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Vet says D-Day left greatest imprint of the war

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WWII vet Gerald Rock poses with a small copy of the New Testament that he carried with him in the war.

WWII vet Gerald Rock poses with a small copy of the New Testament that he carried with him in the war.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

Utahn Gerald E. Rock, son of a Sparks, Nev., railroad worker, fought from the Aleutians to Bastogne during World War II — but the harrowing 24 hours of D-Day on Omaha Beach left the greatest imprint in his memory.

Rocky recalled the long night of June 5, 1944, on a ship crossing the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy as Operation Overlord began the invasion of Germany's "Fortress Europe." Many soldiers got sick on the troop ships crossing the channel and those who didn't were likely to get sick on the small LCT landing craft that were to transport them from the troop ships to the beaches, he said.

"The LCTs made everyone sick. They were bobbing up and down like corks in the high seas. The bad weather and the smell of vomit made everybody in the boat sick."

Although he doesn't remember being terribly afraid during the ride in the LCT to the beach, "Once that ramp fell down, and the German machine guns open up, I was scared. Actually, petrified is more like it," Rock said. "Pretty soon, though, fear leaves you and you want to take charge of yourself and do whatever is of benefit for yourself and all others.

"I think my fear left me when three of my buddies drowned. And when my sergeant was killed, I think hatred set in. Maybe I shouldn't say that," Rock, 79, mused.

Although three of the 11 men in his squad were lost immediately to drowning, Rock's group was more fortunate than many because his coxswain was able to maneuver the LCT to within 150 yards or less of the beach, which gave the men in his landing craft a better chance of making it to shore.

"It was extremely difficult to walk in the water because the waves would almost drown you. We were carrying at least 60 pounds of equipment and so many soldiers would get in over their heads and drown," Rock said.

"We got up to the beach, I really don't know how we got through the machine gun fire, which was peppering the water. There were bodies floating in the water and bodies and parts of bodies all over the beach. It was a terrible thing to see.

"My sergeant was about six feet ahead of me and we were trying to get up to the high water mark and some cover when a mine or a shell blew off his left leg and literally shattered his right leg. The concussion blew the rest of us down. His body from the waist down was shredded. Another soldier and I pulled him to the high water mark and he pulled me down and asked if he had lost a leg. You don't lie to soldiers so I told him 'yes.' He pulled me down to him and said 'Don't let me die without my leg.' I told him I'd get his leg and I went back and found a leg, but he was dead by the time I got back to him."

Rock recalled that particular event as "a terrible and very sad moment." The sergeant, considered an old man in the unit, was in his mid-20s.

"I had a small New Testament that my older brother, Alan, gave me when I went into the Army. I felt that New Testament, which I carried in my shirt pocket throughout the war, was a shield around me. My brother said to me, 'Whatever you do, don't lose it. Keep it in your pocket.' A lot of soldiers weren't very religious, but I felt as though I had a shield in my pocket. After a few weeks in combat, religion starts to play an important part in a soldier's life."

Recently, his wife, Dorothy, had the tattered New Testament put inside a shadow box with a glass cover to keep it from deteriorating.

The Rocks celebrated 55 years of marriage Friday. They have lived in the same Salt Lake house for 43 years, having moved in after he was transferred here by Safeway to be district manager for Utah and Idaho.

"If I had to do it over again and for the same cause, I'd be the first to enlist. We had freedom to fight for, unlike Korea and Vietnam. What did they fight for? We knew we were fighting for freedom. If it took our lives or not, we knew it had to be done," Rock said.

"There were lots of times on the beach when I thought I would never make it home. I constantly thought the next bullet was marked for me," Rock said. Of his four brothers who served in World War II, he was the only one who saw combat and he was not wounded, other than being hit by some shrapnel.

After the first day of fighting on the beach, a headcount showed only three of the 11 men in Rock's squad were alive. He fought on through the hedgerows and about Aug. 1, heard Patton's 3rd Army was looking for experienced anti-aircraft crews. "I had seen enough killing." He joined a AAA platoon and spent a cold winter in 1944, including fighting around Bastogne to relieve the encircled 101st Airborne Division during the German winter offensive in the Ardennes Forest.

Regarding the belated dedication last week of the World War II Memorial in the nation's capital, filling the long void of a monument to the 14 million who were in uniform, Rock believes it was the nature of the men and women of that generation not to ask. "We never asked for anything, we never wanted anything. When I got off that ship in New York City I made a pledge to myself that I'd never talk about the war. When we got home, we just wanted to settle down and be somebody and do something.

"When my sons asked what I did, I said, 'Just what every other soldier did.' "

Now he said, after talking about his service, "I feel like it's turned something loose in my mind, and I don't think I like it."

E-mail: lweist@desnews.com