Veteran recalls D-Day, life as a prisoner of war

World War II Veteran and former POW Hal Roth. May 18, 2011. Photo by Bryan Schraier.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

On a summer day in 1944, Harold “Hal” Roth found himself consumed by an unusual thought as he was being led up a rutted cow path at rifle point by German troops in the town of Laval, France.

Throw away your dog tags.

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“I was petrified as I was walking,” said the 86-year-old. “Would they pick it up? Would they not pick it up?”

The decision was no fleeting impulse but a pragmatic instinct that came from the realities of his experience as a kid growing up on St. Louis’s South Side, where Roth remembered being in a fight almost daily as other youngsters tried to bully him because he was Jewish.

His faith was stamped on his dog tags. He recalled the fate of other Jews taken prisoner.

“There were about seven of them in that stalag,” Roth remembered. “Soon they were gone. I found out later from one of them that they went to a stone quarry to dig and do terrible work.”

As Roth, a Creve Coeur resident, recounts his own experiences during the war, one finds they were only marginally less unpleasant. At age 19, he came across the English Channel and onto Omaha Beach with the second wave of troops on D-Day but in occupied Europe he’d pass more time in captivity than in combat. Taken prisoner on the first day of August, he’d spend the remainder of the conflict as a POW in France, Austria and Germany. During that period Roth kept a diary hidden in his jacket wrapped in a shirt. That journal, depicting his experiences in fresh, lively prose, is now on display at the National Prisoner-of-War Museum in Andersonville, Ga., and excerpts are part of a collection of WWII information from a Channel 9 documentary at the Missouri Historical Society.

Roth himself won a Bronze Star for his actions before his capture. It’s hardly his only honor. He has a list of accolades including a Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, Victory Medal, Jubilee Medal of Honor as well as a European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with three bronze battle stars. He is presently under consideration for the French Legion of Honor, that nation’s highest award.

Roth recalls well the day he was taken prisoner. Part of a fast-moving advance atop a jeep where he admits he made a good target for snipers, he and several fellow soldiers found themselves staring down a number of German troops during an intense firefight across the town. They had underestimated the Nazis’ numbers.

“We thought maybe there were half a dozen and we were going to bring them in,” he said. “We didn’t bring them in. They brought us in.”

After becoming a POW, Roth said hunger was a frequent problem. It was nearing the end of the war and the guards often didn’t have enough to feed even themselves. Sometimes Roth would end up in town trying to trade cigarettes or soap with local Germans for something to eat. Supplies could also be acquired from bombed out rail cars or trucks destroyed in air raids.

Either way, it was better than the rations they got otherwise.

“It wasn’t food,” he said bluntly. “It was some kind of soup. Maybe there’d also be a small crust of bread that had already gotten spoiled.”

Despite being able to venture into town, he said there was no use trying to escape since, without maps or a working knowledge of the area, it would have been futile. He wouldn’t know where to go. Sometimes he was put on work detail filling bomb craters. Later, he spent some time as a picker on an Austrian potato farm. He said the family there was friendly and treated him well.

“They had a son who came back while we were working on the farm that had been wounded,” he said. “He had had some harrowing things happen to him that I remember.”

Roth said many of the Germans he interacted with simply wanted the war to be over. Soon they would get their wish. As German defenses began their final collapse, Roth knew when the Allies were on their way.

“All the guards changed their uniforms, threw them in the stream,” he remembered of his German captors. “That’s why I went out. I wasn’t worried too much about being fired at.”

Not that the danger was over. Roth was in a remote area at the time and said he saw many German troops coming out of the mountains. They barely knew their nation was losing the war. In one instance, he remembers passing by a group loading a truck. He hoped none of them would notice him.

“I just walked by slowly,” he said. “I was waiting for a bullet in the back.”

It never came. Eventually, Roth would happen upon two American officers having sandwiches.

Upon returning to civilian life, Roth said it was difficult at times. It could be hard to make friends and he rarely talked about his experiences as a POW. He gave his diary to his mother to keep.

Being interviewed last week, he noted that he hasn’t talked extensively about it even to Shirley, his wife of 28 years.

“This is the first time she’s hearing much of this,” he said.

Roth did express himself through the medium of art. An avid painter since childhood, the walls of his home contain many of his creations. He also painted “The Silent Table,” now on display at the Soldier’s Memorial Military Museum downtown. An artistic portrayal of a ceremony commemorating the struggles of POWs, it includes many symbolic elements such as a white tablecloth representing the purity of youth, a lemon marking the bitter fate of the POW, salt representing a family’s tears and a rose showing faith in the return of a loved one.

“He even incorporated the telegrams his mom got when he was missing,” said Paul Dillon, a next of kin member and commander of the St. Louis Chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War. “Also, there is a replica of the telegram his parents got notifying them that he was a prisoner of war.”

Dillon said, with hundreds of WWII soldiers dying daily, it’s vital to remember the people who pushed back the Nazi advance. He calls Roth an “American hero.”

“With the 66th anniversary of D-Day coming up, I don’t think there are very many veterans who came ashore and landed that fateful day,” he said. “Hal is one of them – so he belongs to a pretty select group.”

Roth hasn’t stopped fighting for that group. In Florida, he helped spearhead a campaign to exempt disabled former POWs from property taxes. It was the inspiration for a similar successful effort here in Missouri. The measure was approved by voters late last year.

Faith Comensky, Roth’s daughter-in-law, said she was happy to have had the opportunity to contact the Jewish Light and help bring his story to public attention. “He is an awesome human being and this recognition is long overdue,” she said.

As for Roth himself, he has a simple message.

“No more wars,” he said.