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NCO Heritage and Education Center exhibit tells story of World War II NCO

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

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

Richard Rogers, circa 1921
Richard Rogers, circa 1921

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

Sgt. Richard Rogers in Sicily, circa 1943
Sgt. Richard Rogers in Sicily, circa 1943

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.

Sgt. Richard Rogers poses with a fellow Soldier in France, circa 1944. On the back of the photo is written, "Where I live and work. Nice, huh? That's me on the right."
Sgt. Richard Rogers poses with a fellow Soldier in France, circa 1944. On the back of the photo is written, “Where I live and work. Nice, huh? That’s me on the right.”

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

Sgt. Richard Rogers' discharge photo was taken in 1945.
Sgt. Richard Rogers’ discharge photo was taken in 1945.

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.”

USASMA to host grand opening for new NCO Heritage and Education Center

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

An original copy of the Blue Book, written by Baron Friedrich von Steuben and published in 1782, is one of the prized artifacts on display at the NCO Heritage and Education Center at Fort Bliss, Texas. The book was the first attempt to outline what NCOs’ duties and responsibilities were. (Photos by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)
An original copy of the Blue Book, written by Baron Friedrich von Steuben and published in 1782, is one of the prized artifacts on display at the NCO Heritage and Education Center at Fort Bliss, Texas. The book was the first attempt to outline what NCOs’ duties and responsibilities were. (Photos by Meghan Portillo/NCO Journal)

Veterans have been moved to tears as exhibits conjure memories of the battles of their past, and future leaders have been inspired during school field trips to the Museum of the Noncommissioned Officer at Fort Bliss, Texas. The nondescript building has preserved and displayed the grand history of the U.S. Army NCO Corps since the museum opened in 1981, and it has recently been transformed into something greater. Now reflagged as the NCO Heritage and Education Center, it has been revitalized and will be used as an extension of the classroom for students attending the Sergeants Major Course, as well as the other courses executed at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy.

“As the Museum of the Noncommissioned Officer, the facility did a great job of chronicling the NCO story, but the facility needed some improvements and the displays needed updating,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Tedd Pritchard, deputy commandant of USASMA and the lead for the changes taking place at the Heritage and Education Center. “So we knocked down some walls, rebuilt some displays and changed the name to reflect its new mission – that of heritage and education.”

As a drill sergeant in the early 1990s, Pritchard helped construct new walls within the museum. He remembers when they were proud to have nearly 100 artifacts. Now, the center boasts more than 2,500 artifacts, with about a third of them on display at any time, highlighting NCOs’ role as small-unit leaders. The exhibits complement the history curriculums within the Sergeants Major Course, the Battle Staff Course and the Warrior Leaders Course, Pritchard said, and the center is equipped with an open classroom space to host lectures as well as promotion and induction ceremonies.

“We talk about customs, honoring our traditions. It’s important for all of our students to understand those who served before us: their legacies, their battles, what they have done. We must continue to honor them,” Pritchard said. “It opens up students’ eyes to the way they will have to adapt to the future. It broadens their perspective and their understanding of what this education is all about and what it is to be a student here at the Sergeants Major Academy.”

Lessons steeped in history

The walls separating displays along one side of the NCO Heritage and Education Center were rebuilt on a 45-degree angle to open the space and help show the changes over time.
The walls separating displays along one side of the NCO Heritage and Education Center were rebuilt on a 45-degree angle to open the space and help show the changes over time.

Courses at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy are designed to develop agile, versatile and broadly-skilled NCOs, and lessons on the history of the NCO Corps have always been an integral part of the curriculum.

“One of the semesters that all of the Sergeants Major Academy students go through is the Department of Training and Doctrine,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese, USASMA’s commandant. “About half of that curriculum is about NCO history and the effects of our NCO Corps on the military as a whole and different wars and campaigns … and also about how it’s evolved over time to where it is now known as the premier NCO Corps of any army in the world.”

History classes can be taught anywhere, Defreese said, but it is difficult to tie lessons together and convey the big picture. The NCO Heritage and Education Center is an ideal location for lectures, he said, because the exhibits bring the lessons to life in chronological order – from the establishment of the Continental Army in 1775 to the present.

“Really seeing the history of our NCO Corps from what it was in 1775 to what it is now, it is clear that our NCO Corps has had to continue to professionalize over the last 240 years,” he said. “The world has always been an increasingly complex world and continues to be that way, and [this center provides] a visual and tangible way to demonstrate how the NCO Corps has had to adapt over the years and why it is important, as we move forward, to continue to be adaptable like that.”

A refreshing change

The musty, old smell associated with museums and ancient artifacts has been replaced with the smell of clean, new carpet and fresh coats of paint. Visitors are greeted with vibrant colors and an elegant display of the NCO Creed.

An open classroom area will be used for lectures as well as NCO promotion and induction ceremonies, NCO professional development and other educational activities. To schedule a ceremony or event, contact the center at 915-744-8646.
An open classroom area will be used for lectures as well as NCO promotion and induction ceremonies, NCO professional development and other educational activities. To schedule a ceremony or event, contact the center at 915-744-8646.

“When [Pritchard] came in here, the first thing he said was, ‘When I walk through this door, I want things to pop. BAM! I want people to get excited, refreshed, when they walk in the door,’” recalled Sgt. 1st Class Skeet Styer, curator at the NCO Heritage and Education Center.

When the doors closed Dec. 22 to begin the construction, approximately 45 students and spouses from the Family Readiness Group joined the effort. Styer and Staff Sgt. Brandon Burkhart – the history NCO assigned to the center – were the only ones to handle artifacts, but the bulk of the work was done by volunteers.

Walls were taken down to turn no-longer-needed office space into the open classroom area, which will seat more than 50 people. A podium stands in the corner and two video monitors hang on the bright yellow and black wall to enable lectures and presentations. The students have even built an archway for use during promotion ceremonies. New NCOs can walk through it as a symbolic “rite of passage,” Styer said.

The walls separating a large section of displays were rebuilt on a 45-degree angle to further open the space. The building must remain somewhat dark to protect the artifacts, but the colored walls and structural changes lighten the layout. Plans for more LED lighting that will not damage items on display are in the works, Styer said.

The sergeant major of the Army exhibit includes a portrait of Sgt. Maj. William O. Wooldridge, the first sergeant major of the Army, as well as Sgt. Maj. Kenneth O. Preston’s desk, bookcase and locker. The items used by Sgt. Maj. Preston during his seven years as sergeant major of the Army were donated by former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler.
The sergeant major of the Army exhibit includes a portrait of Sgt. Maj. William O. Wooldridge, the first sergeant major of the Army, as well as Sgt. Maj. Kenneth O. Preston’s desk, bookcase and locker. The items used by Sgt. Maj. Preston during his seven years as sergeant major of the Army were donated by former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler.

“The students and spouses have been phenomenal,” Styer added. “There is no way this center would be like it is now without their help. And nothing would have gotten done without the entire S-3 shop. They have all the connections. They know who to talk to. It has definitely been a team effort.”

The volunteers’ talents ranged from carpentry to theatrical set design. Astrid Owens, an artist and the spouse of a USASMA staff member, painted murals behind many of the displays, depicting far-away landscapes as well as scenes much closer to home. One sets the stage in the jungles of Vietnam, while another shows El Paso’s own Franklin Mountains, which can be seen from the center’s front door.

The work done on the center is a legacy project for Class 65 of the Sergeants Major Academy, explained Jennifer Wood, USASMA Family Readiness Group co-leader and chair for the center refurbishment committee. Because the students’ academic responsibilities are so demanding, the FRG volunteered to help with the work, and Wood said it has been exciting for them to see the project from start to finish.

“It’s been incredibly exciting to watch it come to life,” she said. “Each new thing that you put in place makes it a tangible experience or puts you inside that day of the NCO. It’s so exciting to see other people come and say, ‘Oh, I get it! I see what it was like now.’ We want you to be able to look [at an exhibit] and put yourself in the place of the NCO.

“For example, World War I – it was really important for us to put in a trench, because when you think of World War I, it’s trench warfare, and the majority of us don’t know that experience and cannot relate to that. So that’s what we wanted to portray. … The important thing is to tell the story of the NCO.”

At the grand reopening ceremony scheduled for May 28, the class president will present the commandant with a plaque to hang on the wall, stating the accomplishments of the students and their spouses.

“We will recognize the students and all of the spouses for what they have done, which has been tremendous,” Pritchard said. “We can’t be more proud or excited about what they have done. I praise the heck out of them every time I see them.”

Hard work paying off

Barracks life in the 1890s is depicted in this display recently redesigned by USASMA students and their spouses. A staple item at the time was the footlocker, which held the Soldier’s materials and military possessions. Card games, dime novels, photos and baseball items could all be found in the room to fill idle hours.
Barracks life in the 1890s is depicted in this display recently redesigned by USASMA students and their spouses. A staple item at the time was the footlocker, which held the Soldier’s materials and military possessions. Card games, dime novels, photos and baseball items could all be found in the room to fill idle hours.

“A lot of people are coming in here going, ‘Wow, this place has really changed.’ They are really excited about it,” Styer said. “So Sgt. Maj. Pritchard’s dream is coming to light. It’s pretty exciting to see where it was to where it is now.”

It is a work in progress, however. To care for the artifacts and to prevent the uniforms from fading, the exhibits will rotate, he said, and improvements to the center will continue.

“Every single day we are doing something to change the place. It just takes time,” he said.

Maintaining a refreshed and updated heritage and education center is important, Pritchard said, because it reflects the Army’s pride in its NCO Corps.

“I have done a lot of stuff here at USASMA,” Pritchard said, “and am getting ready to leave, but I take most pride in leading this project.

“We have revitalized it to be a place people will want to come back to. We should have the best heritage center in the Army because the noncommissioned officer has been out front and leading so many charges for so long. It is critically important that we keep it revitalized and maintained for future generations to come. It’s already been over there 25 years now, and it will hopefully be there 25 years after us.”

strid Owens, an artist and the spouse of a USASMA staffmember, painted murals behind several of the displays. The one above depicts El Paso’s own Franklin Mountains, which can be seen from the center’s front door.
Astrid Owens, an artist and the spouse of a USASMA staffmember, painted murals behind several of the displays. The one above depicts El Paso’s own Franklin Mountains, which can be seen from the center’s front door.

 

Grand Reopening The ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. May 28 at the NCO Heritage and Education Center, 11331 SSG Sims St., at Fort Bliss, Texas.