By Con Marshall
A Gordon man has a chilling story that he’s finally willing to share some 67 years after the fact.
Don Roth, then a U.S. Army 1st lieutenant, was assigned to participate in the execution of numerous Japanese military officers for their atrocities in the Philippines after World War II.
It’s not something he’s proud of, but he was following orders or, as he puts it, “I was just doing my duty.”
Roth, who is 92, but still sharp both mentally and physically, has not previously shared his secret with anyone except family members and close friends. “I haven’t talked much about it, but I’ve never forgotten it,” he confided.
Those he helped execute included the most notorious of them all—Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who was the commander of the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippines and was hanged. After that, Roth was in charge of firing squads that carried out more executions.
All had been found guilty of horrible brutality that resulted in the deaths of more than a million Filipinos during the war, including 100,000 civilians during what later would be known as “the Manila Massacre” in February and early March 1945.
Gen. Yamashita was the first of the many Japanese military leaders who were put to death at Laguna Prison Camp, 30 miles south of Manila. He was hanged on Feb. 23, 1946. Roth was the guard who sat with him prior to the execution and then walked him and a priest (believed to be a Buddhist) up the 13 steps to the gallows.
Roth remembers: “While we were sitting and waiting for everything to happen he told me, ‘we both had our jobs to do.’ He showed no hatred. He spoke pretty good English and he also could write it, although he preferred to have a translator do it.”
Roth added that the execution took place at 3:02 a.m. and was done in strict secrecy, primarily to prevent an uprising by the approximately 10,000 Japanese soldiers, the last remnant of the Japanese Army in the Philippines who had been rounded up and confined at the huge prison camp.
Immediately after the general’s execution, two more “war criminals” were hung that morning. One of them was an Army colonel and the other was a civilian interpreter who was convicted of torturing Filipino civilians.
Roth and his wife, DeLaine, have a yellowed copy of a newspaper clipping about the general’s death. The couple had been married a year when Roth was sent to the Philippines in late 1945. The Japanese had surrendered and the treaties were signed by the time Roth’s company arrived, but there were still many issues to be settled.
“I didn’t get in on the fighting, but got involved in plenty of other things,” Roth said.
Several weeks after Yamashita’s death, Roth was put in charge of several firing squads that carried out more executions. The Roths still have some of the typewritten orders he received. One, dated 1 April 1946, states, “1st Lt. Donald I. Roth is detailed as Commander of the Special Perimeter Guard (firing squad). The perimeter guard will be composed of 8 enlisted men selected by Lt. Roth.”
Roth said those facing the firing squad were handcuffed and blindfolded. A target was placed over their hearts. One of the rifles would contain a blank, but the others were loaded.
He also gave the orders, “Ready, aim, fire.”
He recalls an instance in which all of the bullets except one hit the target. There also was a bullet hole between the eyes of the victim, a colonel who had allegedly been a leader in what was called “the rape of the Philippines.”
“We pretty well knew who had fired the shot that missed the target,” Roth recalls. “One of the young men was pretty angry. His brother had died in the war after he was wounded and captured and the Japanese didn’t take care of him. We suspected he was the one who missed the target, but we didn’t do anything about it. We understood how he felt.”
Roth said numerous American GIs also were incarcerated at the prison when he arrived. When asked why they were in prison, Roth answered, “For doing just about everything they shouldn’t do.”
He said that included going AWOL, fighting and stealing. He knows that at least two GIs were executed. One had killed a prostitute and another had stolen a large amount of money that was being transported to the prison camp.
The camp, Roth said, had been an agricultural college that the Japanese had “pretty well ruined” when they invaded the Philippines and during the three years they occupied the islands before the combination of American and Filipino forces regained control.
During his long life, Roth has done many other things he’d rather talk about than he would his time in the Philippines. Most of them involve his western heritage.
He grew up on a ranch in Hayes County and began working on ranches in the Merriman area in the summers while he was attending the Nebraska School of Agriculture, a high school at Curtis. He was initially employed by Eva Bowring, who was appointed by President Eisenhower to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1954 following the death of Dwight Griswold.
In the summer of 1942 while he was working on Ed Belsky’s Pioneer Hereford Ranch west of Merriman and just prior prior to his senior year at the University of Nebraska, he met DeLaine McCray, a Merriman native who had been crowned the Chadron State College homecoming queen the previous fall.
“We were pinned in two weeks and I asked her to marry me six weeks after we met,” Don said with a grin. “Things went pretty fast after we got started.”
The couple had to wait to get married, however, because he was in ROTC at the university and was obligated to attend officer candidate’s school as soon as he graduated. They finally tied the knot on Dec. 18, 1943, a couple of days after he received his commission at Fort Sill, Okla.
Following his tour of duty in the Philippines, Roth was the herdsman for nine years for George Heinz’s registered Hereford operation located on the famed Pratt and Ferris Ranch at Henry, Neb.
In the mid-1950s, the family moved to California, where he initially was a representative for the American Hereford Journal and then fed cattle for several well-heeled Hereford ranches. During their final 18 years in California, he was a brand inspector.
“The day after I retired we moved back to this area,” Roth said. The couple has lived in Gordon since 1984.
For many years, particularly when he was a brand inspector, Roth kept busy while waiting by the phone for his next assignment by braiding rawhide into western items such as ropes, hackamores, breast collars and quirts.
He usually obtained his own rawhide through stockmen who notified him that a critter had died and he was welcome to get the hide. After he’d removed the hair and soaked the hide in a solution of homemade soap and lime for about a week, he said he could braid a rope (officially known as a reatano) in about 30 hours.
“I often made a hundred dollars a week off my hobby,” he said. “I made most of it in California and sold most of what I had left before we moved here. I used that money to help buy this house in Gordon.”