When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, Staff Sgt. Rocco J. “Rocky” Moretto was one of only two men in his infantry company who’d landed on D-Day and fought through to victory without being killed, wounded, or captured. 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. A diminutive figure who looks barely larger than his M-1 Garand rifle, Moretto later remembered the war not so much for the pitched trauma of combat but for the long hours of being sleepless and cold.
An Army history of Moretto’s division says that on Dec. 16, 1945, some 24 German divisions, 10 of them armored, launched a massive counterattack in the Ardennes and that the Big Red One held the crucial shoulder of the “Bulge” at Bullingen, “destroying hundreds of German tanks in the process.”
“The battle began for me with German tanks emerging from snow and fog, coming over a rise with machine guns firing. There would have to be something wrong with you if you weren’t frightened.”
Said Moretto: “The battle began for me with German tanks emerging from snow and fog, coming over a rise with machine guns firing. There would have to be something wrong with you if you weren’t frightened. They broke through our line, but our artillery slaughtered the infantry who were accompanying them. The German infantry never did break through our lines, but two tanks did.”
It was the fight that had been coming Moretto’s way all his life. Born in 1924 in New York City, he grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. He played baseball and boxed.
“Soon after Pearl Harbor, which happened when I was age 17, they lowered the draft age,” said Moretto. “I was in the first group of 18-year-olds to be drafted, on Feb. 12, 1943. The induction center was Fort Dix, N.J. I went to Camp Wheeler, Ga., for 13 weeks basic training.”
Moretto arrived in Liverpool, England, in November 1943 and joined the 1st Infantry Division as a replacement. “It was widely known that we were preparing for an invasion of Europe,” he said, “but no one knew where the invasion would take place. I made private first class a week or two before the invasion.” Today, a plaque on Omaha Beach marks the spot where he and his fellow GIs began the liberation of Europe.
“Somebody was yelling in the loudest voice I’ve ever heard: ‘Get off this beach!'”
“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. When we finally made it on land, there were at least a dozen guys hit by artillery. Somebody was yelling in the loudest voice I’ve ever heard: ‘Get off this beach!’ 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.
“The longer you go, the more you start to lose the feeling that you can do no wrong.”
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.”
“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.”
Moretto, who turned 90 in June, lives in Long Island City, N. Y.
THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON DEC 14, 2014