May 20, 2002
Snoqualmie Valley's most unforgettable character
Oscar Roloff remembered on Memorial Day
By Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
Sixty-one years ago on a bright December morning, two sailors chatted pleasantly from the deck of their anchored destroyer, USS Tucker. Looking up, they took note of aircraft flying in overhead. Torpedoman Oscar Roloff and his buddy Walter Bowe noticed the planes had red-painted rings on their wings. Realizing they were there to attack, Bowe ripped off the canvas cover of his 50-caliber machine gun and yelled, "Slam a drum of ammo into the gun's breech." Roloff obeyed the orders and his shipmate opened fire on the enemy aircraft. Japanese planes swooped in and bullets, torpedoes and bombs hailed from above. When the machine gun overheated and jammed, Bowe moved to a one-man weapon. Later, young Roloff realized the historical significance and grabbed pencil and paper. He began recording the scene of the attack, the deafening explosions and the terrifying sight of the battleship Arizona turning over. Years later, he wrote: "My battle station was at the torpedoes, but they were inoperative. Amidst the hail and confusion I began writing a first-hand account."
Elaine Roloff, Oscar's wife the last fifteen years of his life and whom he fondly wrote about in many of his articles, explains that the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor was also the beginning of Oscar's life as a writer. "He started writing at the time of the bombing," she says. "Maybe he didn't realize at that time it was his calling."
Roloff, himself, was quoted in a 1980 newspaper article recalling that momentous day as the start of his writing career. "I hadn't realized until then that I had any writing talent, but I guess that was the beginning," he said.
Having survived the surprise attack, the USS Tucker sailed out into the Pacific to act as an escort for battleships. One day while accompanying a tanker, the destroyer's luck ran out. It struck a mine and sank. Roloff and his shipmates found refuge on life rafts and were towed by a tuna boat to a nearby island. Natives who were short like African pygmies greeted them. Roloff had to crawl on his hands and knees to enter one of their tiny huts. "We couldn't communicate," he was later quoted as saying. "But they seemed to know who we were, and they were friendly." Roloff lived alongside the small natives for a month until he was rescued in 1942.
After that, Roloff was engaged in shepherding merchant ships across the North Atlantic to Murmansk, Russia. On June 6, 1944, he took part in the invasion of Normandy. The experience haunted him as he sadly recalled, "The carnage, the dying men...it was horrible. I remember a craft filled with dying men coming alongside our ship, and they asked if we had a doctor. We didn't. We had to tell them 'no'."
When the war ended, Roloff stayed with the Navy. Says Mrs. Roloff, "His country meant a great deal to him. He couldn't imagine young people not staying in the service." He attended the Navy's journalist school at the Great Lakes Training Center near Chicago. It didn't take long before Roloff became a top naval correspondent and was given substantial assignments as a journalist.
Retiring from the Navy in 1957 and graduating from the University of Washington in 1961, Roloff taught at Mercer Island Junior High for eight years. But increasing deafness caused by the loud blasts of guns from his days in the war forced him to leave teaching. But he didn't retire from writing and the keys to his typewriter smoked. "After I retired," he said, "I decided to dedicate the rest of my time writing nice things about nice people." He hammered out military retrospectives at first, but then the character pieces started to emerge. Venturing into the 'hinterlands,' he talked to interesting folks in the community in search of human-interest topics. He stopped to visit with dairyman Bob Muller while observing the warm interactions between Muller and his customers. He followed an old guy to his garage and was treated to a car collector's delight, 13 old time cars sparkling in mint condition. He interviewed a recluse in Maltby, who later became his friend. Elaine Roloff says that Oscar felt for the Maltby man and would take him cookies when he visited.
"Oscar was a very curious man, interested in many things," says Mrs. Roloff, adding "And he was so interested in people."
If the subject matter was interesting, unusual or struck his fancy, it became fodder for a Roloff piece. He wrote about everything, a toilet plunger used to discover water, a birthday card he received from Bill and Hillary Clinton, the size of stamps, schoolhouses of yesteryear and antics from his childhood in Yakima. "Before we were married," says Mrs. Roloff, "he had written for the Seattle Times, Eastside Journal (then Journal-American) and many of the papers here on the Eastside. He wrote for the Woodinville Weekly for a long time."
His down-to-earth 'aw shucks' personality shined through each article, sprinkled with words like 'dang' 'golly' and 'holy smokes.' His humor was as candid, such as the time he dreamed up a photo shoot and posed for a picture showing him milking the metal cow, affectionately called Moon Beam, on Woodinville-Redmond Road. He later penned an article titled, 'Moon Beam gives writer zany idea' which was published next to the photo. In a 1983 article, Roloff commented on the versatility of his writings, "My material has been used in newspapers, books, on television, and in the production of the motion picture, "Tora, Tora, Tora."
He said he wrote because when he talked he couldn't get a word in edgewise. "I've never been able to completely finish a story," he said. "Not even one sentence."
But Roloff discovered he could complete sentences, even entire paragraphs, when he wrote. Letters from readers poured into his mailbox, each stating in a different way that his words brightened their day. Besides giving his readers a smile, he also used his skill as a wordsmith to gain recognition for others, such as his effort to seek an official citation for his former USS Tucker shipmate Walter Bowe as the one who fired the first shot in defense of Pearl Harbor. After 56 years, Roloff learned that his shipmate received the recognition due him.
Writing, said Roloff, moves people as it moves him. "I just picked up my pen and began writing the way I feel, not knowing what would come thereafter. Boy! What a surprise. In reality, people are nice, friendly."
Blessed with two children, Sam and Riana, Roloff also had his share of tragedy. He lost his son, Sam, in a tragic car crash and his first wife, Helen, to cancer. But he continued to lift his readers' spirits in light of his difficulties and until the day he passed away in March 1999 after a long illness. His readers not only remember him as a gifted storyteller, but also as a patriot who served his country with devotion.