Bert Rockower was a corporal in the 9th Army that landed on Omaha Beach five months after D-Day during World War II. By then U.S. troops had advanced across France and liberated Paris. American forces were at the Siegfried Line, the massive concrete and steel fortification protecting Germany’s Western Front.
“It was just before the Battle of the Bulge, early December 1944, and our outfit, the 334th Regiment, 84th Division, moved into battle in Holland. Our objective, Prummern, Germany a little town on the other side of one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world,” the 85 –year-old former infantryman who lives in Port Charlotte, Fla. explained.
“We were about to go into battle. I saw Malinowski who owed me a couple of bucks from a poker game the night before,” Rockower recalled six decades later. “’Let me pay you because I may not be here tomorrow,’ his buddy said. “Malinowski was killed by a German machine gunner before the day was done.
“We reached some trees in front of the Siegfried Line that were full of German mines. Tanks with rotating flails exploded the mines and cleared the way for us. As we came out of the trees I jumped into a slit trench, dug by the Germans, for protection..”
Facing the soldiers of the 334th was an open field several hindered yards deep. At the end were machine guns housed in concrete and steel pillboxes with interlocking fields of fire manned by soldiers from the German’s crack 9th Panzer Division.
“The Germans started shelling our position. The shells were getting closer and closer. I moved forward into one of the shell holes. I had company, a BAR man (Browning Automatic Rifleman) jumped in the hole with me. In the middle of all the chaos he started cleaning his rifle. The BAR man had lost it,” Rockower said.
“We continued our advance toward the enemy pillboxes. I saw an American soldier in front of me leaning against one of the machine gun nests protruding from the ground. I thought he might be wounded so I made my way over to him. He was dead!
“Once we reached our objective we climbed atop the concrete pillboxes and dropped smoke grenades down the ventilation system to smoke the Germans out. They came out firing their weapons. We captured 15 and killed the rest,” he said.
“We took our prisoners back to a compound behind our lines. I was one of three or four guys detailed to take the Germans to the holding area. We were almost back to where we would drop them off when I was hit by a sniper’s bullet. It went through my neck and exited through my right shoulder. I spun around and collapsed,” Rockower vividly recalled.
“One of the other soldiers guarding the prisoners saw me go down. He stayed with me. While I was lying on the ground my buddy took a miniature Bible I was carrying and read from the Book of Psalms. A medic came by and gave me a shot of morphine. As I laid there American bombers flew over headed for Germany.
“A couple of guys from my squad stopped and told me, ‘We got the sniper.’ That made me feel better.
“A Jeep arrived and took me back to an evacuation area. A medic brought me a glass of water and said, ‘Drink it!’ I did. He smiled and said, ‘You’ll be okay.’
“I was taken to a hospital in Brussels, Belgium staffed by American nurses. When I woke up my arm and shoulder were in a cast. Later I was flown to England to a hospital in Winchester.
“It was there I learned I was the sole survivor of my 12 man squad that attacked the German pillboxes along the Siegfried Line. To this day I still think about those men,” the old soldier said.
“A Red Cross girl was making the rounds of our ward talking to each of us. She asked if there was anything she could do for me. I told her there was a WREN (Women’s Royal English Naval Service) named Joan, a Morse Code operator at the nearby naval air base, I wanted to get in touch with. I explained I met her at a dance before going into battle.
“The next day Joan showed up in her naval uniforms with two of her girlfriends who were also WRENS and in uniform. They went around talking to all the wounded soldiers. The ward was transformed from a room of despair to a lovely place.
“Joan was the girl who told me, after that first dance when I asked her for a date, ‘I don’t go out with American soldiers.’”
She went out with Rockower on many occasions when he returned from battle.
“After I got out of the hospital I was assigned to SHAFE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe) in Grosvenor Square. It was 30 minutes from where Joan’s family lived in Pinner – outside London,” he said.
“Before I asked Joan to marry me I had to get permission from the Army because she wasn’t an American citizen. Both said yes.”
After the war, when the young couple came to the United States, Rockower continued his education. He had graduated from high school at 15 and at 17 was finishing his second year of engineering in college when the war broke out and he enlisted in the Army. He graduated from Columbia University in New York City after the war with a mechanical engineering degree. He ended up in the space program.
Apollo 7, that orbited the Earth for 11 days in 1968 with astronauts Walter Schirra, Don Eisele and Walter Cunningham aboard, was guided to its rendezvous in space by a gyroscope Rockower helped design and build. At the time he was working for MIT.
After retiring, he and Joan moved to Port Charlotte in 2000. She died three years ago. They were married 62 years. They have three grown children, Mark in Port Charlotte, Geoff in Lexington, Mass. and Gail in Tewksbury, Mass.
Address: Heritage Oaks subdivision, Port Charlotte, Fla.
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Entered Service: Dec. 14, 1942
Unit: 334th Regiment, 84th Division, 9th Army.
Commendations: The Purple Heart; Combat Infantryman’s Badge; European, African, Middleastern Campaign Medal; American Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal and Good Conduct Medal. He served in the Rhineland Campaign before being wounded.
Married: Joan Clayton
Children: Mark, Geoff and Gail Rockower.
This story was published in the Charlotte Sun, Port Charlotte, Fla., March 12, 2010. It has been republished with permission.
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