Major General James Milnor Roberts, Jr., was born and raised in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area. Known throughout his life by his middle name, Milnor (or “Mil”) was a direct descendant of Colonel George Gibson, one of George Washington’s commanders at Valley Forge. An only child, his mother Elizabeth Bennett Roberts succumbed to an encephalitis epidemic early in 1934 when Mil was only 15 years old. During the Great Depression young Milnor shoveled coal for 50 cents per ton and later worked as a door-to-door salesman to earn money for college.
Mil’s father, James Milnor Roberts, Sr., a member of the first graduating class of the newly named University of Pittsburgh in 1910, had a long career as a Sales Engineer with Bethlehem Steel and thus knew of Lehigh University’s excellent reputation. So when Mil graduated from Ben Avon High School he enrolled at Lehigh in the fall of 1936 and studied metallurgy.
During his time at Lehigh, Roberts sang in the Glee Club and was a brother of Sigma Chi fraternity; in 1973, he earned its highest honor, the “Significant Sig” medal. Although he never formally finished his B.A. degree via the "comprehensive” examination that was then required, Milnor did receive an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in May of 1940. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Milnor was working as a Sales Engineer for Kennametal in Detroit, Michigan, but he left that job soon after to join war effort.
Roberts served in World War II as a glider infantry officer until he was appointed as Aide-de-Camp to Major General Leonard T. Gerow, Commander of the V Corps of First U.S. Army. On June 6, 1944, he landed on Omaha Beach in the Normandy invasion and subsequently fought in five more campaigns across Europe, including the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge.
Roberts was one of the first American officers to arrive on the scene in April 1945 to rescue survivors held captive in the infamous “Buchenwald” Nazi death camp near Weimar, Germany. Roberts supervised the forced march through that concentration camp of thousands of German civilians who lived in the vicinity and claimed to have had no knowledge of what was happening at the camp. They had been ordered by American military authorities to view the hundreds of victims’ bodies still stacked in the camp as well as to bury the corpses. Roberts was later interviewed for the U.S. National Holocaust Museum’s eyewitness oral history project.
After the war Roberts remained in the Army Reserve. He studied at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and earned certificates from the U.S. Army War College and the National Defense University. In 1953 Milnor became president of Sykes Advertising, Inc., in Pittsburgh, where he conceived, wrote, and directed publicity and sales promotion campaigns for many metals and other industrial companies in Western Pennsylvania.
Simultaneously, Milnor rose to positions of greater responsibility in the Army Reserve. In 1968 Roberts was promoted to Brigadier General and became the first Commanding General of the 99th Army Reserve Command in Pittsburgh.
In 1970 General Roberts was recalled to active duty and appointed by President Nixon to serve as Deputy Chief of the Army Reserve. In 1971 he was promoted to the rank of Major General and appointed by the President to a new role—this time, to serve in the Pentagon as Chief of the U.S. Army Reserve, a position he held until 1975 when he retired after 35 years of Army service to become Executive Director of the Reserve Officers Association (ROA) in Washington. He held the ROA position until 1984 and worked with President Ronald Reagan in efforts to end the Cold War and to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”).
During his extensive military career, Roberts received the Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit; Bronze Star Medal (for heroism in Normandy); French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star; Czechoslovakian Military Cross of 1939; and the Bronze Arrowhead for participation in the D-Day Invasion. In 1984 he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Public Service Medal; the Air Force Exceptional Service Medal; and the Coast Guard Distinguished Public Service Medal.
Roberts was married to Virginia Sykes “Ginger” Roberts for 48 years until her death in 1995, together raising six children (two of whom died in infancy) and eventually blessed with eight grandchildren. Roberts married the former Priscilla Bruce Thompson in 1995.
Over his lifetime, Roberts was a featured speaker on national defense issues before hundreds of audiences in the United States and abroad, and appeared on television and radio programs, including ABC's Nightline. With Priscilla he hosted a weekly radio program titled "The Greatest Generation" that was broadcast over Radio America and the Armed Forces Radio Network. In 2004, Milnor and Priscilla co-founded the annual Memorial Day Parade by Veterans in Washington, D.C. They were active in numerous patriotic and lineal societies.
Throughout his career, Roberts held leadership positions across industry, non-profit, military, and government organizations. Through his work with the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees), he was selected as one of 100 Outstanding Young Leaders of Pittsburgh in the early 1950s and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He served as an officer in the Young Republicans of Allegheny County, PA, and, with his wife Ginger, raised funds for the Pittsburgh-based American Wind Symphony Orchestra that performs on a moveable river barge. Ginger and Milnor were founding members of an Episcopal Church congregation in the Pittsburgh area, and he served on its vestry for many years.
In his later years General Roberts was co-founder and served as president of the National Historic Intelligence Museum, was president of the Free Afghanistan Committee, director of Coalition for Sound Money, and a director of the American Security Council. Roberts also served as President of the American Coalition for Competitive Trade and other organizations advocating a strong defense for America. He was Director and Congressional Liaison for the Space Transportation Association. He served as a Director and Advisor of the World War II Veterans Committee, leading discussions and conducting seminars for hundreds of school children, college students and other groups regarding the invasion of Normandy and WWII. Roberts served as a Panel Moderator at several Conservative Political Action Committee (C-PAC) conferences and was Chairman of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Society.
In March 2009 General Roberts was buried with full military honors alongside his first wife in Arlington National Cemetery.