NORMAL, Ill. — Flipping through photographs and telegrams and handling bits of artillery shrapnel that earned him a Purple Heart, Ralph L. Rossman took time on Thursday to recall his service during World War II.
Rossman, 95, of Normal, was 21 years old when the Army drafted him in November 1942.
"I served for three years, one month and 23 days," said Rossman, proving his sharp memory.
The seventh of eight siblings, Rossman left his home in rural Minonk shortly after his brother was drafted.
He completed basic training at Camp Blanding in Florida and was in camps throughout the U.S., including posts in Tennessee, Indiana and Boston.
"In February of 1944, I boarded the S.S. Argentina in Boston with 5,000 troops," said Rossman. "We left on Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, and landed in Scotland on Washington's birthday, Feb. 22."
After a train ride from Scotland to Bognor Regis along the English Channel, Rossman's unit first stayed in civilians' houses because the barracks were full.
"They were afraid Germany was going to cross the Channel, so they kept us there for a while," he said.
While there, the company commander told Rossman's unit it was going to maneuver with an incoming armored unit. When the trucks rolled in the next day, Rossman realized it was his brother Wilbert's unit.
Before he could even return to camp to set his tent for the night, Rossman said his brother had rushed to find him.
"It was quite a reunion for us, being that far away from home for so long," he said.
Rossman recalls Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and British Army Commander Bernard Montgomery visiting his camp to see if troops were prepared for their first round of combat.
"They cheered us on a little bit," said Rossman.
His first action was the Battle of Normandy at Omaha Beach on June 14, 1944, eight days after D-Day.
"They had soldiers on this British ship with small assault boats filled with a dozen people. They put troops down in the water," said Rossman. "We got in the water and could just wade in. Some guys just didn't stand a chance because the water was too high. We were lucky, being on land at the beach. It felt real, then."
While fighting in St. Jean de Daye in Normandy, Rossman was hit in the crook of his right shoulder by shrapnel from an artillery shell.
"All I can remember is a couple of tanks burning up and shrapnel flying everywhere," he said. "I was paralyzed from the waist down."
He vaguely remembers a buddy, who he still speaks with today, lying him down and sprinkling sulfa powder in his wound to prevent infection.
Rossman was retrieved by medics who dressed his wounds; he flew back to England for surgery. The feeling returned to his body.
The shrapnel had clipped through his dog tag chain and a holy metal chain he wore from his mother.
"Here I am at 95. My mother probably wore out her rosary. Somebody up above was watching out for me," he said.
Rossman received the Purple Heart for his efforts in Normandy. He still has the twisted pieces of shrapnel taken from his shoulder along with other WWII mementos from his service, including the telegram informing his mother he had been wounded, photos from down time, his uniform and foreign coins.
After working in the 14th base Post Office in France, he returned to the U.S. in 1945.
"I remember when we were landing in Brooklyn, flying right past the Statue of Liberty and thinking, 'Oh my God, we made it,'" he said.
Rossman began working for the Minonk Post Office, married his wife, Bernadette, and had two daughters before moving to Normal. The couple has been married 60 years. In 2012, he took the Land of Lincoln Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with his daughter, Theresa Weldy.
More than 70 years after his service, Rossman said being in WWII has affected his view of patriotism in a few ways.
"You wonder. Why do we have all this fighting? Why can't we do good for people instead of finding more reasons to fight war? It's hard to say," he said.
"It makes you feel proud that people still remember you on Veterans Day. It's a duty we all did back then."