Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Pie-eating contest nearly derails Navy career

Herbert Otto Roesch, the son of pioneer Umatilla County brewer William Roesch, served a long career in the United States Navy, beginning with his appointment to Annapolis in 1904 after graduating from Pendleton Academy. Along the way he made quite a name for himself as a championship marksman and a talented ship’s commander. But a pie-eating contest almost squashed his career before it began.

Roesch started his Naval academy studies quietly in 1905, but soon rose to prominence with his marksmanship skills. In 1909 he went up against the best shooters of the Army and Navy during a tournament at Camp Perry, Ohio, and beat all comers. He shot 50 out of 50 at 800 yards, and missed acing the 1,000-yard trial by one point. He scored 98 out of 100 in the skirmish run and fired 10 shots in 40 seconds during the 200-yard rapid fire contest, placing fourth. He beat the veteran international champion, Major Winder, by half a dozen points. He was presented with the governor’s cup, a gold medal and a cash prize of $50.

Home in Pendleton, the town rallied around his new-found fame and presented him with the first-ever blanket woven on the new Pendleton Woolen Mills looms. He also was honored by the National Society of the Sons of the Revolution for “outstanding marksmanship for excellence in practical ordnances.” Herbert Roesch was on his way to big things.

But in August of 1910, disaster almost struck. Graduation from the Naval college was imminent. A group of underclassmen embroiled in a pie-eating contest asked Roesch to referee, and the result was allegations of hazing, the withholding of his diploma and the threat of a court-martial. Fortunately, the Secretary of the Navy deemed the matter too trivial for notice, and Roesch earned his place as midshipman on the USS George Washington.

Roesch proved to be worthy of the Navy’s forbearance. In 1911, during maneuvers in San Francisco Bay, he pulled four sailors out of the water, saving their lives. An East Oregonian editorial suggested he should be considered for a Medal of Honor. He moved up the ladder of success quickly, serving as lieutenant commander of the George Washington by 1918.

Another training exercise on the Pacific coast almost spelled disaster for Roesch and his men in September of 1923. As commander of the USS Nicholas, Roesch and the rest of Destroyer Squadron 11 were taking part in a high-speed engineering run when the leading ships received inaccurate navigation information for the entrance of the Santa Barbara Channel. Seven destroyers in the group, including the Nicholas, ran aground on the rocks of Point Pedernales, known to sailors as Honda, or the Devil’s Jaw. Roesch and his crew valiantly battled the heavy seas but eventually he and the crew had to abandon the ship. All of the Nicholas’ men survived, but 23 other sailors lost their lives in what became known as the Honda Point Disaster.

Herbert Roesch remained with the Navy for the rest of his working life. He died in 1961 in San Diego, Calif., at the age of 75.

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