World War II & D-Day

“I served with Company C 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, more affectionately known as the Big Red One, and our division motto was ‘No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, duty first’; and I have strived to live my life with that motto always in mind.”

Rocco Moretto belonged to one of the first waves of 18-year-olds conscripted to serve in World War II. On D-Day, wading ashore alongside his comrades in the celebrated but tragic 1st Infantry Division (of the 219 soldiers in his unit alone 217 were either killed or seriously injured, leaving only Moretto and one other GI to survive the war without serious injury), the young soldier reached Omaha Beach as German bullets and cannon shells just barely missed ending his life.

Moretto belonged to Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.” He came ashore on Omaha Beach in the second wave during the June 6, 1944 Normandy invasion.

Per Rocco:

“On June 4, the Company Commander came back with our mission. He made it sound real easy. He says, “We have to get off that beach as quickly as possible”. I don’t know how long it took me to get in, but the water was red from blood from my buddies who became causalities, and oh, it was really horrible. But I wasn’t really afraid. The only thing I was afraid of was that I would drown; I couldn’t swim. When I finally got to the shore, there was about a dozen guys from my company who all got hit there, most of them I guess were dead. Things were so bad you couldn’t do anything. And the loudest voice I’ve ever heard in my lifetime, was I believe was a platoon Sergeant from Texas, who was about 6’4”, he says “GET OFF THIS BEACH!”. My first fighting I was 19, and I always used to say to myself “I hope I live to be 21”. And I got to be 21…I got to be 21.

“They dropped the ramp. We were in very deep water with all our equipment. The currents were swift. And the German artillery had zeroed in on us.

Four of us were caught in a minefield, trying to get uphill. Three of us made it and one was blown up by a mine.”

Moretto fought continuously, with almost no sleep, until mid-June. After a brief respite, “We helped close the Falaise Gap in early August. We had a couple of days rest, and then fought on through northern France and to the Belgian border. In the Mons area, we ran into a very large German contingent and had a heck of a fight. We were outnumbered but we killed a lot of Germans and captured thousands.”

Company C was in heavy fighting in the Huertgen Forest as summer became autumn, then winter. The abrupt, front-wide counterattack by German armies on Dec. 16, 1944, surprised Allied commanders in the Ardennes, a forested plateau in northern France that been the scene of earlier fighting in both world wars. At various points along the front, German troops and tanks broke through American defenses. As viewed on the map, the assault created a “bulge” which, if it grew large enough, might divide Allied armies and enable the Germans to drive for, and capture, Antwerp, Belgium.

Company C was transferred to the 2nd Battalion just in time for the Bulge.

Moretto’s battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Derrill M. Daniel, relieved engineers who were defending a Belgian crossroads called Dom Bütgenbach. Not far from Moretto, the 33rd Field Artillery Battalion dug in with 105 mm howitzers. As the Germans came at Moretto and his buddies late in the day on Dec. 17, their assault began a battle in which artillery and tanks were vital.

Moretto remembers constantly using his Garand rifle during three days of fighting between Dec. 17 and 19. At one juncture, he sighted on a pair of German soldiers charging up a snow-covered rise about 40 feet away and pumped bullets into them. “It’s rare when you get a clean shot at an enemy soldier with your rifle. You’re usually not closing with the enemy. The longer you go, the more you start to lose the feeling that you can do no wrong. Psychologically, you’re always afraid, but the longer you stay at it, the less sharp you feel. Everybody talked about the ‘million-dollar wound,’ which was the only way to get home.”

Between pointblank firefights, Moretto’s best friend, Sgt. Bob Wright, was killed by an exploding German artillery shell only feet in front of Moretto’s foxhole.

Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s subordinate but feuded constantly with Ike, announced the end of the Battle of the Bulge during a Jan. 7, 1945 press conference.

“We didn’t like that,” said Moretto. “American soldiers handled the brunt of the fighting.”

The German offensive in the Ardennes became an American victory. Some 30,000 Germans were killed. Today, many view the Battle of the Bulge as a last gasp by Hitler’s Third Reich, which collapsed in May 1945.

“When the war concluded, Pvt. Bennie Zuskin and I were the only two in my company who went through the whole thing without being killed, captured, or wounded.” (Defense Media Network, 2010)

After coming home from serving in the war, Moretto dedicated himself to community service. In 1966, he earned a Certificate for Outstanding Community Service from the New York City Housing Administration at City Hall.

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