Replacing father's medals reveals a chapter in an unknown hero's life

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The paper was brittle with age, but the words, typed in the uneven lines of an old manual typewriter, were clear: "R E S T R I C T E D. Headquarters, 42d Infantry Division."

Beneath the heading, less clear but still legible: "General Orders, APO 411, U.S. Army, Award of The Soldier's Medal, By Direction of the President, 9 January 1946."

The soldier was my father, Pfc. Peter S. Rocco.

In June 2006, 60 years after its issue, I read that fragile page of General Orders because my mother had asked me to recover the medals my father earned during his overseas service in World War II.

The medals disappeared soon after my father received them in 1946, but he'd never reported the theft nor tried to recover them. My mother, 20 years old when my father earned them and now in her 80s, wanted them anyway.

My father was drafted in 1942, but because his two older brothers were already serving, one in Africa and the other in Europe, he was discharged. Unable to stay home while his brothers were in harm's way, my father enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1944, was assigned to the 402d Field Artillery Battalion, 42d Infantry Division, the "Rainbow Division," and deployed to the European Theater of Operations. He was 24 years old.

My mother told me that after the war, my father never talked much about his military service. I knew what she meant: When I was old enough to be curious, I'd pressed him for war stories, but he'd mostly tell about basic training, imitate his relentless drill sergeant, or describe C-Rations. He showed me the soldier's Bible he'd carried in his breast pocket, over his heart; I ran my finger over the metal cover, dented and creased where it had stopped shrapnel.

But sometimes gruesome details slipped out - a mention of flame-throwers, the sounds after a battle, the smell of decay, or the shrapnel that wasn't stopped - and he'd quickly change the subject.

Once he showed me a pistol - a Luger - and as he turned it over in his hands, he said in a quiet voice that he'd taken it from a dead German soldier. That's the closest he ever got to talking - really talking - about the war.

When my father died in 1963, he was 43 years old. His war stories died with him; that's the way he wanted it.

But there were some clues to his wartime experiences in the photo album that my mother had kept for six decades. In the first photo, taken soon after my father enlisted, he stands next to a huge ammunition truck, one booted foot on the running board, a big grin plastered across his face.

Nearer the end of the album, there were fewer photos of him and his brothers-in-arms, more of war-torn landscapes, German soldiers with hands clasped behind their heads and, finally, freight cars piled with the pale, naked, dead bodies of emaciated human beings stacked, as my father wrote on the back of a photo, "like cordwood."

There were photos of Dachau inmates, skeletal faces ghastly in black and white, cheering their liberators. On one, my father's caption reads: "Many of these prisoners were going to be killed by the Nazis the same week we liberated them."

Another photo showed two German soldiers sprawled dead beside railroad tracks, jackboots looming in the foreground, faces smashed grotesquely. On the back, my father's handwriting: "Two German SS soldiers" - here there is a hyphen and a space, as if he were searching for words, and then - "beaten to death by the prisoners at Dachau."

In the photos taken nearly a year after he'd enlisted, my father's face is gaunt; he looks weary and haunted, his lips thin and tight.

And tucked away at the back of the album was the Order awarding him the Soldier's Medal.

So, in the summer of 2006, I wrote to the 42nd Rainbow Division Veterans Memorial Foundation for help. I filled out the Department of Veteran's Affairs online application. More forms were required; signature and identity verifications had to be notarized and faxed. There was a setback when I was informed that a major portion of Army personnel records from 1912 through 1959 had been destroyed in a fire. The original award of the medals had to be verified; I had to show proof that I was who I said I was in order for personnel records and medals to be released.

One year later, a large padded envelope arrived with the return address of U.S. Army TACOM, Clothing & Heraldry. The envelope contained several dark blue boxes. I had to sit down before I could open them; I didn't expect to be so shaken. I held the medals, decorations, battle stars and badges in my hands, felt their weight, admired the engravings of shields and eagles and stars.

Each revealed something about my father and my father's war that I hadn't known. A badge showed that he'd been an expert with the carbine; I'd never known him to use a gun. His name was engraved on the bronze Soldier's Medal with the words "For Valor" on the reverse; a bronze oak leaf cluster secured to the ribbon meant that this was his second award.

My father's medals had found their way home. Or almost home. I still had one thing left to do, and I had to do it in person.

A few weeks later, my husband and I joined my mother and stepfather at a tiny inn on the central California coast, in Cambria. My stepfather lit a fire in the fireplace, and we were cozy and warm. My mother sat on the couch with her sister and brother-in-law close by. My stepfather put his arm around my mother's shoulders, and I placed the official-looking envelope in my mother's hands.

Her hands shook as she opened the boxes and carefully removed each medal, ribbon, badge and pin. We passed them from one to the other, all quiet, all respectful of my father's memory, of his service, and of my mother's long, patient wait. We read the General Orders with the description of his act of valor.

"Thank you," my mother whispered to me, her hazel eyes filled with tears.

My father didn't think of himself as a hero. "The real heroes are those who never came home," he always said. He never talked about what happened near the end of the war, in May 1945, at Mittersill, Austria, when he risked his life to save the lives of others.

When I raise the flag this Veterans Day, the flag for which my father fought so dearly, I will thank those who fought - and who still fight - for our country. And I especially will remember one brave young soldier as my mother still remembers him: as one of the best that America had to offer.

• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.


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