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This was John Roth

Keturah Hamilton

One of my favorite activities has always been antiquing. I love the way you can discover old things that once meant something to someone and give them purpose and value in your own life. So, this is what I requested to do for my birthday.

Entering this small, one-room store, I quickly evaluated everything it had to offer — but only one thing caught my attention. Against the wall, there was a bookshelf piled high with old photos, letters and postcards.

Excited to look through these, I waited for another patron to move away. But the longer she stood there, the more impatient I felt, and the closer to leaving I became.

She finally moved away from the shelf after several minutes, and I rushed over and picked up the letter on top of one of the shelves and began to read. Dated 1943, the letter was from an Alexander Hodory to Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Roth. The Roths’ son John had just died in the war, I read, and Alexander, his friend, had just found out the news.

As I read the anguished words, “Not Johnny,” my eyes welled up with tears and I began to sob. That’s when I knew that I needed to find out who this man was, and what had happened to him. I needed to bring his story back to life.

Desperate to know more, I searched vigorously through the shelves, which produced more letters, many written by John to his family and one written by his friend Mary Julius to his sister Betty. These findings began the path of researching that would last for months.

Feeling an irrepressible need to find a special place to keep these letters, I went to another store and found the perfect antique box. Even at this early stage, when I hadn’t even read all of the letters yet, I knew they deserved more than to be thrown carelessly on a shelf, destined to again be forgotten. They deserved more. He deserved more.

Little by little, I began to piece together who John Roth was. Records being as scattered as they are, it was a challenge to say the least, especially for someone like me who had never done anything like this before.

But I was determined that he would not be just a service number. I wanted people to know his name.

This was John Roth.

Born Jan. 11, 1917, John Frederick Roth was the third of six children. He enlisted as a soldier in World War II in March of 1942, and was ultimately killed in a plane crash on Feb. 27, 1943. He was 26 years old.

His friends and family described him in the letters as considerate, courteous, observant and loving. He had a special connection and concern for his mother, whom he was constantly telling to not worry over him. The kindness in his manner is evident, permeating everything he says and does.

In the letters John wrote to his family, he asked mostly about things at home, and pleaded with them to not worry about him. “Don’t worry about me as I am all right.”

“He was so very courteous and so much a gentleman, and above all, thought so much of his mother and dad and his family,” Mary Julius wrote to Betty. “He wrote me 22 letters. Lovely letters that I shall cherish always.”

After getting in contact with nephews, nieces and cousins who had never met him, I was told that the family hadn’t spoken of John often. Betty’s son told me that she owned a picture but that she didn’t like to have it out because seeing her brother’s face pained her too much.

The loss this family felt was great. So great, in fact, that once John died, all traces of him seemed to disappear.

With the help of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County staff, a picture, albeit a blurry one, was recovered. This was arguably one of the most emotional parts of the journey for me, because seeing his picture really cemented in my mind that he was REAL.

He wasn’t just a fictional character or someone I had made up in my own head… he was a person. A real person who lived and died. He was a son, and a brother and a friend. He had a job, a favorite color, a worst subject in school… he was just like us. And he gave all of that up. For us.

John was a hero; he died for the people he loved. And when he was gone, he left a hole in their lives that could never again be filled. He left home that day in 1942 and never came back. They never again saw his eyes crinkle when he smiled or heard his laughter or wrapped their arms around him in a hug.

When he left, he didn’t expect it to be the beginning of the end. In fact, he was very confident that he would be home again some day, and was looking forward to a furlough as of November 1942. Unfortunately, he never got to do either.

And I refuse to allow his life to mean nothing. I refuse to lose him to the abyss of time. I want people to know his name. I want people to look to his example and see someone who loved, who struggled, who failed, who sacrificed… someone who sacrificed so that we could live in the country and the world we now live in.

I’ve had more people than I can count tell me that when he was living, John would have never in a million years expected this to happen. He would have never expected to die in a war just to have a teenager adopt his story and make it her mission to revive it 77 years later.

I just hope that he knows. Somehow, I hope he knows that he is not forgotten. Because he mattered. He was special.

He was John Roth.

• Hamilton, 17, is a homeschooled senior from Leetonia.

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