“If you don’t think it’s scary being on a beach with Japanese soldiers lurking around, then you don’t understand what we experienced,” said Navy Lt. Jr. Grade David Roth of Fort Wayne.
Roth was on reconnaissance on Leyte beach in the Philippines in October 1944 as part of a major campaign by the Allies to gain control of the islands.
Roth went ashore from their amphibious assault ship with three men for reconnaissance. By the time they had completed the mission and were ready to reboard, the ship had moved away to refuel. They were forced to remain on the island and hide from Japanese troops.
“We had no place to sleep,” he said. “Bombing continued through the night, but we didn’t try to evacuate because there was nowhere to go.” The four seamen kept watch, dozing fitfully on the beach with no food or water until early morning when they safely made it back to their ship.
Roth was born in Fort Wayne in 1922. After graduating from South Side High School in 1940, he attended Indiana University for two years. Deciding it was time to help defend his country during the war, he enlisted in the Navy. Because he had attended college, Roth received a commission as an officer and was enrolled in the V-12 Navy College Training Program. “There was a big push in the Pacific for young officers when the war started,” he said.
Following four months of training at DePauw University in New York, Roth was assigned to the ship LSM-79.
At 300 feet an LST (landing ship, tank) was too big and slow to complete certain tasks while at sea. But at 200 feet and 13 knots (15 mph) an LSM (Landing Ship Medium) was the right size and had the right speed to go where the LST could not.
An LSM could carry 60 men, six tanks and supplies. “Another advantage was the LSM could go 24 hours, or 360 miles, without stopping,” Roth said.
Five officers were assigned to LSM-79, including Roth. He was in charge of supply, gunnery, and communication (codes). “Sometimes I was awakened in the middle of the night to read codes,” he said.
The crew was trained to be at their guns – general quarters – in three minutes. Roth was stationed in the conning, or “conny,” tower at the top of the ship. There, Roth and other officers were in charge of much of the crew’s duties. “No one fired unless we gave the orders,” he said. “I was only 21 years old and that ship’s crew depended on me. Two years earlier, I couldn’t get the family car for a date!”
In April 1945 Roth’s LSM landed on the beach of Amami Oshima six days before the official Allied attack on Okinawa. The Allies planned to use Okinawa as a base of operations for a planned invasion of Japan.
“We picked up 55 Marines who were stranded from an earlier patrol and their radar equipment,” he said. Unfortunately, Japanese radar picked up their presence and kamikaze planes went after the LSM. Only five of the Marines survived. Roth was uninjured.
During the invasion at Okinawa, Roth witnessed the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War during the war. “There were ships as far as one could see,” he said.
Roth’s ship tied alongside the Jubal A. Early, a Liberty ship that they supplied during battle. “We covered the battleship’s location by blowing smoke on it from our generator,” he said, “but that made us the perfect target as we were then visible.”
Japanese kamikaze or suicide planes flew over nightly. “We were under continuous air attack for 40 days,” he said.
When the gun crew of Roth’s LSM shot down a kamikaze plane that passed over the ship, it caused a tremendous explosion. Sailors hit the deck from the concussion. Roth believed the ship had been blown up. “I felt every part of me to see what remained,” he said. Later, Roth realized he sustained hearing loss in his left ear as a result of the explosion.
The 82-day-long battle lasted April 1-June 22, 1945. The ferocity of fighting, intensity of Japanese kamikaze attacks, and the huge number of Allied ships that assaulted the island made it one of the biggest and most well-known battles of the war.
With an estimated 82,000 casualties – 14,000 Allied missing or dead and 77,000 Japanese soldiers – the Battle at Okinawa was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific.
From the conny Roth viewed a gruesome sight – the bodies of many young enemy soldiers, some he guessed still in their teens, lying in the water. “It bothers me to this day to have seen those kids,” he said. “What would their mothers have said?” At night while on watch in the tower he could smell the decomposing flesh across the water. “The stench seemed to float up to me,” he said.
After the Allies had captured Okinawa in June 1945, Roth’s ship fought battles at other islands, including Saipan, Eniwetok, Taipan, Tinian, and Tarawa. “They were small but loaded with enemy soldiers,” he said. “They gave us all they had.”
In September 1945 the Japanese military surrendered, marking an official end to the war. However, not every soldier went home immediately. Roth was made part of the occupational forces and continued to have adventures.
That month typhoons racked the area of Buckner Bay near Okinawa. The scene from the conny tower of the terrific, deadly storm remains etched in Roth’s mind. “The sky was full of horrible clouds, and waves were 40 feet high,” he said. “The winds were devastating and gear flew around. We prayed our stern would hold.”
The crew could not avoid battering five ships, which resulted in enough damage to put the LSM in dry dock.
According to Roth, details about the typhoon were never made public. “The war was over, but the military didn’t want anyone to know the number of lost lives from the typhoon,” he said. He survived another typhoon in October 1945.
Roth served as part of the occupational forces until his discharge in May 1946.
Upon returning to Fort Wayne, he founded a realty company that is today known as Coldwell Banker Roth Wehrly Graber. He retired in 1996.
He and his wife, Peggy, are parents to four children. A son served in the Navy in Vietnam.
Roth wrote a book about his military experiences for his family.