Hal Roth dies; helped other POWs during WWII
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Hal Roth, who died this week at age 89, played down his exploits in the Army during World War II.
He landed on a beach in Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion to retake Europe from the Nazis. Weeks later, German troops captured him. He spent 10 months as a prisoner of war.
He escaped but returned to bring back food for his starving comrades. He repeated that more than once.
An American fighter strafed the train on which he and other prisoners were held. He was hit with shrapnel in the leg and neck, causing injuries that left him grimacing in pain at times for the rest of his life.
He survived it all to become a member of a distinguished but dwindling military fraternity: the POWs. In 2011, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
“I don't feel special,” he told the Post-Dispatch at the time. “I did what I had to.”
Harold “Hal” Roth died Tuesday (March 5, 2013) at Delmar Gardens West in Chesterfield. He was diagnosed in November with bone cancer and, more recently, with congestive heart failure, his family said Wednesday.
Mr. Roth made his money introducing plastic plants to St. Louis before retiring to Florida, where he became commander of an ex-POW chapter. There, he helped push a law through the legislature to eliminate real estate taxes for former prisoners of war.
He later played a role in getting a similar measure approved in Missouri.
Mr. Roth was a Leap Year baby, born on Feb. 29, 1924. He was reared in south St. Louis, where his parents operated a tailor shop. They lost the business during the Great Depression.
He attended Hadley Technical High School and built gun turrets for American bombers at Emerson Electric. He was 19 when he volunteered for military service on Oct. 13, 1943.
“My buddies were all going,” he explained.
On June 6, 1944, he was among the 160,000 troops who landed on D-Day. He was a radioman with the Army's 1st Division at Omaha beach.
Two months later, his unit was following Gen. George S. Patton's tanks when Mr. Roth and others were cut off and captured by a contingent of Germans.
The Germans kept them on the move, away from advancing Allied forces. They walked or rode in livestock railroad cars.
“There was no food, really,” he said, and he dropped from 175 to 120 pounds.
He remembered sneaking away from camp on occasion to trade cigarettes from Red Cross parcels for food bartered from civilians. He returned to share with his fellow prisoners.
When Allied forces closed in, Mr. Roth recalled how his German captors fled, leaving the prisoners free to wander into American lines.
Mr. Roth received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with three Bronze Battle Stars and other awards.
Back in St. Louis, he became a “freelance shop window decorator” at first. He and his wife adopted two children and opened a gift shop before discovering a new and more lucrative venture.
In 1955, when plastic plants were mostly unknown, they met a man in Chicago who showed the couple how to make them. They were “fantastically realistic,” Mr. Roth said in 1971.
They installed bushes in front of factories and rented plastic vineyards as decorations for debutante parties. “The most important thing about plastic foliage is the maintenance savings,” Mr. Roth explained.
Mr. Roth's first wife died of cancer and he retired to Florida at age 50. In the early 1980s, he met Shirley Weisman from St. Louis. He said he would marry her —but not unless she stopped smoking, their family recalled.
Mr. Roth wrote poetry, painted pictures and worked in elder hostels before he and his wife moved back to St. Louis in 2005.
He mentioned the Florida law to Allen Sabol, an ex-prisoner of war who lives in University City. Sabol won approval for a similar measure in 2010.
“Ex-prisoners of war do not pay real estate taxes because Hal Roth gave me that lead,” Sabol said.
When asked if he was proud of his military service, Mr. Roth would point to the front of his baseball cap. It showed a silhouette of a prison camp fence and guard tower, a menacing American bald eagle and the words “America Remembers.”
“I wear this for dinner and mornings for breakfast,” he said.
A graveside service will be held with full military honors at noon Friday at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, 650 White Road, Chesterfield.
Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Shirley Roth of Creve Coeur; a son, Michael Roth of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; a daughter, Nancy Darley of Houston; two step-sons, Dr. Mark Comensky of Nevada, Mo., and Larry Comensky of St. Louis County; a step-daughter, Janis Comensky of Overland; five grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.