Opinion Columns & Blogs

After 66 years, he’s gotta have heart

It seems pretty simple, cut and dried actually: An American veteran of World War II was wounded in action and America — the government and the people he fought for — owe him the honor of a Purple Heart.

Yet Atascadero resident John Roza, at age 92, has been denied that tribute since he was wounded 66 years ago this month. Why?

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If the name Slapton Sands doesn’t ring a bell, welcome to the club. After the snafu that Allied forces ran into in its waters and shoreline, it’s been called one of the best-kept secrets of World War II.

Located on the southwest coast of England south of Dartmouth, Slapton Sands near Devon is about 30,000 acres that was inhabited by some 3,000 people in the early 1940s. Because it resembled the coast of Normandy where American soldiers were going to land at Utah and Omaha beaches on June 6, 1944, it was decided that invasion training would take place there.

Toward that end, residents (sworn to secrecy), livestock and personal belongings were evacuated by December 1943 with invasion practice set for late April under the code name Exercise Tiger.

It’s believed by historians that the Germans picked up increased chatter between the British and Americans and sent two German E-boat flotillas numbering nine PT boat-type vessels to Slapton Sands during the exercise.

With British and American naval teams on different radio frequencies amid other screw-ups, military historians think that’s how the torpedo boats got through the Allied defensive perimeter.

After the smoke had cleared, the E-boats had sunk two landing craft filled with men, as well as a landing craft tank filled with machinery. They then fired rockets at the beach.

It’s also believed that British ships offshore shelled the beach as part of a training-under-live fire exercise.

In the final tally, 749 American soldiers and 197 U.S. Navy men perished. One of the wounded on the beach was John Roza.

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The son of a Portuguese Azores immigrant, John Roza was born in a small house shaded by a eucalyptus gum tree in Baywood Park on Feb. 24, 1918. He remembers milking cows on Louis Sinsheimer’s Edna and See Canyon ranches as a young man. He later went on to own San Luis-based trucking companies and a boat business. In short, if you cut John Roza, he bleeds our county.

After enlisting in the U.S. Navy, John was assigned to the USS Thomas Jefferson, amphibious warfare ship APA 30. As a motor machinist mate, first class, his duty was to be one of the first sets of boots on invasion beaches, directing troops to color-coordinated landing sites.

As such, he managed to miraculously miss getting hit in five successful landings in places as disparate as Italy, France and Okinawa. But the hyper-secret training mission of Exercise Tiger at Slapton Sands proved different, giving him wounds to his right shoulder and leg. (Despite his injuries, he was on Normandy’s Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.)

“They told us nothing was to be said (of the disaster at Slapton Sands) or there would be a court-martial,” he explains. “For another 45 to 50 years, nothing was said about it.

“There were a lot of injuries and death; they just made holes in the ground and buried them there. There was a lot of secret stuff going on.”

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Indeed, there was a blackout on the snafu at Slapton Sands. There’s a school of thought that the government covered up the event for fear of looking foolish and that senior Navy heads would roll if the story came to light.

Another theory is that, yes, no one was supposed to say a word about what happened for fear of compromising D-Day — which holds water until one gets to the longevity of the blackout, which lasted decades.

And there’s a third speculation about the secrecy involved: People in the know were dispersed and just forgot about it.

That’s the position of Charles B. MacDonald, whose account can be found in the Department of the Navy’s Naval Historical Center’s archives.

Listing numerous books that included the incident, MacDonald wrote that Slapton Sands “was simply one of those cruel happenstances of war … orders went out imposing the strictest secrecy on all who knew or might learn of the tragedy, including doctors and nurses who treated the survivors … Nobody ever lifted that order of secrecy.”

And that’s probably why John Roza fell through the cracks of being listed as wounded in action, why there is no record of his being wounded at Slapton Sands, why he wasn’t honored with a Purple Heart medal. The doctors and nurses who treated him aboard the USS Thomas Jefferson most probably didn’t file anything about his injuries because of strict secrecy as to casualties.

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Atascadero residents Tim Hale and Chuck Ward, members of the Marine Corps League No. 680, are among two of many who are fighting for recognition of those veterans who have been lost or wounded in battle. Toward that end, the Marine Corps League and others are working with Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s office to ensure that John Roza receives his rightful recognition.

They’re hopeful that his medal will be bestowed before May 28, when Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee hosts the third annual Veteran Recognition Luncheon from noon to 2 p.m. at Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo.

The VFW Post 2814 in Atascadero is sponsoring John as its nominee to be one of the honorees at the luncheon. Funds raised will go toward signs for the 115 miles of Highway 101 that’s part of the National Purple Heart Trail.

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Our World War II veterans, indeed all of those who have served our country, deserve our gratitude. John Roza not only warrants that gratitude, he’s earned recognition for being wounded in action, as well.

It may be 66 years after the fact, Rep. McCarthy, but it’s time to make his Purple Heart happen!

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.