Myron Roker remembers Feb. 26, 1943, as if it was yesterday.
“That was one of the saddest days of my life,” the 94-year-old World War II veteran and Nebraska native told a group of fifth-graders at Jay Shideler Elementary School on Tuesday. “I was leaving my parents and my girlfriend. I didn’t know if I’d ever see them again.”
With humor, grace and moments of heartbreaking emotion, Roker, of Glenwood, Iowa, spoke for nearly an hour about the experiences that started at the age of 19 as a member of the U.S. Army’s 324th Infantry Regiment of the 44th Division, fighting in France and Germany from February 1943 until November 1945.
“I’m the only one left in my squad,” Roker told the roomful of students. “They’re all gone.”
Showing black-and-white photos he took with a 620 Kodak Brownie camera on a screen, Roker recalled 204 days of combat, including 144 days straight without a break. He recounted the injury he sustained in France that left shrapnel in his leg and earned him a Purple Heart, and he told another story in which he was shot in the shoulder but didn’t bleed.
“If it would’ve bled,” he said, laughing, “I’d have two Purple Hearts.”
Roker said his job as part of an “ammunition and pioneer” unit was detecting landmines.
“I’d have to go out in front of the line and sweep it (for mines),” he said. “We didn’t dig them up, but we had to flag them.”
Roker didn’t spare details about the harsh conditions he fought in, how he lost friends in battle and the psychological wounds of war that have plagued many veterans. He recalled when one of his closest friends died after accidentally tripping a landmine close to the two men.
“That could have been me,” Roker said. “To this day, I don’t know why.”
“I’m not a hero,” he continued. “The heroes are the ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice. The ones who live without arms and legs are the real heroes.”
Roker was invited to speak to the class by his great-grandson Conner, whose father is Topeka Capital-Journal president and publisher Zach Ahrens. Roker said he’s glad to be able to share his war experiences with people now. Many WWII veterans weren’t able to for many years, he said.
“We never talked about this when we got back,” Roker said. “It wasn’t until 16 years ago that we started talking about this.”
During the question-and-answer period at the end of his presentation, Roker fielded several inquiries from the students, many of them asking if he happened to know an older relative of theirs who had served in the military and whether he had met Adolf Hitler.
Asked what was the most difficult part of his training, some of which took place in Washington state and Louisiana, Roker said what happened at Camp Phillips near Salina stuck out the most.
“We had to put on a field pack and had to march 25 miles at 3 o’clock in the morning in the middle of summer,” he said. “I made it, but I had a lot of blisters.”
Jaxon Cowdin, a fifth-grader, who asked about the training, said he thought Roker’s stories “were amazing.”
“He’s lucky to be alive,” he said. “I’m thankful he was here to talk about it.”
Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or follow her on Twitter @AngelaDeines.