Dakota Datebook

Lieutenant Commander Egbert Roth

Monday, December 10, 2012


Egbert Roth was born on this date in 1905 to a German-Russian butcher in Hebron. One of his crew members later said, “He wasn’t very tall, slim built. A very nice-looking man.”1

Roth graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1927, and in 1941 he was commanding the USS Tanager, a mine-sweeper serving in the Philippines. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, and three days later, on his 36th birthday, Egbert Roth earned the prestigious Navy Cross.

His citation reads: Although his command was straddled by enemy Japanese bombs during the air attack on the Navy Yard, Cavite, Philippine Islands, on 10 December 1941, and despite extensive splinter damage to his ship, Lieutenant Commander Roth displayed excellent seamanship and leadership in fighting and maneuvering his ship. His conduct on this occasion enabled him, later, to conduct further missions of strategic importance of a hazardous nature, despite frequent aggressive enemy horizontal and dive bombing attacks…

During the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the Tanager was hit by shore battery fire and the ship sunk off of Corregidor. Commander Roth was captured and held in several Philippine prison camps before he and about eighteen hundred other prisoners were boarded onto the Arisan Maru in October 1944.

The Arisan Maru, one of the infamous Japanese “hell ships,” was diverted south for about ten days to avoid U.S. air and naval attacks. The ship returned to Manila for supplies on October 20th and then joined a large convoy headed for Japan.

The prison ship was not marked to show it held American prisoners, and at about 5 p.m. on October 24th, it was torpedoed and split open by an American ship. The rear section began sinking, so the guards cut the rope ladders into the prisoner holds and abandoned ship. But the prisoners managed to restore the ladders, and almost all of them survived at first. Many swam after their guards, who were being rescued by Japanese destroyers. But they were forced away and left to drown.

Commander Roth and several others held onto some wreckage for several days, but he eventually slipped away, along with at least eight other North Dakotans.

To this day, the destruction of the Arisan Maru is the single greatest loss of American life in a military sinking. Only nine of some eighteen-hundred prisoners survived.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm


1 Interview with author, Kenneth “Swede” Olson. 11 September 2009. Source: Bowen, William. The ARISAN MARU Tragedy. Web: http://www.us-japandialogueonpows.org/Bowen.htm


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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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