It happened late one night. I was sitting at home literally stunned and shocked at what I had just read. Until that moment I hadn’t known how the story had ended. I wondered if my father had known. If he did, he never said so. I’ll never know for sure.
D-Day brings to mind war stories, especially this year being the 70th anniversary. I was raised on such stories as told by my father, an old solider who was in the thick of it during the big one in Europe. As a medic he was part of the invasion force that swept Sicily. He was also there on the beaches at Normandy and part of the movement north that took him into Belgium near the German border and the snow-packed fields of the Bulge. His military service ended in a hospital where he almost lost a leg from being holed up in a foxhole during the war’s deepest freeze.
Among the many stories was one that took place in Sicily. One day he was attending to a wounded soldier while under heavy fire. A Jeep drove up carrying some officers, one of which asked, “Hey soldier, do you know what you’re doing?” As my father told the story, he responded that he hoped he did while muttering to himself something like, “Why don’t you come and help?” Instead, the Jeep moved on.
Several days later my father was called into the office of the Company Commander where we was handed a sheet of paper with a message prduced on a field typewriter. Among its accolades it stated that: “While riding in a column of vehicles near Campobello, Sicily that was being bombed and strafed by the enemy, you exposed yourself with utter disregard for your own safety in order to care for a wounded soldier.” The Letter of Commendation was signed by the ranking officer from the Jeep who turned out to be Brigadier General Maurice Rose.
General Rose was a big name in our household. I’ve thought about him just as I have wondered how close the bombing and strafing came to my never existing.
Rose was not one of the legendary generals from the war so I was surprised and impressed that evening when I was reading Stephen Ambrose’s book, Citizen Soldier: The U.S.Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. In telling about the frozen Christmas warfare at the Bulge, Ambrose makes reference to, “Maj. Gen Maurice Rose, the much-admired and much loved CO of the 3rd Armored.” I was pleased — as though a member of the family had been canonized — his reputation chiseled into military history for being loved and admired.
Turning a Corner
That was the first reference to Rose in the book, the other one came toward the end. I was close enough to being finished that I stayed up a little later reading when out of the camouflage of words and paragraphs, Amrose fired a cannon at my heart:
Once again Gen. Rose was in a Jeep. This time he was leading a column attacking a German tank training center. Turning a corner, his driver ran into the rear of an enemy tank. The German tank commander, estimated to be about 18 years old, opened his turret hatch and leveled his gun at the general, yelling at him to surrender.
Gesturing at Rose’s pistol at his side, the tank commander, who seemed extremely agitated, kept yelling. As Ambrose tells it: “Rose lowered his right arm to release his web belt and thus drop the hip holster to the ground. Apparently, the German boy thought he was going to draw his pistol; in a screaming rage, he fired his machine pistol straight into Rose’s head, killing him instantly.”
Maurice Rose was the first and only division commander killed in the European Theater.
That’s when I was stunned. General Rose- another victim of the war. That wasn't supposed to happen. I had this momentary sinking feeling. I hadn’t realized how much the man affected me.
There was something else I didn't know: Ambrose wrote that it was later rumored in the American Army that the German who shot the general did so because, “he knew Rose was Jewish.” Ambrose, however, dismisses that theory. The gunner, in a chance meeting, could have hardly known that.
Skilled and Gallant
Rose died March 31, 1945, less than two months before the war in Europe ended. What a waste. The teenage soldier who killed him might have gone on to live a long life. He would be an 87-year-old veteran today who has seen his ravaged country rebuilt, divided and reunited. Did the moment when he killed a great man ever haunt him? Or has it been blotted out in the mind of a kid pushed into combat by a wicked government in the last desperate days of the war?
A website for the Third Armored Division has a bio about the General which says that he was so brusque with the Germans in negotiating their surrender in Tunisia that he was nicknamed, “Old Gravel face.” After his death, the New York Times eulogized that the American Army had been, “deprived of one of its most skilled and gallant officers and a man of rare personal charm.” His many awards, having fought in both world wars, included the Legion of Honor given by the French army.
There is another award to this story. Many years after the war my father heard from a friend that veterans could write to the U.S. Defense department to get any medals they might have earned but that during the postwar turmoil had been overlooked. From Washington came the expected purple heart, plus something unexpected — a Bronze Star medal for bravery. It was a distant salute from General Rose.