In 1944, Herbert Roebuck was just 16 but ready for adventure. Growing up outside of Tampa, Fla., Roebuck had never left the state, had never seen snow and had never been on a boat bigger than an 8-foot dinghy.
He joined the Merchant Marine and soon sailed to Venice, Italy. He saw snow, waves the terrifying size of mountains and ports of call from Belgium to Chile and “every port on the East and West Coast.”
Back home in the states, he killed time working as a fry cook in Indiana and found himself homeless in the Great Lakes region. But Roebuck missed his sea legs.
So he joined the Marine Corps to see more of the world.
Roebuck, 87 and long retired from active duty in the Marines, has drawn upon his experiences and adventures to co-write a novel with longtime church friend and author Connie Bertelsen Young. The book is titled “Esprit De Corps” or The Spirit of the Corps, the story of a small-town boy who enlists in the Marines “to become the man he longs to be.”
Roebuck, now living in Fresno, spent 20 years in the Marines, starting with boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
“They sent me down to Parris Island boot camp, which was a trip,” Roebuck says. “They unloaded us in an old church in Yemassee (South Carolina) with a barb wire fence around it. A buddy of mine, he had been drinking, and all of a sudden a green sedan showed up. He said, ‘Hey guys, there’s some real ones!’ He started singing the Marine Corps song, and they took him over to the fence, took the bottle from his hand, and threw him over the fence, kicked him a couple times and said, ‘Welcome to Parris Island, son.’ ”
Roebuck never looked back after that day at Parris Island, making lasting friendships and excelling in marksmanship throughout his military career.
“Everything I’ve ever done, people told me I couldn’t do it,” Roebuck says, from driving a semi-truck at 16 to help support his mother, to being a junior sergeant under 10 gunnery sergeants when he came back from Vietnam. He said he was the first of his class to be promoted to master sergeant – ahead of the 10 men who he says wouldn’t have anything to do with him at first.
“One night the first sergeant called me up and told me the master sergeant list had just came out and it was posted by the river where I went fishing. And I said, ‘Well, first sergeant, I’ll probably make it next time,’ and he said no, that’s a direct order, go out there and look at it. I went out there and, lo and behold, I was the only one in the battalion, over all them guys. They wouldn’t even talk to me.”
When he came back from Vietnam in 1966, Roebuck went to recruiter school. He was assigned to recruiting duty in Fresno, where he says he enlisted more than 900 Marines.
Everything I’ve ever done, people told me I couldn’t do it.
Marine Corps Master Sgt. (Ret.) Herbert Roebuck
“I came to Fresno and found a lot of things they weren’t doing,” Roebuck says. So he got a list of every high school in four counties – Madera, Fresno, Kings and Tulare – and sent letters to every high school to encourage students to consider enlisting after graduation. The recruiting station didn’t have an office in Hanford, so he opened one.
“I didn’t offer them anything but a rifle and four years, because I figured the esprit de corps, the Marine Corps, being a part of tradition and everything, that was important enough,” Roebuck says. “Most of the guys that came in wanted an adventure, wanted action, and I gave it to them.”
For his efforts, Roebuck was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal. The commendation noted his success in establishing Fresno as the most successful large recruiting substation within the San Francisco Recruiting Station area. The commendation also noted that during his more than three years in charge in Fresno, from late 1966 through 1969, Roebuck was responsible for recruiting both the Bulldog and All America City platoons.
Roebuck says he considers receiving the Achievement Medal one of the proudest moments of his life: “When they awarded it to me I broke down and cried. What an honor.”
During the ceremony, he recalls, Roebuck talked about his years as a recruiter, what he would tell young men who wanted to enlist, and how he likened himself to evangelist Billy Graham – a man who believed in the product he was selling.
“They wanted to know what Billy’s secret was, what he could teach them,” Roebuck says. “And I told them I’m in the same position – it’s the same thing. I believe in the product I’m selling. I believe in the Marine Corps.”
‘Esprit de Corps’ Available from Sunstone Press, www.sunstonepress.com, $18.95 soft cover, $4.99 ebook
Not that everything he experienced in the Marines was positive. During his tour in Vietnam, Roebuck says, he was exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant used to clear jungle vegetation that Viet Cong hid beneath. The defoliant was later found to be responsible for a variety of health problems in soldiers exposed to it. Roebuck believes the chemical contributed to the skin cancer on his head, and says many friends have died from illnesses blamed on it.
Roebuck dedicated his novel to “the memory of all who died or were disabled from Agent Orange in Vietnam.”
After retiring from active duty, Roebuck drove a school bus and worked as a prison guard. He was married for 56 years to Willie Mae Roebuck (she died in February 2014), and they have two daughters.
But once a Marine, always a Marine.
Above all, Roebuck says, the military taught him discipline, taught him the power of communication and valuing those around him, something that applies to both the military and civilians.
“What instills in them is the ability to work well with others, whether in a business or anywhere. Discipline in the Marine Corps is tough, but when you get out of boot camp, the Marine Corps doesn’t teach you authoritarian; the Marine Corps teaches you persuasion. The people that’s underneath you, treat them like you love them.”
Megan Ginise: 559-441-6614
Veterans Day events
Wednesday, Nov. 11
Fresno Veterans Day Parade
Begins at Tulare and P streets, downtown Fresno, www.fresnovdp.org/route.php. Pre-parade ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m.
Hubbard-Baro Memorial Golf Tournament and Ceremony
Fort Washington Golf & Country Club, 10272 N. Millbrook Ave., Fresno, www.hubbardbarogolf.com, $175, $75 dinner only. 11:30 a.m.
Lemoore Veterans Day Parade
Merced Veterans Day Parade
Porterville Veterans Day Run and Parade
events/details/veterans-day-run-73, $10-$20. 7:15 a.m., parade begins at 10 a.m.
VFW Post 3225 Veterans Day pancake breakfast
Clovis Veterans Memorial District, 808 Fourth St., Clovis, $7. 7-11 a.m.
Saturday, Nov. 14
Visalia Veterans Day Parade