An unknown soldier: Man leaves little evidence of his heroics on the battlefield

By: - November 11, 2021 6:43 am

Heartbreak Ridge in Korea as seen from the north. (Photo from the U.S. Archives, Public domain).

In a little house that looks more like a hovel, Franklin Delano Roton passed away in January.

The tiny house in Billings is small, even by the standards of the modest neighborhood that surrounds it.

Franklin Roton’s house in Billings. (Photo by Ed Saunders)

After a diligent search by the local funeral home, the body was turned over to the county – the normal course for someone who dies without family and connections.

Roton was cremated, and his death almost went unnoticed except for a couple of soldiers who laid his ashes to rest in a columbarium at the Yellowstone National Veterans Cemetery in Laurel in August. One particular soldier, retired Lt. Col. Edward Saunders, noticed his name, his birth year and death year, but then recognized the Distinguished Service Cross.

That would make this one nearly unknown, unclaimed and unaccompanied veteran the most decorated soldier buried laying among the hundreds of honored dead in the national veterans cemetery. Saunders thought there may be something more to the story. The only higher military honor is the “Medal of Honor.”

“Had he died (from injuries on the battlefield), he would have likely received the Medal of Honor,” Saunders said.

And there it is — about all that is known of a man who spent at least 70 years in Billings. What Saunders found answered a few questions, while raising so many others.

Even Roton’s name, which is how it was eventually spelled, had at least four other variant spellings. In a day and age which nearly every human interaction and transaction is recorded somewhere in the electronic ether, only a few details from his life remain — a mother’s obituary, a little shack and one very brave day.

Roton was just a 19-year-old U.S. Army medic in the Korean War on that October day. He earned the Distinguished Cross for using his body as a cover to protect an already wounded soldier when a grenade was thrown nearby.

And this past month would have marked the 70th anniversary of the fighting where Roton made his name — however it’s properly spelled. Saunders confirmed that the records that exist from his service and his medal are scant, even by the Army’s standard.

Roton had received his cross during the “Battle of Heartbreak Ridge,” an intense back-and-forth battle that lasted for the better part of a month, a few miles north of the famed 38th Parallel, separating North and South Korea. Roton’s bravery occurred on Oct. 6, 1951, in the Sat’ae-ri Valley.

The losses for the battle were immense on both sides — more than 2,500 men were lost on the U.S. side, including losses from the French Army, while the North Koreans and Chinese estimated 10 times that number. Assorted howitzer rounds fired by the United States totaled more than 600,000. One veteran, Tony K. Burris, was the only soldier given a Medal of Honor, the only award higher than Roton’s.

From a few scant reports of the battle and Roton’s service, he had only been in Korea for three days when the incident occurred. He suffered wounds to his head and neck, but the man he covered was not harmed further.

A small story chronicling the bravery of Franklin Roton, a nearly life-long resident of Billings. This appeared in the Oct. 24, 1951 edition of The Billings Gazette.

What happened before and after his service in Korea  — like for the next 70 years — is not found easily or even publicly documented.

“Nobody seems to know about him,” Saunders said. “No one sought him out nor did he ever appear to market himself as a war hero.”

He was the only child born to James and Lucy Roton of Sheridan, Wyoming. Born just a few months after his namesake took office, Franklin Delano Roaten (a slightly different spelling) was born in 1933. He had an adopted older sibling, Barney, who died in 1995 and is buried in a veterans’ cemetery in Washington (Barney Roaten was honorably discharged in 1945 after World War II). James, Frank’s father, was a laborer, and Lucy was listed as a laundress. Two other children were listed, likely from previous marriages. Lucy Roaten, as it’s spelled in her obituary, had nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren in 1979.

Despite the names and tantalizing historical clues that were provided more than four decades ago in an obituary, Saunders, an author, historian and genealogist has found few connections to the man. Lucy, his mother, moved to Billings sometime after James’ death in 1969 and lived with Franklin on his property, likely in an even smaller building on the property.

The procession of unaccompanied soldiers as they’re laid to rest at the Yellowstone National Veterans Cemetery in Laurel. That procession included Franklin D. Roton. (Photo by Ed Saunders).

On Aug. 25, 2021,  a solemn procession of men and women who never knew Roton gathered and attended the unaccompanied veterans ceremony, where the remains of Roton were placed.

“I was a combat-command soldier,” said Saunders, who served in the First Gulf War. “I just couldn’t leave him behind.”

Franklin Delano Roton — a man whom it seems left not much more record of his life than is what is on a bronze tombstone.

The plaque on Franklin Roton’s columbarium. (Photo by Ed Saunders).

A hero or just momentarily heroic? We’ll probably never know, but it sure makes you wonder: How many more Franklin Delano Rotons are out there, with wonderful stories of sacrifice that are just a mere heartbeat away from being lost to the grave?

This is the commendation and accompanying support for the Distinguished Cross Award, given to Franklin Delano Roton:

U.S. Army Distinguished Service Cross medal (Public domain).

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Franklin  D. Roton, Private, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations  against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving as a Medical Aidman attached to an Infantry  Company of the 23d Infantry Regiment, 2d Infantry Division. Private Roton distinguished himself by  extraordinary heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces in the vicinity of Sat’ae-ri, Korea, on 6 October 1951. On that date, the company to which Private Roton was attached was engaged in an assault against a series of  heavily fortified enemy positions located on a strategic slope. As the friendly troops neared their objective, they were subjected to a devastating volume of small-arms, automatic-weapons and mortar fire from the fanatically  resisting enemy. Many of the soldiers were wounded, and Private Roton, disregarding the intense hostile fire, moved across the fire-swept terrain to administer aid. He moved from man to man, calming them and dressing  their wounds. Observing a man fall wounded near a hostile bunker, Private Roton made his way to the stricken  man’s side. As he began to treat the wounds of the injured man, he saw an enemy grenade land nearby. Without hesitation and with total disregard for his personal safety, Private Roton threw himself over the body of his  comrade in order to protect him and absorbed the full impact of the grenade with his own body. Seriously  wounded in the back and neck by the grenade and unable to move, Private Roton heroically saved the live of his  wounded comrade. 

Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, Korea:  

General Orders No. 61 (January 30, 1952) 

Home Town: Sheridan, Wyoming 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.