94-year-old World War II veteran shares his story
Sgt. James Routh, Jr., a 94-year-old World War II veteran who served in the 50th Ordnance Ammunition Company, 71st Ordnance Ammunition Group of the U.S. Army in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) from Aug. 11, 1941 to Oct. 1, 1945, has written a historical gem – a World War II journal from his unique perspective as a supply and communications sergeant.
“Most of my stories are from my perspective as a socially conscious artist and all the things I saw going on in the world at the time,” said Routh, a Haywood County resident in the Edwards Cove community for 30 years.
As a first-year art student at the prestigious Art Students League of New York (currently a thriving art school located on West 57th Street in New York City), Routh cleaned in exchange for tuition.
“With a big push broom, I started at the top of this historic building and I swept the league from the top to the bottom and ended up on 57th Street,” he recalled.
After four years at the league plus a year working as an artist within the Julius Rosenwald Fund, he became increasingly concerned about what was going on in the world so he joined the U.S. Army.
“I detested army,” Routh wrote. “Conformity is the antithesis of creativity. Writers, artists, composers, astro-physicists don’t willingly wear uniforms or sing in someone else’s choir. A realist and artist, I accepted military conformity as a way to fight fascism I hated even more and on the eleventh of August 1941, joined the regular Army of the United States.”
“Four months of training were over. Where were we going? When? How? Rumors began in orderly rooms where corporals knew something we didn’t know…One day we too were ready to go. Immunized, equipped, we were still in the dark. We waited, going through daily routine, finally face to face with the unknown we had trained for and guessed about and joked about. Suddenly no one talked about it at all. We talked long and loud about other things and big games of blackjack and poker started in barracks and recreation rooms. The rattle of dice became a continuous sound, a blanket of cigarette and cigar smoke lay thick in the air and beer cans piled up in corners and no one picked them up. We were going to war and we didn’t want to think about it anymore…Early one morning we moved out. I stood with the rest of the company in an open space by a railroad siding, stamping my feet to keep them warm in the sandy soil of South Carolina,” he continued in his journal.
“I was in Columbia, S.C. during that time and we were getting ready to go to Iceland,” noted Routh, adding that he eventually also traveled all over England, France and Belgium during World War II.
Routh recounts a frantic moment from the historical “Battle of the Bulge.”
“My Colonel Herbert Dulee said, ‘We are retreating tomorrow morning – we can’t sustain our position!’ so we moved into a castle looking house in Belgium and set up the radios into a big room,” he recalled.
Because he couldn’t make contact with the radios, Routh learned to use the teletype machine in a desperate attempt to communicate and typed, “We have to have you, we need you, please get your superior.”
“I was aware of someone standing behind me and when I turned around I knew he was a general officer because I saw the stars on his shoulder,” said Routh.
More than the stars, however, Routh recalls the huge tears in his eyes when he said, “Somebody has to help me – I don’t know where my division is.”
Later on, Routh unfortunately found out that the kind general’s division was completely wiped out during the “Battle of the Bulge.”
“That was a real tragic moment in the war for me and something I can’t forget,” expressed Routh.
Another day close to the German town of Remagen where the now infamous “Battle of the Bridge to Remagen” happened on the Rhine River, Routh came upon an old library where a soldier had dumped all of the 18th century library books into a grease pit to make room to store military supplies.
“I just couldn’t believe what I saw and I noticed a small book lying on the edge of the fire so I picked it up and stuck it in my pocket,” said Routh.
It was a 1600s, early gothic-type book with a handmade leather binding. Routh hung onto the salvaged book throughout the war and kept it until several years ago when he sent the book to be included in a German museum near Remagen where he found it.
A lighter story in Routh’s journal tells about the rare, sunny day he spent in Paris.
He was told he would be stationed in Versailles, a suburb of Paris, for a few days but, Paris was still held by the Germans at the time, said Routh, and all military vehicles had to detour around the city.
He wanted to see Paris badly, so he stopped a big truck with laborers on the back and hid under a tarp on the back of the truck. “Thankfully, the military police didn’t poke around in the back of the truck,” he remembered.
The first thing he saw when he jumped off the back of the truck was the famous Arc de Triomphe in the heart of Paris, a priceless moment for this artist.
On this beautiful calm, sunny day, he walked into the tomb of Napoleon, visited museums, ate his military rations while sitting along the Seine River, strolled the boulevards and listened to a French woman talk about how people in Paris hated the Germans.
“I also sat on a park bench and talked to an old man who told me he was a colonel in World War I and even rolled up his pant leg and showed me a scar from the war,” said Routh. “He was so good to me and told me all about Paris.”
While Routh didn’t realize it that day on the Paris park bench, he would also pass down war stories just like the kind retired colonel did for him.
After Routh boarded the Queen Elizabeth II and came home to the United States on Oct. 1, 1945, World War II would forever be imprinted in his memory.
“To this day at 94 years old, I still wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and think of a story about the war and want to write it down,” he said.
Routh’s World War II journal is on file at the Waynesville branch of the Haywood County Public Library. For more information, call 452-5169.