When you’re in the midst of combat, there’s no way to know all the strategic details carved out by commanders.
Wichitan Bob Rogers didn’t know until about 10 years ago that it was Omaha Beach where he landed with other U.S. troops shortly after the initial invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The 20-year-old Army corporal attached to the 101st Airborne Division was set to take part in the invasion by flying in on a glider early on the morning of D-Day. But a last-minute decision came down that he and some other machine gunners needed to remain at an air base in England.
Reasons weren’t clear. Orders change. Rogers waited.
Some days later – Rogers isn’t sure how many; he wasn’t counting – his turn came. He found himself riding a bucking landing craft through the waves to the Normandy beach.
“Never so seasick in my life,” he recalled 68 years later. “It was worse than a glider.”
But not as bad as German artillery shells that were soon exploding around him as he moved inland.
A shrapnel wound to his back wasn’t too bad. But a few days later, not far from Sainte-Mere-Eglise, two pieces of shrapnel tore into his head. More than two months at a hospital in Oxford, England, followed.
“Can’t say I ever saw the university,” Rogers said with a chuckle.
But he learned plenty through the war and during ensuing struggles and joys of life, such as doing what you can when you can.
He married his wife, Irene, on June 3, 1950 – the day after she graduated from Wesley Hospital’s nursing school.
“They didn’t allow students to be married,” Rogers said, “but we didn’t waste any time after she graduated.”
Other experiences have ranged from inconvenient to horribly painful. Hearing loss caused by the shrapnel wounds, colon cancer, heart pacemakers and the death of a son a few years ago.
“I’m in good shape for the shape I’m in,” Rogers said. “You do what you can at the moment.”
And that brings a message he has for other WWII veterans and their families: If you want a commemorative brick placed at the new World War II memorial at Veterans Memorial Park, you’d better get it done now.
Only 360 chances remain.
Organizers raised funds to build the memorial by selling the bricks for $100 each to honor Wichita-area WW II vets.
They were hoping to sell 500. They sold that many within a month after first being offered last June. The memorial was in place and dedicated in November. More than 1,000 bricks fill two sidewalks leading up to the memorial at the park, which is along the Arkansas River northwest of downtown.
But requests for bricks have continued. So organizers are going to squeeze in a third sidewalk, which will have space for 360 bricks.
“But when those are gone, that’s it,” said Phil Blake, a WW II vet who served in the Pacific and spent a decade working toward getting the memorial in the park. “The market is still there. People are calling saying, ‘Grandpa died last week. I want to honor him.’
“Too bad they didn’t buy the brick when Grandpa was alive.”
And that brings up a lesson Rogers, now 88, has long understood.
“If you want to do something,” he said, “do it today. Or you might not get it done. They’re too many people who put things off. They’re not interested until the last minute.
“If person who was in World War II hasn’t wrapped up thing by now, they might not get it wrapped up.”
The cost of the memorial has been paid, so selling more bricks isn’t the issue. Additional money collected goes into a trust fund for maintenance of the WW II memorial and other U.S. veteran memorials in the city not already covered by a fund, Blake said.
The final 360 bricks are being offered because of the demand. More information on a getting a brick can be found on the group’s website, www.wichitaworldwariimemorial.com.
“I dread the day when all those are sold, and I have to say, ‘No more,’ ” Blake said.
The 360 bricks will bring the total for the memorial to 1,495. Blake has estimated there were about 20,000 men and women from the Wichita area who served in the military during WWII.
Rogers, who serves on the WWII memorial board with Blake, has spent a lifetime trying to enjoy the moment and his family.
It has meant learning to snow ski at the age of 47. He’s played Santa Claus for years at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center.
“Don’t miss a chance to do what you need to do,” Rogers said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
He vividly remembers the night before July 18, 1944, when the shrapnel punched a hole in his helmet and ripped into his head.
“I was talking with a buddy, and he told me he had a premonition that something was going to happen to him,” Rogers said. “He wanted me to write his girlfriend. I told him, sure, I’d do it.
“Well, the next night I got hit in the head. I didn’t have any premonition. Nothing happened to my buddy, but that was almost it for me.”