The war and 60-plus years have punched a few holes in Bob Rommel's memories. But there is steel in his voice, forged in combat and paid for with his own blood.
"I did what I did for myself and my country," he proclaims. Rommel's résumé is impressive even for World War II.
He jumped into Europe with the 101st Airborne on the night before D-Day and then jumped again in Holland during the failed attempt to take a bridge across the Rhine. He was part of the "Forgotten Battalion," 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of World War II that was turned into a book and documentary. He served side by side with the men of Easy Company, portrayed in the Stephen Ambrose book and HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers." In the Battle of the Bulge, a German shell made mincemeat of his foot and he spent 119 days in the hospital.
From the friends and blood he left on the battlefield, Rommel swears his allegiance to the flag. "That flag represents our country. A lot of people have died for that flag."
His journey to war started in Modesto. He left Modesto High School to join. He tried the Seabees first, but they rejected him for flat feet. He would get a job in Rodeo, in Contra Costa County, and then wait for his draft notice.
The Army was his second choice and the flat feet were overlooked in early 1943. After basic training, he recalls, "a friend talked me into volunteering for paratroops. The funny thing is,he got disqualified and I went on alone."
He earned his paratrooper wings during training at Camp Toccoa, Ga.
"The first jump didn't scare me," he says. "But as you go on and realize what's happening, it bothers you a little more."
He was assigned to Headquarters Company as part of a machine gun platoon.
Looking at a picture of his platoon from about 1944, he wondered, "If I hadn't seen myself get old, I wouldn't know who I was."
He also doesn't remember who many of his comrades were, not by name anyway. He would pick out the only six men he knew who were still alive. The names may escape him but not the faces and what they meant to him -- one a shy Texas boy, another a leader called "Sarge."
Rommel himself started erasing memories on D-Day. It was the first and last time he would acknowledge seeing any of his comrades killed.
Before he jumped, his life was spared along with all the paratroopers on the same plane by the courage and skill of the pilot.
"The plane I was in got hit just before I got out. The plane turned on its side and everybody was hanging on to the static line. The pilot fought it, brought it back and we all got out. I wondered what happened to him. I found out after the war he went down in the (English) Channel."
His only hands-on encounter with a friend's death came that first day in Normandy.
"I pulled a guy I knew out of a well. I think he drowned. But I couldn't let myself think about it. I had a job to do. From then on, nobody ever died."
They did die, but Rommel was trying to trick his mind.
"I told myself they got transferred. Guys got transferred in and out of the outfit all the time."
The mind ruse worked for 60 years. Ten years ago, Rommel says, he was looking in the mirror while he was shaving.
"It all came back. They were dead and I couldn't stop crying."
His name almost got him killed at a checkpoint one night. The famous German field marshal, Erwin Rommel, really was kin, his father's second cousin. And it was Rommel's forces he was fighting in Normandy.
"I was coming in from a patrol and a checkpoint challenged me: 'Who goes there?'
"I caught myself just before I said 'Rommel.' They would have blown my head off. I just yelled 'It's me!' "
When he parachuted into Holland three months later, it was supposed to be a seven-day mission to capture several bridges to get into Germany and end the war by Christmas. Seven days turned into 72. Rommel remembers one of the worst moments.
"Our officer was leading us through this field outside of town. The Germans started shelling us and blew the officer's face off. A Dutch farmer got hit, too. I remember the blood running out of his wooden shoes."
At the Battle of the Bulge in December and January, things got worse. The 101st Airborne was cut off and surrounded in Bastogne, a Belgian town that was a crossroads for seven highways. American forces were cut off for two weeks and outnumbered 10-to-1.
Not long after the 101st was relieved by the Third Army commanded by Gen. George Patton, Rommel would earn a Purple Heart.
"I saw one shell burst five feet over my head. But it didn't hurt me. All it did was sit me right down in the dirt."
The next shell did the damage. Even though the burst came from farther away, shrapnel tore through his left foot. He wouldn't get out of the hospi- tal until one day after the war ended in Europe.
'Oh yeah' moment tempered
When Rommel returned home from Europe, he had one more duty that he owed himself.
"My sergeant had told me I'd never make it back alive. I had to look him up and show him I made it."
Some of the luster came off his "Oh yeah" moment when Rommel met the sergeant and found he had been paralyzed.
For 10 years, Rommel has attended a support group to help him with post-traumatic stress disorder. But he has little patience with veterans who use the problem to justify personal failings.
"Just because you had it rough is no reason to debase yourself. War is always hard on soldiers. Always has been, always will be," Rommel says. "Some of the Vietnam guys complain they didn't have any front lines. I was a paratrooper. We didn't have front lines either. Most of the time we were surrounded."
If he shows annoyance with some fellow veterans, it turns to downright anger when it comes to those who disrespect America or the Stars and Stripes.
After his first wife died a few years ago, Rommel took a trip to see a war buddy in Michigan. When he got back, his children had put up a 25-foot flagpole next to his house. The flag has flown over Rommel's home ever since. There is a spotlight to illuminate it properly during the evening. Rommel replaces flags when they show wear.
He has flown a flag that once was raised over the White House. It was a gift from Rep. Gary Condit when he finally received medals he earned 50 years before.
How much does Rommel love his country and the flag?
He shows pain at the very question. "Do you love your parents? That's how much I love my country and the flag. That's what it means to me."
Staff Writer Roger W. Hoskins may be reached at email@example.com or 578-2311.