By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
Last fall, Myron Roker received a special package at his home in Glenwood. Inside the white envelope was a letter from Consulat General de France A Chicago and a medal making him a Knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest military distinction given to living U.S. veterans who risked their lives during World War II while fighting on French territory.
To receive the honor, a veteran must have fought in at least one of the three major campaigns of the Liberation of France - Normandy, Provence/Southern France or Northern France. Roker certainly had the qualifications, having spent 204 days in combat during one of the murkiest years of the war.
“The number four was significant in my life at that time,” Roker said. “I arrived in Europe in September 1944. I was in the 324th Infantry, 44th Division. I spent 204 days in combat, and 144 days without a break.”
Although Roker says he doesn’t feel as though he’s a hero – he was simply doing his job, he insists - his story is certainly heroic.
The Clatonia, Neb. native grew up during the Depression and his family was poor. By the mid 1940s, Roker knew he would eventually be drafted to serve, so he took a proactive approach.
“When I knew I would probably be inducted, me and a classmate went to Beatrice to be in the Navy. We both passed the written test, but I did not pass the physical test because I wore glasses,” Roker said.
“As a result, I was inducted into the Army at Fort Crook Omaha in February 1943.”
Following basic training in North Fort Lewis, near Tekamah, Wash., the 44th Division stayed on the west coast to protect the Washington and Oregon coastlines. In January 1944, the division began an eight-month training regiment. The soldiers trained until August, specifically, Aug. 19, 1944, the date of Roker’s 21st birthday.
“We were put on a train and had no idea where we were going,” Roker said. “When we disembarked near Boston, we knew we were going to the European theater.”
Roker’s eight months of training were about to serve him well. The troop traveled on the U.S.S. General Gordon to France, leaving Sept. 1, 1944, and arriving Sept. 15 in Shelbur, France. They spent two weeks in Shelbur before traveling to Normandy.
In November 1944, they were at a farm where Roker’s friend, Mike DePalma, found their Thanksgiving dinner.
“There was a rooster walking around and Mike took a stick and hit it in the neck,” Roker said. “We had it almost plucked when they said ‘move out,’ so we sat in a truck picking feathers.”
It turned out, Roker and his comrade were picking feathers off a rooster during an important time in history.
“We were the first troops to reach the Rhine River,” Roker said. “We captured Strausberg and the German barracks there. One of our fellas proceeded to cross the bridge to go into Germany. He was shot at, not hit, but he ran back. Otherwise, he would have been the first to cross the Rhine.”
The German barracks provided the equipment Roker and DePalma needed to prepare their holiday meal.
“We found the kitchen right away,” Roker said. “And we had fried chicken for Thanksgiving dinner.”
It was a happy memory in the face of some hard times.
Roker was in the Ammo and Pioneer platoon, which carried ammunition to the front lines in Normandy.
Roker, specifically, ran a metal detector and located mines, flagging them so when other troops moved, they would know the locations of the mines.
“One of the reasons I got this medal is because I have a piece of metal in my right calf about the size of a pea,” Roker said. “It was not serious enough for me to be evacuated. I limped for about three days, then I was fine.
“We went into combat in the town of Luneville. We marched out of headquarters that night until about 2 a.m. and were near the town when they told us to dig our foxholes. We were close enough to hear the Germans talking, so we dug in quietly.”
When daylight came, the battlefield madness began.
“We were pinned down and shelled until around 10 a.m.,” Roker said. “One squad member, Kehoe, came over to Mike and I’s hole. We told him he’d better get back. The last words he spoke were ‘Those (jerks) can’t hit anything.’ As he got back in his foxhole, a sniper in a tree hit him in the neck.”
It wasn’t until after his friend died that Roker discovered he was from Milford, Iowa.
The platoon was detained to place mines on Dec. 29, 1944, with trip wires attached in a half-circle in a wooded area. Roker and DePalma finished their job quickly, and shared a cup of coffee while waiting for the rest of the troops to arrive at a designated location. The commanding sergeant asked Roker to come with him and re-set the trip wires. Then he stopped, thought for a second, and said “No, Mike you are the one who set this trip wire, you come with me.”
DePalma went with the sergeant, and five minutes later there was an explosion – and explosion that took the life of Roker’s friend.
Nearly 70 years later, the memory is still so vivid and painful to Roker that he has difficulty talking about it. Several years ago, however, he recounted the day in a newsletter for World War II veterans.
“Towards the end, we were going through an area with a lot of dead Germans,” Roker wrote. “There was one guy laying there, still alive, but with no legs. He said ‘halt,’ but one of our guys shot him. I didn’t think that was right, but we put him out of his misery.”
Roker was in France for the remainder of the war.
“When we went into a small town, the first thing we would do is call in the artillery to shell the church steeple,” Roker said. “The Germans used that as a sniper outlook.”
Roker returned to America after serving 10 months in Europe.
“We came back on the Queen Elizabeth (ship),” Roker said. “They had Pepsi Cola for sale, and we all bought that. We had to take turns sleeping, and I was fortunate enough to get a bed at night.”
Landing at Pier 90 in New York City, Roker saw a familiar face.
“Marlene Dietrich was there to meet us,” he said fondly.
It was the second time he had seen the movie star in person.
“We got a break at Ulm,” He said. “Marlene Dietrich put on a show for us. Her legs were insured for a million bucks. They used a flatbed for a stage, and sat on the ground. She lifted her skirt and had our division patch on her stocking. Boy, did the guys holler at that.”
For his war efforts, Roker received numerous medals and honors, including a relatively-recent one he will always remember and cherish.
On May 21, 2008, Roker traveled with 101 other WWII veterans on the first Heartland Honor Flight to visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“That, and the day we returned (home from the war), were the only times anyone said thank you,” Roker said.
Roker, like many veterans, returned home after WWII and began life anew. Roker married his wife, Viola, and they had four boys and two daughters. They fostered 19 children, adopting one of them.
He speaks at West Elementary each year, sharing his story with fifth graders. The humble man still insists he did nothing extraordinary.
“Those guys who died, they are the heroes,” Roker said.