France bestows prestigious Legion of Honor medal upon South Bay man

While crouching in a ditch in Germany in early 1945, with machine gun bullets hitting railroad tracks inches above his head, Irvin Roth wasn’t thinking about how he would win his second Silver Star for his actions in rescuing a wounded tanker that day. He was thinking, “What am I doing out here?”

In May, Roth, who has lived in the Bay Area for most of his life, was awarded the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony at the French Consul General’s residence in San Francisco. He had reacted with surprise when his son David applied through the Consulate for the decoration, given to people who have greatly helped France. The list of honorees includes an unknown number of Americans, anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds, as well as a handful of American Jews.

Irvin Roth in the early 1940s

“It’s a beautiful medal and I’m very proud of it,” said Roth, 91, a resident of Sunnyvale. “I’m very proud of having helped free France.”

The road to that ditch began in September of 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor. Prompted by the fall of France and by stories of poorly trained Americans being hurled into combat in World War I, Roth and a group of Jewish friends from his hometown of San Francisco joined the Army National Guard.

“Another motivating thing for me was the fact that I was Jewish and I wanted to serve in combat,” he said. “[There was] lots of anti-Semitism in that time. [Charles] Lindbergh made a speech on the radio saying this was not our war, that we were getting in under pressure from the British and the Jews. I wanted to prove that the Jews were taking their oath.”

After completing his training at Camp San Luis Obispo, Roth was sent to Officer Candidate School in mid-1942, despite protesting to his commanding officer. “I was a staff sergeant at that time, which was pretty high,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a second lieutenant in the infantry. My commanding officer said, ‘You didn’t understand me. You will volunteer for OCS.’”

Roth became the commander of Company I in the 114th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 44th Infantry Division. By this time, Roth had a different attitude toward being an infantry officer.

“I wanted to go into combat because I wanted to erase the misconception that all the Jewish men were in the quartermaster or supply and I wanted to be sure that I was in combat as an infantry officer,” he said. Initially worried that the war would be over before his unit joined the fight, Roth and the rest of the 44th Division first encountered the enemy in November of 1944, in France’s Vosges Mountains.

Months of hard fighting followed. Roth’s unit was assigned to stop German counteroffensive in Alsace in January of 1945. He was leading his company in an attack toward some woods, and German shelling kept driving his men back with heavy casualties. A shell fragment wounded Roth, cutting open his cheek. “I hadn’t shaved for a while and the blood was pouring down my cheek,” he said. “I looked really masculine, like the Marlboro man.”

Despite his wound, Roth refused to be evacuated and continued the attack. His superior officers awarded him his first Silver Star for his actions.

Irvin Roth stands next to his collection of military medals; the Legion of Honor medal is not pictured. photo/eliot storch

Throughout the war, Roth focused on his Judaism. “I became much more aware of my Judaism in the Army than I had been in San Francisco,” he said. His family of Reform Jews went to Congregation Sherith Israel, and while in the service Roth made it a point to observe all the holidays and attend services. Some Jewish soldiers, he said, tried to hide their religion for fear of being killed if captured by the Germans. Roth proudly wore his dog tags with the “H” for “Hebrew” on them, as well as a mezuzah. “I was determined not to be cowed by that,” he said.

Roth’s unit didn’t liberate any concentration camps, but they did liberate a prisoner of war camp at Bad Orb, where the German guards had ignored international law on the treatment of prisoners and forced many prisoners to labor with little food.

“That was a very moving situation,” Roth said. Despite the horrors of the camp, Roth had no hatred for individual German soldiers. “For me, I saw them as a block preventing us from winning the war,” he said. “The SS divisions and higher ranking Nazis, that’s a different story, of course.”

After the war ended, Roth met and married an English woman named Maureen, and they have been together for 63 years. He earned his undergraduate degree from Occidental College and then a Ph.D. from Stanford. He remained in the Army Reserve until retirement in 1980, teaching infantry tactics and intelligence over the summers. During the rest of the year, Roth taught British history and Western civilization at Foothill College, as well as the confirmation class at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

Reflecting on almost 40 years of military service, Roth looked toward his wife. “I have no regrets because of the rewards that I got,” he said. “I’m very proud of all of the decisions I made.”