WWII veteran, now 99, volunteered for the Army in 1942
Editor’s note: This article is part of The Inter-Mountain’s Unsung Heroes series, which features veterans in our area and shares first-hand accounts of their military service. The series is published each Monday through Veterans Day.
ELKINS — At nearly 100 years of age, an area World War II veteran recalls many memories from his service, including saving his parachute — which his first wife turned into her wedding dress.
Former United States Army Staff Sgt. Roger Bertolini, 99, of Elkins, joined the military in 1942.
“World war broke out in 1942. That’s when them idiots over in Japan struck us. I joined the service March 17 (1942). I went to Fort Hayes, Ohio,” Bertolini explained. “Me and my friend next door, Joe Tinskey from Philippi, we went up to the YMCA. … We went up there and joined the Army.”
Bertolini was placed into the 82nd Infantry Division where he completed basic training. He later was moved to the 82nd Airborne Division, where he trained to be a parachutist.
He added the Army later created another airborne division, the 101st Airborne Division, of which he was a member.
“They moved us from Camp Claiborne (Louisiana) to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They took a cadre of non-commissioned officers, like myself, and a cadre of commissioned officers. They shipped us to North Carolina and we started a new division, which was the 101st Airborne Division,” Bertolini said. “Then I took training with the 101st, and finally we were shipped from North Carolina to New York.
“We had to go through the city of New York and toward that time it was back alleys out on the ocean bay to get on the ships, because they were trying to keep everything secret,” he continued. “Then we started for England.”
Bertolini recalled witnessing several atrocities, including crossing the English Channel, which he described as “red with blood” on June 6, 1944, commonly known as D-Day, and seeing a fellow parachutist hanging from a church steeple in France after being shot down.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a general and the commander of the Army at that time, Bertolini said, leading the massive invasion into Europe that began on D-Day.
“He was a good commander and knew what he was doing. The morning of D-Day, we were all loaded in our gliders and loaded in our planes with our parachutes. He spoke to us and said, ‘Don’t worry about going over the English Channel. In case something happens to you, there are so many ships you can walk across the channel,’ and that’s the way it was,” he said. “D-Day, the English Channel was red with blood because so many of our 82nd and 101st (Airborne Divisions) flew over and dropped into France, but most of the other divisions had to come in by boat and pontoon boats, go across the channel and they were blown to pieces. …
“The first time we got into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France, and I can remember going in there and looking up. There was a church steeple and there was a poor parachute guy hanging there where he was shot down and his parachute was hung on the steeple,” he added. “I remember one of the officers saying, ‘Get that damn soldier out of that mess that he’s in.'”
Bertolini said that later in his service, he and several other officers were in Holland guarding the Nijmegen Bridge from German soldiers and working to set up a headquarters. That is when he cut his parachute in half, using half to make a foxhole more comfortable for him and his men and sending the other half home to his wife, Leota “Duddy” Flannagan-Bertolini.
“I saved my old parachute that I used. …,” he said. “I shipped it home and my wife made her wedding dress out of it.”
Bertolini recounted discovering a concentration camp in Germany on May 9, 1945, and working to process the individuals killed at the location.
“We got up that morning and were getting ready to go on an attack. All of us were ready for a fight. We saw all kinds of people wandering around and here it was, next door to us was a concentration camp, and it was full of Jewish people, thousands and thousands of them in that building,” he said. “We looked in the windows and you could see where they were laying. It was just like waves in the river.
“Finally, the officers got a hold of the officers there in the city and we cleaned out the place. There were hundreds and hundreds of dead Jewish prisoners of war. We got them buried and then we went on,” he continued.
Bertolini was part of the 194th Battalion before being honorably discharged on Sept 23, 1945. He has been awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal.
“A lot of us had enough points to be discharged, and I was one of them. I was one of the first to be discharged. So, I was sent to the 194th Battalion of another Airborne Division in Fort Meade, Maryland, and I was processed there,” he said.
In the years after returning to his parents’ home in Norton, Bertolini purchased an Army truck and hauled stone to assist in building the flood control roadway in Elkins. He later owned the Palace Service Station on Randolph Avenue in Elkins, sold tires and appliances and installed carpet throughout his extensive work history.
Bertolini’s parents came to Ellis Island from Italy before later residing in Norton. In 1990, his first wife passed away.
He later got remarried to Jeannie Bertolini, who resides with him in Elkins.