By MEGHAN PORTILLO
A new exhibit at the Noncommissioned Officer Heritage and Education Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, remembers the military service of Sgt. Richard Rogers, who fought in World War II.
“Throughout our tour, we highlight individual NCOs because it personalizes it for you,” said Sgt. 1st Class Skeet Styer, NCO in charge at the center. “It gives you a better feel for what it was like for NCOs throughout different periods of history.”
Rogers’ daughter, Lorraine Fidonik of Addison, Illinois, donated her father’s medals and other artifacts, and provided all the information she could about his service.
On display are Rogers’ medals – including a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with V device, a Purple Heart and four campaign stars – all engraved with his name on the back, photographs of him during his service, his burial flag, and the rifle cartridges from his 21-gun salute. The exhibit even includes his high school diploma and photographs from his childhood – one of him as a baby with a head full of curls, and another of him as a toddler, playing with his dog in the yard in front of his house.
“I realized the most important and satisfying time in his life were the years he spent in the Army, and he was very proud of his achievements,” Fidonik said. “I felt that would all be lost if somehow his story wasn’t shared and his medals just gathered dust in my attic. I wanted to send them someplace where someone would care about them. I’m so pleased with what they have done with the exhibit. Hopefully it will help teach others a little bit about what it was like back then.”
Rogers’ early life
Rogers was born April 16, 1917, in Montgomery City, Missouri. He grew up on his parents’ farm, planting, cultivating and harvesting grain crops alongside his father. He graduated from high school in 1936 before enlisting in the Army 1939 as a rifleman with the 6th Infantry Regiment at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
The next year, when the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment was born, Rogers was assigned to train new Soldiers who had just finished basic training.
“Rogers probably became an NCO so quickly and was given that position because of his experience and education. Very few were able to finish high school in those days. During the Great Depression, school was just not a priority.” said Leigh Smith Jr., curator of the center. “He was also a little older than the 17- or 18-year-old kids coming in. So the younger Soldiers who were drafted, those guys looked up to NCOs like Sgt. Rogers because they had that experience and maturity. His reading and writing skills helped him when developing the unit’s standard operating procedures. … A higher education level had a huge impact on Soldiers’ careers back then as well.”
Memories of the war
Rogers went on to fight with A Company, 1st Battalion, 41st Armored Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Division in the invasion of North Africa in 1942, the invasion of Sicily in 1943, the invasion and breakout from Normandy in 1944, and the Battle of the Bulge that same year. He was wounded and hospitalized at least three times during his service.
Like many veterans, Rogers didn’t want to dwell on difficult and painful memories after he came back from the war. But an incredible history can be gleaned from historical documents and the few stories he shared with his daughter.
“He never really spoke of his service,” Fidonik said. “Only in later years, after my mother had died, did he occasionally mention a few things. I asked him to tell me the stories of his medals so they would not be lost, and he said he had never told anyone, not even my mother.”
One time, Fidonik said, her father recalled making his way back to friendly lines alone. There was no place to take cover when morning came, so he slit the belly of a dead cow, swollen and stinking from decomposition, and crawled inside to wait for nightfall before continuing his journey.
When Rogers shared his memories of the breakout from Normandy at St. Lo, the battle in which he earned the Silver Star, he recalled being in a field where “not much was going on.” He made a trade with a Soldier next to him for the watch he was wearing. Just as Rogers took the watch – which is included in the exhibit – the Soldier was shot. He told Fidonik that as the battle began, everyone around him was falling.
“He finally picked up a bazooka and fired until he ran out of ammo,” Fidonik said. “By now he was ‘angry!’ When he saw a tank, he said he ‘ran after it, climbed on top, opened it and dropped in a grenade.’”
The next thing Rogers remembered was waking up in a hospital in England. Fidonik’s mother told her that her father later left the hospital with a 105-degree fever and returned to his unit to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
“He said he was never so cold in his life as he was there,” Fidonik said.
Fidonik remembers another time, when her father mentioned Mark Bando’s book Breakout at Normandy – the 2nd Armored Division in the Land of the Dead. The book describes Rogers’ platoon leading an assault on SS- Sturmbannführer Christian Tychsen, a notable Panzer Division officer whose rank was the equivalent of a U.S. colonel.
According to the book, Rogers’ platoon ambushed Tychsen’s vehicle, which then careened off the elevated road into a ditch. Tychsen was hit, and the driver was most likely killed in the crash.
Rogers showed his daughter the cover of the book, which features a photograph of Tychsen. He pointed to Tychsen’s photo and told Fidonik he was the one who had killed him.
Rogers finished World War II in Germany on the Elbe River, and was one of the two A Company Soldiers remaining of the unit’s original 150 men.
“He told me that his platoon took a hill, and after the fight only his lieutenant and he were left,” Fidonik said. “They started back down, but night overtook them and they looked for a ‘safe’ place to spend the night. Seeing an old barn, they entered and found it filled with dead German soldiers – ‘stacked like cordwood.’ He and his lieutenant climbed on top of the pile, burrowed down into the middle and spent the night.”
Life after the fight
After the war, Rogers and his wife, who was working in naval intelligence when they met, lived in Chicago. Until his retirement, he worked as a lithographer in a print shop that published the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. Fidonik was born in 1948, and her sister, Deborah, was born seven years later.
Though Rogers never mentioned his years in the war when the girls were growing up, Fidonik remembers her dad lying across her mother’s lap while she opened a drain at the bottom of a long, wide scar on his back, and tracking a piece of shrapnel that would “travel” in his arm.
Toward the end of his life, Rogers spent a lot of his time with other veterans at his American Legion post. He was able to open up more than ever before when surrounded by others with similar experiences, and eventually spoke to Fidonik about his memories.
Holding onto history
“We want others to see what noncommissioned officers have done through the ages,” Smith said. “We are trying to show the younger generation of Soldiers coming through today what their great-grandparents, grandparents, parents have done before them. The history needs to be continued.
“All of the Soldiers who come through here, eventually they will be noncommissioned officers. This is their museum. Retirees who come through want to see how we are remembering their service. People who served in Vietnam, Desert Storm, Desert Shield. People who served in World War II, Korea. We want to help remember those folks, because they helped shape the Army today.”
Styer said young Soldiers and NCOs are often shocked to discover that Soldiers in Rogers’ day didn’t get to come home unless they were wounded, and often, not even then. Rogers was deployed for 33 months.
“The only time they got pulled off the line was when they were wounded,” Styer said. “Then they spent some time in the hospital and went through rest and recuperation – R&R. When these guys realize, ‘Wow, my grandfather didn’t get to come back until after the war,’ they realize they have it pretty good.”
It is the personal stories, like Rogers’, that hit closest to home, Smith said. Each one brings history to life and helps new Soldiers relate to the Soldiers of the past.
“We are losing these World War II veterans at a staggering rate,” Smith said. “Every day, 1,500 are passing away. And we are losing those stories. I think what is important for the younger generation to understand is that the history books are filled with the basic knowledge. We know what happened at Pearl Harbor. We know what happened at Normandy. But we don’t know about the individual stories. Every single Soldier who served and fought has a different story, because they saw it through their eyes. It’s our responsibility to keep their stories alive.”