At age 95, Richard Van Der Hart Roelofs’ memory and articulation remain remarkable. He recited his WWII experiences quickly with so much detail that I had great difficulty keeping up. Richard, of Dutch heritage, is a proud Navy Veteran and one of our “Greatest Generation” who saved our freedom.
Born in his parent’s South Los Angeles home August 28, 1921, Richard attended Manual Arts High School graduating in 1940. During his senior year, he worked for his Uncle John who owned International Braid Company until enlisting in the Navy September 1, 1942.
While Richard preferred to enlisted immediately after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, his parents refused to sign his enlistment papers. He went to San Diego for Boot Camp but after close to four weeks, he was abruptly sent for 16 weeks of Fire Control School in Newport, Rhode Island.
Fire Control, one of the Navy’s most technical functions, used an electro-mechanical analog ballistic computer that provided accurate firing and could automatically control one or more guns against stationary or moving targets on the surface or in the air.
This technology gave American forces a major advantage against the Japanese who did not develop remote power control for their guns.
And it gave Richard an advantage moving up the ranks.
In January 1943, Richard was promoted to Third Class Petty Officer – Fire Control.
Of 250 sailors in Fire Control School, 25, including Richard, proudly qualified for “Crow” and Advanced Fire Control School in Washington D.C.
The Crow, rooted in the old British Navy sailing ship days, is an unofficial Navy term for petty officer rank insignia that includes an eagle above one to three chevrons.
After Advanced Fire Control School, Richard became a gun sight/director specialist for twin 40 MM Heavy Machine Guns.
In July 1943 he was sent to Alabama to assist in building a new destroyer, the USS David W. Taylor DD551.
York, Safe & Lock Company designed and installed gun mount mechanisms for the twin 40MM guns, however, that system proved inadequate as they could not keep their guns trained on targets.
Correcting a flaw
During equipment testing in Charleston, North Carolina, a gunner’s mate redirected their twin 40’s and accidentally crushed Richard against an iron brace breaking his pelvic bone.
While hospitalized for six weeks, Richard developed a correction to the flawed mechanism. Returning to his ship, his ship his proposal was immediately implemented solving a major glitch.
Soon, the entire US Navy fleet adopted changes based on Richard’s fix; it was known to be a major contribution to our war effort.
Richard’s destroyer departed Charleston January 1944 for the Panama Canal and on to Pearl Harbor, where they soon began escorting supply ships in the South Pacific while U.S. forces took Japanese controlled islands one by one.
While at Tarawa, Richard toured the war torn speck of an island and gained a new level of respect for the Marine Corps realizing they fought ferociously there six weeks earlier.
Richard encountered dead Japanese soldiers laying everywhere – many had rifle barrels in their mouths.
With their last bullet the Japanese
soldiers killed themselves rather than face capture.
Man Your Battle Stations
On a moonless night in early 1944, during the Marianas operation, the ship’s PA system abruptly and repeatedly blurted: “General Quarters – Man Your Battle Stations – this is not a drill.”
A Japanese submarine was located 9 miles away via radar and the men tracked it until it came within 200 yards out.
The captain ordered search lights on, giving away their position sending and the submarine into emergency dive mode – but not before firing two torpedoes.
Richard said the crew’s prayers and by the grace of God, those torpedoes narrowly missed their ship.
The crew promptly dropped depth chargers seriously disabling that submarine and it was beached.
Soon Richard was back at Pearl Harbor where he was accepted for the V-12 Navy College Training program at University of California Berkeley.
But, while headed to the states aboard a liberty ship, in extreme heavy fog, the ship ran aground on Farallon Island 30 miles out from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Three thousand men scurried ashore on life rafts, but they were soon rescued and moved on to Treasure Island Naval base.
After almost two years in the U.S. Navy, Richard finally received a 10 day leave of absence and, after visiting his family, he then attended UC Berkeley until he was discharged in February 1946.
Richard’s awards include the Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Service Medal, National Defense Medal, Korean Service Medal, Republic of Korea – Presidential Unit Citation, and United Nations Service Medal – Korea.
Richard attended UCLA on the GI Bill, but as a favor he joined his brother-in-law’s fledging garage business, “Red Feathers Candy” where Richard instead produced chocolate peanut clusters instead of attending college.
With business booming they opened a facility and hired Japanese workers previously incarcerated at Manzanar.
After 15 months in candy production, Richard worked for several companies including Western Electric Corp., Lockheed Martin Missile Company, and the Westrex Corp.
He then helped form a new company named Winston Research Corporation, manufacturing national defense products.
In April 1949, Richard joined the U.S. Navy Reserves as a Basic Gunnery Instructor but little did he know the Korean War would breakout.
Suddenly, he found himself on active duty and spending 22 months aboard the USS Hillsborough LST 827 shuttling supplies and troops to Korea strengthening Allied forces against Communist aggressors.
Life after war
On December 27, 1950, Richard married June L. Paulson.
The couple were happily married 39 years and had two wonderful children until, sadly, June died from heart failure during surgery.
Richard has lived in Newhall for 20 years and stays active as the Elks Lodge organist and playing piano for SCV’s Senior Center and Sunrise Seniors Assisted Living.
Today, Richard is a proud member of the American Legion, VFW, Elks Lodge, Masonic Riviera Lodge, Old West Lodge, National Defense in Industry Association, and Tin Can Sailors Association.
Bill Reynolds is one of the “Boys of ‘67,” Charlie Company, 4th/47th, 9th Infantry Division and director of veterans affairs for The Signal.