Tag Archives: Normandy

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.”

This Month in NCO History: June 14, 1944 — The Ghost Army begins its scare campaign

Sgt. Victor Dowd was riding his bicycle late June 13, 1944, to his camp in the British countryside when he was surprised by a light on in his tent.

Dowd was in an area near Stratford-upon-Avon where he was camped as part of the 603rd Camouflage Engineers. Once inside his tent, he was informed he would be part of a 15-man platoon from the 603rd leaving the following morning for Omaha Beach in France to carry out a mission of such an uncharted magnitude that it was kept secret for nearly 40 years after the war.

An inflatable tank used by the Ghost Army during World War II. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)
An inflatable tank used by the Ghost Army during World War II. (Photo courtesy of National Archives)

The 603rd was the visual deception arm of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. Along with the 406th Combat Engineers, the 3132 Signal Service Company and the Signal Company Special, the 1,100-man unit was given a unique mission during World War II — to impersonate other U.S. Army units to deceive the Germans. The Army recruited painters, actors and sound technicians who would go on to become some of the nation’s most prominent artists and designers. They included such notable NCOs as Sgt. Bill Blass, a famed fashion designer and Sgt. Ellsworth Kelly, a pioneer of hard-edge painting, among other creative luminaries.

From a few weeks after the June 6 Allied landings on Normandy to the end of the war, the Ghost Army utilized inflatable tanks, sound trucks and fake radio transmissions to stage more than 20 missions of battlefield deception, often operating close to the front lines. The unit and its story were kept secret for decades until it was declassified in 1996.

Dowd, who died in May 2010, was one of several former Soldiers of the unit who were interviewed for the PBS documentary The Ghost Army, which was released in 2013. His small platoon, which was headed to Normandy, was the Ghost Army’s opening salvo and was to demonstrate whether the unit could really deceive the Germans.

The platoon, under the command of Lt. Bernie Mason, worked closely with the commander of the 980th Artillery Battalion, the first American heavy artillery unit to come ashore on France after D-Day. The platoon was to mimic the movements and activities of the 980th, using rubber inflatable howitzers. They stayed about a mile ahead of the 980th’s actual position as it began its march to Germany.

A promotional poster for The Ghost Army documentary released by PBS in 2013. The film is currently available on Netflix.
A promotional poster for The Ghost Army documentary released by PBS in 2013. The film is currently available on Netflix.

“I can remember the wild difference between last night when I was in the lovely, quiet, serene countryside and the grim reality of today, where I could still hear machine-gun fire,” Dowd said in the PBS documentary, The Ghost Army, which was released in 2013. “So the fighting was within earshot, certainly, and there were dead German soldiers all over the ground.”

The ruse was successful. Task Force Mason worked with the 980th for 28 days. By the end of its stint, the phony guns had been shelled thoroughly while the 980th moved relatively unscathed through key French positions behind the ghosts. Just as important, the platoon suffered no casualties, proving its mettle and instilling the Army’s faith in its innovative creation.

“We did what we were supposed to do, but we didn’t really believe the big picture, until we got fired at and shot when reality struck,” Dowd said.

In addition to being a part of the Ghost Army’s first effort in World War II, Dowd was also notable for being one of several Soldiers who created hundreds of drawings and paintings that depicted the unit’s movement through Europe. Many of those works have since become part of exhibits about the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, offering a glimpse into the activities of an Army unit that most were unaware of until recently. Dowd parlayed his creative talent into a career as an illustrator, including a stint with Stan Lee at Marvel Comics.

Two weeks after D-Day, the rest of the Ghost Army arrived in France. The Soldiers moved east with the rest of the Army, taking part in missions of deception on famed battlegrounds including the Maginot Line, the Hürtgen Forest and the Rhine River.

By the time the Ghost Army left Europe in March 1945, it was credited with saving the lives of 10,000 to 40,000 fellow Soldiers.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

President Obama pays respects, remembers heroes at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

By SGT. DANIEL COLE
U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande spoke today to more than 10,000 attendees at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial here June 6, commemorating the memory of the Soldiers who gave their lives 70 years ago fighting to end the Nazi reign over Europe.

The event was one of several commemorations of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day operations conducted by the Allies during WWII, June 6, 1944. Roughly 650 personnel from 20 U.S. military units and six nations participated in many events across the Normandy region in tributes to the lost and living veterans of WWII at the invitation of the French government.

Ellan Levitsky-Orkin, a Delaware native who served as a U.S. Army nurse in Normandy during World War II, speaks with to a U.S. Army paratrooper speak during a ceremony to honor their service in Bolleville, France, June 4, 2014. The event was one of several commemorations of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day operations conducted by Allied forces during World War II June 5-6, 1944. Over 650 U.S. military personnel have joined troops from several NATO nations to participate in ceremonies to honor the events at the invitation of the French government. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Sara Keller)
Ellan Levitsky-Orkin, a Delaware native who served as a U.S. Army nurse in Normandy during World War II, speaks with a U.S. Army paratrooper during a ceremony to honor their service in Bolleville, France, June 4, 2014. The event was one of several commemorations of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day operations conducted by Allied forces during World War II June 5-6, 1944. Over 650 U.S. military personnel have joined troops from several NATO nations to participate in ceremonies to honor the events at the invitation of the French government. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Sara Keller)

“Here we don’t commemorate victory, as proud of the victory as we are,” the U.S. Commander in Chief said in his address to the thousands in attendance. “We don’t just honor sacrifice, as grateful as the world is. We come to remember why America and our Allies gave so much for the survival of liberty in this maximum moment of peril. We come to tell the story of the men and women who did it so it remains seared into the memory of the future world.”

During the ceremony approximately 400 WWII veterans shared the stage with the presidents and faced the crowd while listening to the speeches, almost all reacting with standing applause and emotion now sitting only miles from where they fought for their lives.

The spectators sat alongside the cemetery, which holds more than 9,300 white crosses and Stars of David, each marking the grave of a Soldier who paid the ultimate price on the 50 mile stretch of beach.

“Nations that once only knew the blinders of fear began to taste the blessings of freedom,” Obama said. “None of that would have happened without the men who were willing to lay down their lives for people they never met and ideals they could not live without.”

Behind the veterans on stage was a garden dedicated to the 1,500 Soldiers missing in action who have yet to return home.

The memorial states, “Here are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves. This is their memorial. The whole earth their sepulcher. Comrades in arms whose resting place in known only to God.”

The audience stood silently and military veterans presented arms as a 21-gun salute was rendered and taps was played as the ceremony was coming to an end.

“May God bless our veterans and all those who serve with them including those who rest here in eternal piece and may God bless all who serve today for the peace and security of the world,” Obama said, as he ended his speech and receiving applause from the veterans behind him and the audience in front.

Following their remarks, both presidents walked down together to the memorial’s overlook, and laid a red, white and blue wreath in front of the memorial to commemorate the memory of the Soldiers still missing in action and the young men who never came home.
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Medal of Honor recipient, D-Day veteran laid to rest

By SGT. DANIEL STOUTAMIRE

Walter D. Ehlers, the last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor from the Normandy campaign, was laid to rest Saturday, at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif., in a ceremony attended by family, friends and admirers who came to pay their final respects to a great man.

Ehlers died Feb. 20, at the age of 92.

“It is our duty to honor his faithful and heroic service and to recognize his true place of distinction in the great Army story,” Lt. Gen. Perry Wiggins, commander of U.S. Army North and commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division from July 2008 to March 2009, said. “His service is a chapter in the fabric of our Army, which will endure long after we are done here today.”

In a legendary five-year military career, Ehlers was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts in addition to the Medal of Honor, which he earned for his actions in Normandy, in June 1944, as a staff sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment.

“He was one of the most decent men God has ever made, and he did live a good long life,” former California Gov. Pete Wilson said. “This is a celebration of his life, a life extraordinarily well-lived.”

The memorial ceremony was a testament to that. More than 500 were present around the picturesque Medal of Honor Memorial site at the cemetery, which Ehlers played an essential role in creating.

“He had one heck of a sense of humor,” friend and fellow Medal of Honor recipient Retired Marine Col. Jay Vargas said. “If he was here right now, he would probably be whispering in my ear, ‘Jay, what the heck are all these people doing here?'”

Soldiers from Ehlers’ beloved 1st Inf. Div. served as pallbearers, on the honor guard and fired the salute volleys. A C-17 Globemaster transport plane from nearby March Air Reserve Base flew over the site in tribute.

Current and former service members of all branches of the military were in attendance, as well as those Ehlers personally inspired.

“I wanted to show my respect for him, to honor him and all those who serve and have given the ultimate (sacrifice) for their country,” Denis Jana, a professor of history at Orange Coast College who attended the memorial, said. Ehlers once spoke to Jana’s class.

“I remember how forthright and gentle and approachable he was. He was the quintessential hero of heroes,” he said.

During the service, those close to Ehlers remembered his courage, commitment to duty and fierce warrior spirit, but also his love of fmily, his modesty and his humanity.

“This was a man who was a warrior,” Wilson, who got to know Ehlers through his work with veterans’ groups, said. “There’s no doubt about that, but this was also one of the most gentle, kindest, most modest human beings I’ve ever encountered.”

It was the nature of this Kansas farm boy’s personality to never seek the spotlight and to downplay his own achievements. He always maintained that his brother Roland, who died on Omaha Beach on D-Day, was the real hero.

“Walt was simply and without any reservation the most decent, modest and unassuming man I’ve ever met,” Ted Weggeland, a longtime friend of Ehlers, said.

Ehlers’ modesty was such that colleagues at the Veterans’ Administration who worked with him for more than a decade were surprised to learn they stood alongside a Medal of Honor recipient. Ehlers simply had not felt the need to advertise it.

He served tirelessly his whole life for veterans and veteran issues, and was often approached to speak about his experiences for newspapers and television. He was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1994, where he was in front of many world leaders.

“He delivered the most memorable speech of the day and his life,” Weggeland said, “and I know with absolute perfect confidence that it never once occurred to him that the audience at that moment was sitting in awe of him.”

This Month in NCO History — Heroism at Grosshau, Nov. 27, 1944

Staff Sgt. Marcario Garcia came from the humblest of beginnings. But in his time with the Army, he provided several moments of grandeur.

Garcia, who was also known as Macario, has a place in history as the first Mexican immigrant to be awarded the nation’s highest award for valor. He was bestowed with the Medal of Honor for his actions on Nov. 27, 1944, in Germany during World War II.

Staff Sgt. Marcario Garcia is decorated with the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on Aug. 23, 1945, during a ceremony at the White House. (Courtesy photo)
Staff Sgt. Marcario Garcia is decorated with the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on Aug. 23, 1945, during a ceremony at the White House. (Courtesy photo)

While an acting squad leader of B Company, 22nd Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, then-Pvt. Garcia and his platoon were pinned down by machine-gun fire near Grosshau, according to the award citation. Though he was seriously wounded, Garcia refused to retreat and instead crawled forward alone until he reached a position near an enemy machine-gun nest. Garcia hurled grenades and charged the nest, eliminating three enemy fighters and destroying the gun. He rejoined his company when it came under fire from a second gun. Again, Garcia boldly charged the nest alone, destroying the gun, killing three more Germans and capturing four others. Garcia fought on with his unit until the objective was taken and then allowed himself to receive medical treatment.

Garcia was decorated with the Medal of Honor by President Harry S. Truman on Aug. 23, 1945, at a White House ceremony. It was a momentous occasion that defied the hardscrabble upbringing Garcia had in Texas.

Garcia was born Jan. 2, 1920, in Villa de Castaños, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. He arrived in the United States with his parents, Luciano and Josefa, in October 1923. After spending time near San Antonio, the family moved to Sugar Land in 1935 where it found work on a ranch.

Garcia worked the fields throughout his young life, often missing school and only achieving the equivalent of a third-grade education. On Nov. 11, 1942, Garcia was inducted into the U.S. Army. He was not an American citizen but would later say he felt obligated to do something for his adopted country.

Garcia was part of a tank division led by Gen. George S. Patton that was among the first wave of American Soldiers to make landfall in Normandy in June 1944. Days after his arrival, he was wounded and would spend four months recovering before rejoining his unit a month before his fateful trek through Germany.

In the years after being awarded with the nation’s highest honor, Garcia enjoyed several milestone moments. On Jan. 8, 1946, Mexico awarded him with the Meritor Militar, the nation’s highest military honor, during a ceremony in Mexico City. Garcia became an American citizen on June 25, 1947, and earned his high-school diploma in 1951. He married Alicia Reyes on May 18, 1952. The couple had three children. Garcia worked for 25 years as a counselor in the Veterans’ Administration.

In later years, Garcia was part of a group of Mexican-Americans who greeted President John F. Kennedy at a Houston gala on Nov. 21, 1963. Kennedy spoke about U.S. and Latin American foreign policy to the group of Hispanic World War II veterans and civil rights advocates gathered at the Rice Hotel. The visit was seen as a momentous occasion for minorities throughout the country. A day later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Garcia died on Dec. 24, 1972, from injuries he sustained in a vehicle accident. He was buried with full military honors at Houston National Cemetery.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa