning to his own home in Illinois, but he did not have much desire to visit anyway. He joined the service at his earliest opportunity to escape an abusive father, and the election of the paratroopers promised a great bonus in pay.
Early in the morning of December 8, 1944 the 2d Battalion, 399th Infantry left their reserve positions to clear an area to the east of the small town of Lemberg where they were to push out German troops they had been chasing for a week – beyond Lemberg framed by the Vosges Mountains lay a town called Bitche. Capturing these towns would straighten out the Western Front line held by XV Corps and put the Americans that much closer to the Rhine and Berlin. Within moments of crossing their line of departure into the misty woods, Bob’s F Company was pinned to a stream bed under a concentration of fire. For three hours they waited in a sodden chill while bullets snapped overhead until they were able to squeeze away once the opposition relaxed. The company moved quickly after that, capturing two hill objectives around noon and reaching the Bitche-Lemberg railroad by late afternoon. The day slowed and quieted, the mens’ adrenaline subsided, and the gray evening light faded into an early winter night when the soggy mud stiffened into icy clumps. The First Platoon leader, Lieutenant Caspar Breckinridge, with Staff Sergeant Francis Schilberger and Bob White, moved from foxhole to foxhole keeping their men awake and alert beneath the last quarter of a waning moon.
The morning opened with flak wagons rolling onto the battlefield raking the two platoons of F Company with 20mm fire. Shells bursting at knee height blasted mud and biting shrapnel that stippled Bob’s hand, arm and back. He called for a medic for himself and the other wounded, but heard no reply, only approaching German infantry. F Company could do little throughout the day except bury themselves into foxholes.
As darkness enveloped them after they completed their defenses, the Germans struck with an aggressive attack by turning their flak wagons on the First Platoon to soften the Americans with grating 20mm fire before sending in infantry. For three hours they endured this endless assault from beyond the railroad tracks. The German offense seemed unlimited, and Bob felt the helpless against the fierce enemy soldiers and screaming shells cutting down men around him.
In a moment of near defeat, he stuck his bayonet in the hard earth and questioning his chances of survival asked, “What will I do?”
“Follow me,” he heard, or perhaps he only sensed it though the command seemed so distinct and he looked up to see that the Lord was with him. He was not alone – with God as his source of strength, with renewed vigor, the young sergeant abandoned his fear and carefully approached one of the flak wagons, hurling two grenades at it and marking the first kill for the platoon – the tide turned. In the next attack, the platoon bazooka man, Corporal Steve Balchunas took another wagon, but was killed just after disabling the vehicle. The attacks came regularly at three-hour intervals and lasted until five in the morning. When the first light of dawn broke the murky night, White observed foxholes and paths through the area were littered with corpses and remains of both Germans and Americans.
“Is anyone alive?” he called, stunned at the carnage.
Six men replied and gathered around – all that remained of the platoon. The captain had disappeared, Lieutenant Breckinridge and rest of the platoon killed, wounded or missing, and Sergeant Schilberger died of his wounds sustained the previous day. Between the six of them left, their pooled assets showed they had about 90 rounds of ammunition and as sergeant, White was the highest ranking individual. They had no orders to remain in their positions, so he decided they should return back to the company headquarters though the only route was across 600 yards of open field. The Germans were also turning back, but apparently had eyes on the six men and began dropping mortars as the party of six approached their escape route. Timing the period between blasts for several minutes, they determined their window and broke into a run across the mired field when two of the soldiers were struck down by shrapnel. Bob discarded his rifle and picked one up on his back, somewhat of a feat for the small sergeant, and while hoisting his comrade was hit for a second time in two days in the back, left leg and ankle.
When they reached company headquarters, they learned that messages had been sent to the three platoons on the line to withdraw during the night, but his First Platoon never received the message and continued to fight. The commander, Captain Newton Heuberger was still alive and declared Bob as walking wounded and denied him being sent to the battalion aid station, but silently noted his bravery. Knowing that the company’s positions were now wide open and vulnerable, Bob requested to return to the hill they previously held because he knew the land well. A company medic dressed his wounds and for extra stamina stuck him with a dose of morphine for his return trip to the unoccupied hill. Since fighting defense was not essential, he assisted in graves registration and collecting the dead. It was a dreadful task dragging around stiff bodies, handling gory remains, identifying corpses that vaguely resembled what was left of a man, and cataloguing names and numbers quickly becoming numb to the task. With Lemberg captured and under Division control, the regiment was put in Division reserve for a well needed recovery after their harsh battle and seven days of fighting into Lemberg.
The rest of the month offered White an opportunity to rest, recover from his wounds and itch at thorns of shrapnel making their way to the surface of his skin. Snow fell and stayed with the turn of the new year and the soldiers adopted any white sheets and clothing they could find to stay camouflaged in their foxholes. They split the Maginot Line with the Germans, essentially fighting sideways across it instead of how the French had originally intended it to be used. During the month they fought over Reyersviller, attacking, counter attacking and patrolling constantly. The snow washed away after a driving rain in early February and by the end of the month the sun appeared and began to dissolve the chill of winter. In early March the 100th Division finally began to see a flow of replacements – it seemed that all reinforcements went to units fighting in the Ardennes in the previous months – and rounds of promotions due for the experienced veterans upgraded Bob up to Technical Sergeant. Whether it was skill or simply survival, he was earning rank quickly after skipping Corporal and making Staff Sergeant just three months earlier. With the Rhine within reach there was great energy to cross into Germany, and the GIs were ready to cross over the border.
On March 15, 1945 the 399th Infantry departed the Winter Line that they held for 72 days since the first of the new year. Advancing through a soft mist toward a hill outside of Spitzberg, F Company approached their objective quietly and without support from artillery. The only noise came from three tanks accompanying them which were quickly struck by mortars forcing the infantry to abandon the smoldering hulks and proceed alone up the slope that was mined three rows deep with machine guns beyond threatening those who made it through. In the company reserve with First Platoon, Bob saw an immobilized platoon on his flank and found a way to make it to the hill and not only take out a machinegun nest, but pull two wounded men off the hill. For six hours the 399th grappled for the hill through thousands of mines, vicious machine gun fire, barbed wire entanglements, and relentless shelling. With Bitche finally attainable, the regiment swept in and despite the previous contention leading into the city, there was no fight to take the town and the inhabitants of the town cordially greeted the GIs with celebrations and schnapps.
From Bitche, the 100th Division raced towared the German border from the Maginot to the Siegfried Line through ghost downs demolished by artillery in 1940, and by March 24th faced the pontoon bridges stretching across the Rhine – beyond the lingering smokescreen was the dim outline of Mannheim. Finally, in late April 1945 that Sergeant White began receiving recognition for his deeds. The 100th Division commander pulled him aside:
“Go find yourself a better jacket, Sergeant,” General Burress suggested, observing Bob’s soiled and tattered field jacket. “We can’t have you wearing that for a Silver Star Medal.”
He searched for a less abused uniform and borrowed one most close to his petite build, but even the smallest to be found was baggy and the skirt of the coat threatened to brush against his knees. At 5’5” and barely 110 pounds, he looked like a boy as the general pinned him with the Silver Star. His first Bronze Star medal followed later, but he never did receive a Purple Heart for any of the wounds in early December.
East of Chinju, the 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry jumped off in relatively high spirits bolstered by the presence of five Sherman tanks. With barely over a week in combat, Bob White was already weary and soiled, his bones and muscles battered from the hard terrain and his head heavy from baking beneath an unrelenting sun. As one of two combat veterans in the Second Platoon – the other being Lieutenant Griffen – he had a challenging responsibility of keeping the others alive. It had been over five years since he had been in combat, but he was quick to remember the feelings surrounding the experience. He could already tell that this was a very different kind of war and could not help but agree with the others when they questioned if they would survive against the ruthless North Koreans.
Of the two depleted battalions in the regiment, Bob’s was barely the stronger of the two that left Okinawa for Korea, having been well below strength before they were mobilized on July 14th. Despite personnel additions from the 2d Battalion, they were still weak on arrival at Sasaebo ten days later. The men were eagerly anticipating further training while they looked off the deck at Japanese sampans bobbing alongside their transport ship, but instead they were thrust into combat just a few days later after they were trucked 85 miles west to Hamyang. Packing for the trip was full of turmoil and confusion. Tropical pith helmets were among the questionable items tossed in for the journey; other necessary supplies were either omitted or not available, and lack of training continued to be a foreboding thought for many men.
On the afternoon of July 27th, the 29th Infantry began to settle into positions taken over from the 19th Infantry in the Sanggun-iang area. The 19th took their artillery battery with them, leaving the 29th with no artillery, no armor, and no Tactical Air Control Party. Still, higher headquarters referred to the understrength unit as a Regimental Combat Team despite their lack of support. The biggest weapons they had were in the 4.2” mortar platoon equipped with only 22 rounds of white phosphorous. Their misfortune seemed to compile after hearing about the mysterious disappearance of B Company at Anui and the decimation of the entire 3d Battalion on July 26th. The latter would not be an effective fighting unit until mid-August and it took several days to determine the fate of B Company. That left the defense of Hamyang to the two remaining line companies in the 1st Battalion. In keeping with their motto, A Company was “Always Available and Able.”
Throughout the night of July 27th, A Company held off several attacks from the North Koreans in the first non-loss defense since the start of the war. Their attackers were of the 4th North Korean Division, the same unit that crossed the border a month before on June 25th and steamrolled across the country through ROK and American units. It was a defense of miraculous odds considering the experience and strength of their adversaries. If they continued to hold, however, they would not survive long. Colonel Wilson ordered a withdrawal for the night of July 28th and the battalion marched seven miles to reach an area near Oso-ri and again the next day to Sanch’ong. With reinforcement from local police, A Company was then responsible to hold this line at Sanch’ong while the rest of the battalion moved toward Chinju.
During this period, the 29th Infantry received no supplies from Army headquarters or the 24th Division to which they were attached. They struggled to conserve ammo and procure food from local sources. The heat alone was exhausting – the dry air stifling and the earth dusty, choking everyone on the long marches. Within a week, the regiment was combat tested and in early August the misfit 29th Infantry parted ways with the 24th Division and was transferred to the 35th Infantry as its third battalion and ultimately, their permanent assignment within the 25th Division.
On the southern spur of Sibidang-san heights, the 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry was barely clinging on after fighting for five days when Second Platoon and Weapons Platoon from A Company, 29th Infantry arrived to bolster their left flank and string wire, but ended up joining the fight. It was August 18th – one day before Sybil’s birthday – when Bob went up the hill with 43 men, including Jim Ervi who he had befriended though being twelve years his senior. They had known each other before Okinawa and Jim was even with the Whites on the night of their honeymoon.
The Koreans attacked before dawn with staggering numbers of brown clad soldiers rushing from three sides, pushing the Americans back. On the stark hillside among dry brush and ornamental pear trees, Bob found a soldier whose entrails spilled out of his blown open belly. He was still alive and Bob gathered him up to take him to a medic. On his way down, a close explosion blew Bob off his feet and threw him skyward and tumbling back into the dirt and sunburnt grass.
The next day when Jim Ervi finally made his way off the summit with eight others, he saw White’s body sprawled on the slope.
“God, Lord Jesus, there’s Pop!” He was frightened to see his seasoned friend’s bloody and contused body and quickly slung his rifle to get his sergeant’s dog tags. When he approached Bob, it became evident that he was not actually dead – the blood was mostly someone else’s and when the Sergeant moaned faintly, a wave of relief and hope enveloped Jim. He yelled for a medic, but there were none to reply.
He had to wrestle a live grenade away from White’s hand, which the unconscious sergeant had managed to clutch for the hours he lay alone and even then, still stubbornly gripped it not realizing it was his friend attempting to help. Jim did not know if he meant to use it against the enemy or as a last resort to avoid capture, but Bob had tossed the pin. The tall slender private tossed his sergeant over his shoulder and brought him to the aid station, while Bob mumbled incoherently for the entire walk. It was the last time they saw each other for many months.
The man Sybil saw in the hospital was not the Bob she knew – his eyes were wild and his mental state so poor that he was held in what was basically a strait jacket. His son was so terrified at the sight of his disheveled father, he crawled underneath the hospital bed. His only memory since getting wounded weeks earlier was the flight from Japan to Millington where men were stacked seven high and nurses had to climb on ladders to treat them. There were several other men in the padded room, all wounded and suffering greatly from combat stress. Visits were limited to short ten-minute intervals and soon Sybil had to leave her husband once again.
The rest of 1950 consisted of recovery for Sergeant White – his wounds from August had effectively taken him out of action and he was spared combat for the rest of the war in Korea. Even the brief period he was there he understood it was dramatically different than the war he knew in Europe – the enemy was far removed from the near brethren German soldiers he had fought and did not hesitate to fight and die fanatically; nor did they stop at killing and soldiers witnessed multiple atrocities in July and August 1950. He regretted leaving his men behind, but was thankful to be alive. It was not the end of his career, but he did transfer from infantry to artillery and the family rented an apartment in Duncan outside of Fort Sill where he finished recovering in early 1951. With five other servicemen, they split the thirty-minute drive in Bob’s blue Pontiac throughout the week. The receipt for the car stayed in his going-home uniform for years along with a photo of an Okinawan girl whose family he knew before Korea.
He held the rank of First Sergeant for over fifteen years during which time he returned to Europe twice and Korea once in 1965. His history was highly regarded by those who happened to hear about his exploits – it was not common to find World War II combat veterans still in the ranks after more than twenty years. He went for a first tour in Vietnam as First Sergeant of Service Battery, 6th Battalion, 14th Field Artillery directly out of Fort Sill. On his return, he became one of the first Command Sergeant Majors in the United States Army and returned to Vietnam for a second tour in spring of 1971 with XXIV Corps Artillery. In the year of his retirement, out of any other soldier in the entire Army, he scored highest on his MOS (00Z50) test. He had spent long hours studying for it in hopes of finishing his career with a final great achievement.
And so concluded the career of a most admirable soldier and he retired to a quiet life with Sybil on a 22-acre ranch which he insisted on fencing himself. He had many moments in solitude to recall his days in France and Korea when in mere moments his life changed and his soul transformed. In a moment of doubt, he found God on the battlefield and thereon continued to put others before himself without hesitation and he is remembered for this altruistic quality, not his ability to kill or give no quarter.
David, Allan A., and Norwin E. Austin, editors. Battleground Korea: the Story of the 25th Infantry Division. 1951.
Ent, Uzal W. Fighting on the Brink: Defense of the Pusan Perimeter. Turner Publ., 1998.
Gurley, Frank, editor. 399th In Action: with the 100th Infantry Division. Stuttgarter Vereinsbuchdruckerei Ltd., 1945.
Holliday, Sam C. Forgotten: Ideological Conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Booklogix, 2014.
Mackowiak, Robert C, and Sybil White. “CSM Bob White.” 3 Aug. 2017.
Mackowiak, Robert C, and Sybil White. “CSM Bob White.” 17 Jun. 2018.
Mackowiak, Robert C, and Jim Ervi. “A Company, 29th Infantry in Korea.” 18 June 2018.
United States, Command Reports – 25th Infantry Division, August 1950. Record Group 407: Army-AG Command Reports, 1949-54. National Archives at College Park, MD
United States, Command Reports – 24th Infantry Division, July 1950. Record Group 407: Army-AG Command Reports, 1949-54. National Archives at College Park, MD