Roland Carroll never liked to talk about his World War II experience as a Marine who fought on Iwo Jima in the early months of 1945 while U.S. forces closed in on Japan.
“Who am I to talk?” the 88-year-old veteran was saying last week when put on the spot. “I figured I wasn’t the only guy who went in the service. We all had to go fight the war. I realize now how important it was. We had to win that war or Hitler and the Japanese were going to take over the world.”
Carroll grew up in West Warwick, joined the Marines in 1942, came home and married Pawtucket native Doris Smith. They raised three daughters, and enjoyed a nice retirement in Florida until returning home a few years ago to be with their children and grandchildren.
“I didn’t want to go in the Army,” he recalled. “I preferred the Marines. They were in on all the action. I took basic training at Paris Island and then got assigned to Newport, R.I., where about seven of us provided security around the torpedo station. We used to take ferry boat rides and one day we ended up in Pawtucket, walking around downtown.”
Doris Carroll picks up the story.
“I was mailing a letter with my sister Sally. We would go downtown to mail letters to servicemen. We came back from the post office and were standing outside Gibson’s (a local restaurant). Roland was there with his buddies. They asked us if there was a place to dance nearby and we said there was, up the hill in Central Falls. We were going in that direction and showed them the way.”
Roland follows the story intently and then proudly adds, “I was holding her hand by the time we got to the dance hall!”
Carroll would be transferred to the Pacific soon after, putting this budding relationship on hold for two years.
“In 1944, I went to Hawaii and then joined the Fourth Marines Division,” Roland said, resuming his story about life in the Marines. “I was in the infantry. They gave me an old O3 rifle and pretty soon I got an M1, which was the rifle everyone carried.
“My first real action came at Iwo Jima in April of 1945,” Carroll added. “I was in a landing craft (when the invasion began). I was just a short guy and the landing door didn’t go all the way down so one of the guys behind me just picked me up and threw me over the door, into the shallow water. I started going the wrong way at first. There was a lot of confusion and we were all carrying heavy equipment. A lot of guys drowned before they reached the beach.
“I ran up on the beach and got down between two soldiers. I give them the elbow to move and they were both dead. I high-tailed it out of there. Another time, I was in a foxhole with a little boy named Calvin. I told him not to leave the foxhole but he got up and suddenly I had his blood all over me.
“The battle was very loud. The Japs had their artillery firing down on us from up on the hill. Iwo was only two miles wide but they were really dug in. Our ships were firing over our heads at the enemy. Some of the rounds fell short and hit our own troops. It was terrible.
“We were all very scared when we hit the beach but you soon forget it. I was on Iwo for about three weeks. We saw the American flag raised on Mount Suribachi. I caught a little bit of shrapnel in my leg from a shell that exploded near me.
“But what really hurt me was the blast concussion. What a strange feeling that was! The inside of my head went numb. I never remembered how they got me to the (field) hospital.”
Carroll got out of the Marines later in 1945, cutting through all the red tape of the bureaucracy, passing up on military benefits due a Purple Heart campaigner so that he could get home and resume his civilian life.
“We got married in 1946,” Doris Carroll said. “We settled down and raised our daughters, Sharlene, Donna and Debbie.”
“Daddy got around $114 per month from the government for most of his life,” Deb Ruthowski pointed out. “We thought he deserved more but we never really knew all that he went through because he never talked about his war experiences to us. We finally went to the VA and now he is getting more money for what he went through.”
VA doctors have speculated that the trauma of what Roland Carroll endured at Iwo Jima caused him to block out the memories for more than 50 years. Only after he suffered a minor stroke several years ago did Carroll start to speak more freely to his family about the war.
“We went to a funeral one time in Florida,” Doris Carroll remembered. “The honor guard began playing Taps and I looked over at Roland and he was just bawling and hollering and crying all at the same time. We had to take him out of the funeral. We don’t go to funerals any more. It’s too difficult for him.”
When Roland Carroll visits the VA these days, he wears his Iwo Jima hat that has the words “Uncommon Valor” emblazoned across its peak.
“The other veterans come up and salute Dad and shake his hand,” Deb Ruthowski said. “They ask for his autograph sometimes. We have a picture of Dad that was taken with a Korean War vet and a Vietnam vet. They asked Dad to be in the photo.”
Roland Carroll smiles gently as his daughter tells the story.
“There are not too many of us (WWII veterans) left,” he said. “You wonder why you survived and some of your buddies didn’t.”
Deb’s husband, Jim Ruthowski, lightens the mood with a final question.
“What was tougher: going to war or raising three daughters?”
Roland Carroll smiles and thinks it over for a moment.
“That’s debatable,” he said, looking at his wife for support. “Raising three daughters wasn’t easy!”