Veteran recalls World War II adventures, camera included, upon 67th anniversary of Iwo Jima
Presumably for security purposes, U.S. Navy sailors during World War II were not permitted to carry or use cameras on their ships.
Fortunately for Harlan "Hal" Roth of Beaverton, a carpenter's mate second-class petty officer, his superior, Capt. James Matthews, was as interested in documenting Pacific Theater action as was Roth. Matthews even let his underling go ashore to scrounge photographic supplies.
"The ship was too small to warrant the complement of a darkroom," Roth says from his ranch-style house in the Vose neighborhood. "I found a photographer and got a whole bunch of stuff from him. Oh, the captain wanted me to have those pictures, as illegal as it was."
Looking at his extensive collection of black-and-white images from his service on the USS Lancewood - including an iconic shot with Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima island looming behind Roth - even those less enamored of military history can agree the violation of Navy protocol was well worth the risk.
Roth, a Beaverton resident since 1971, is as happy to show off his photographic souvenirs as he is to share stories about the war. Monday, March 26, marked the 67th anniversary of U.S. Marines securing Iwo Jima from the Empire of Japan.
Roth, 87, arrived on the Lancewood at Iwo Jima with the decisive monthlong battle fully engaged and remained until the island was secure. As a Navy seaman, he was spared deadly land combat, but his adventures, close calls and other memories of the war that helped shape his life are numerous and vivid.
He's neither romantic nor hardened about his war experiences, which started in 1944 with World War II in full swing. Like many of his generation, he takes a pragmatic view of his role in that dire-but-pivotal period of history.
"We just did what we were told to do," he says. "Sometimes we had fun doing it, and sometimes we got scared doing it."
Growing up in western Nebraska, where he worked on his father's farm and filling station, Roth would have joined the military before his June 1943 draft had it not been for his parents.
"I tried desperately to join the Navy in 1942, but they wouldn't sign for me," Roth, then 17, recalls of his folks. "We were already in the war. They didn't want their boy to get shot at. I pleaded with them."
Finally, Roth loaded up his 1934 Harley Davidson and headed west to Denver, where he first landed a job at a Buick dealership -- and met his future fianceé, Garnice.
Man on a mission
When the draft came calling, Roth chose the Navy. After boot camp in 1943, he landed on Treasure Island in the 12th Naval District, delivering high security-clearance mail around the San Francisco Bay via motorcycle or station wagon.
Assigned to the USS Lancewood, he learned, ironically, that lumber used in the ship's construction came from Silverton, the Oregon town where his mother's family had settled and would later figure prominently in his life.
"I was having a ball in the Navy," he says of the months he spent laying net tenders across the entrance to San Francisco Bay. "I was able to do all the finer things there. Then we detached and headed overseas."
One harrowing afternoon in February 1944, with rain and snow squalls reducing visibility to barely a quarter mile, four planes appeared to bear down on the Lancewood and other nearby battleships. Roth joined in on firing at what he and fellow seamen assumed were enemy planes. Tragically, the planes' "friend of foe" signaling systems were disengaged, so Roth had no reason to doubt radio reports of enemy planes.
It turned out the flyers were, as Roth says, "on a mission of mercy trying to find five (American) guys who were shot down earlier."
"I felt terrible about that," he recalls of the three U.S. soldiers killed. "I was despondent for almost a week."
The case of mistaken identity also taught the young man a crucial lesson of warfare.
"I suddenly realized we could get shot at by one of our own units," he says. "In this crazy, mixed up mess we're in, anything could happen, and I shouldn't go around with guilt the rest of my life."
In his downtime, Roth -- with the encouragement of his protocol-defying captain -- created a film enlarger to complement his Argus C3, an early 35-millimeter camera.
Remarkably, the makeshift wooden enlarger, the camera and scads of the prints Roth created -- including the classic shot of him framed by Mount Suribachi -- are all, to this day, alive and well at Roth's house.
During a 1998 Pacific cruise with Garnice, Roth decided to recreate the shot from the deck of the cruise ship.
"I was making prints, and I thought, 'Hey, we're going a on a cruise and we're gonna make a bypass of Iwo Jima. I wonder if the ship can get to where we reach this point?' " he wondered, deciding to take along a print of the old 8-by-10 for comparison.
Roth got the shot he'd dreamed of, but as word got out amongst his fellow cruisers, it came with a price: sudden minor celebrity.
"That morning, we were steaming past Iwo Jima, and I was on the top deck," he recalls with relish. "Everybody on that ship found out about the guy with the 61-year-old picture. They were all wanting me to hold the picture."
Street of dreams
Fortunately for Roth, while the USS Lancewood crew was repairing torpedo nets on a remote atoll near Guam in 1945, the Japanese surrendered. While his beloved ship was mothballed, Roth's life as a civilian had just begun.
"Other than family and things like that, it was one of the highlights of my life," he says of his Navy experience in WW II. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
Discharged on April 1, 1946, in Bremerton, Wash., Roth returned to Denver, where he promptly reclaimed his old car and got married. Taking Garnice, the bride he'd met years earlier at the Buick dealership in Denver, to the West Coast, the couple settled in Silverton before moving to the Portland area. They went on to have two children, five grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren.
As a deputy fire marshal for the Beaverton Fire Department, his final job before his 1990 retirement, Roth was charged with coordinating street names for emergency vehicle access. In this role, he managed, covertly, to pass on his Navy legacy to Beaverton via the Lantana Meadows subdivision.
"Five streets were to be named for flowering shrubs," he says of the christening.
Roth's choice, which remains to this day?
"Lancewood Street," he says with a satisfied grin.