Valor Friday

| September 18, 2020

Leo Rosskamm receiving a medal. Photo credit The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 April, 1946

Leo Rosskamm was a farmhand in Holsensolm, Germany, where he was born and raised, before World War II. In 1938, when he was about 18 years old, Herschel Grynszpan assassinated German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris. Grynszpan, a 17 year old Polish Jew born in Germany, provided a perfect opportunity for the Nazis to begin their anti-Jewish pogrom. Just two days after Grynszpan’s attack on the diplomat, the Nazi Party’s SA Brownshirts began Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht (crystal night) was so named because of all the broken glass that littered the streets.

Rosskamm, along with millions of other Jews, was soon herded off to a Nazi concentration camp. While a prisoner at Buchenwald the Jews were subjected to harsh treatment. Rosskamm relayed how for a period of five days they received no food or water. When an elderly man collapsed into his arms a Nazi SS guard stepped up. The guard used his rifle butt to bash the old man’s skull in and to shatter Rosskamm’s right shoulder.

Throughout the war, 56,545 of the 280,000 prisoners at Buchenwald died because of the conditions there. That’s more than 20 percent. Many of them were literally worked to death under the Vernichtung durch Arbeit policy (extermination through labor).

In 1939 Rosskamm became one of the lucky ones. He escaped Buchenwald after about six months. He’d secured visas and other needed documentation to emigrate to the United States just a few months before WWII began with the German invasion of Poland. His parents, brother, and sister were not so fortunate. They all perished in the death camp.

Soon after arriving in Brooklyn, Rosskamm became a US citizen. He found work in a delicatessen. When American involvement in the war was virtually guaranteed, and the first peacetime draft began, Rosskamm volunteered. In January 1941, he volunteered for service “because this country gave me a home and I want to join the American army now.”

He was worried that his shoulder, having been injured by the Nazis and requiring surgery once stateside, would preclude him from military service, but it didn’t hinder him at the draft board. Rosskamm was sent to Fort Dix for his year of military service. A year was the standard term of service at the time. Later in 1941 it would increase to 18 months and by 1942, once the US was officially embroiled in the war, enlistments were increased to the duration of the war, plus six months.

Through his military service he was known as a quiet and capable soldier. For some reason, possibly because he had been a prior prisoner of the Nazis, he was not sent to the European Theater. Instead, assigned to the Tenth Army, he was sent to the Pacific.

He was a technician fifth grade (equivalent to a corporal) in April, 1945 when he would distinguish himself in the most amazing way. Only 21 years old, he’d already survived the Nazis and would now face off against the Japanese.

On the 19th of April, 1945 he was a medical aid man attached to an infantry company advancing on Okinawa Island. This was about three weeks into the massive battle for the island that saw nearly a quarter million American troops face off against 76,000 very well entrenched Japanese soldiers (reinforced with an additional 40,000 conscripts). The battle raged from 26 March to 2 July and was one of the last major offensives before the planned invasion of the home islands.

As Rosskamm’s company moved forward they were raked by enemy machine gun fire. The fire wounded one of the combat engineer demolition men as he moved on a machine gun position located in a cave. With the wounded man out in the open and exposed to withering enemy fire, rescue seemed impossible.

Not for Technician Rosskamm. He crawled across the battlefield, enemy machine gun fire whizzing over his head. When the intensity of the enemy fire halted his advance he called back for a flamethrower. Under cover of the flame, Rosskamm advanced on the cave and the enemy within, rescuing the injured man.

The next day, 20 April, his unit was again advancing when enemy fire knocked down one of the company’s sergeants. Writhing in pain, the man fell in the open, still within the field of fire of the gun that took him down.

Rosskamm could see the man was seriously wounded. Undeterred by the intense fire, he again crawled forward into the enemy rounds to help a wounded comrade. Once he arrived at the injured sergeant he administered aid and used his own body to shield his patient from additional injury.

Later on that night, Japanese forces were able to infiltrate Rosskamm’s unit’s area and began a surprise attack. With several of the men wounded in the action, Rosskamm leapt from his foxhole to get to work treating those wounded.

While attending to a patient two Japanese soldiers sprung upon him. Rosskamm, thinking remarkably quickly, grabbed the rifle from the wounded soldier and shot both of the enemy at nearly point blank range. After dispatching the two attacking soldiers Rosskamm returned to methodically dressing the wounds of the injured.

As the battle continued, Rosskamm again came to the aid of his fellow soldiers. On 28 April, an adjacent unit suffered several casualties. That unit being without a medic, Rosskamm responded to the calls for help, without orders, to attend to the wounded.

While evacuating one of the men, Rosskamm was hit by an enemy round through the helmet, knocking him to the ground. Disregarding his own safety and wellbeing, he got to his feet, and continued carrying the injured man to safety.

Despite his own injuries he returned to the active combat area to continue rendering medical care to the wounded. While giving aid to another felled man Rosskamm was shot through the neck. He momentarily paused his lifesaving efforts to attend to his own wound. After dressing it, and despite bleeding profusely, he continued to attend to other injured men.

Seeing the severity of the medic’s injury, he was asked to leave the battlefield and have his wounds looked at. Technician Rosskamm refused, insisting that there were others worse off than he that needed his help.

Finally an officer saw the valiant Rosskamm’s grievous injuries and ordered him, demanding he leave the field. With great reluctance he did so. His award citation said that his displays of extraordinary heroism on the 20th, 21st, and 28th of April were a source of deep inspiration to those who bore witness.

Rosskamm’s war was over after his injuries on 28 April, 1945, since by the time he was healed from his injuries, Japan had surrendered.

At the ceremony where Rosskamm was presented his medal, his commanding officer recounted a story of Rosskamm using a pair of scissors to amputate a man’s arm in the middle of one of his battles. Enemy rounds zipping by overhead and he’s using scissors to amputate a man’s limb. Astounding. The CO said that Rosskamm was “the bravest man I ever met.”

On 28 April, 1946, one year to the day of his wounding, he was in Brooklyn at Prospect Park. He was before a crowd at the National Refugee Service, the man of honor at the event. Now a technician fourth class (equivalent to sergeant), Rosskamm was at the same refugee service who had helped him seven years before when he’d arrived in the country.

Before a crowd of 1,000 Jewish war veterans, Technician Fourth Class Leo Rosskamm’s incredible bravery was honored with the award of the Distinguished Service Cross. When asked how he felt about the medal, the country’s second highest award for valor, he said, “I don’t think I deserve this award. It belongs to the ones who were born Americans and who wanted to fight for a country where they were always safe. It belongs to those who gave their life to this country.”

The South Florida Sun Sentinel quoted Rosskamm in an article dated November 12, 1989. The article was quoting veterans, who had just the previous day participated in Veteran’s Day events, regarding the recent fall of the Berlin Wall.

Rosskamm, even more than 40 years after the war, was cautious. He said, “I like to see the wall going down. But I don’t like thinking of what might happen in the future. I remember Hitler. I fear the same thing that happened in 1933 could happen again.”

Rosskamm must have led a quiet life after the war. I can’t find much at all about what he did for the remainder of his life. He died in 1996 at age 78. He was survived by his wife Anna, who died in 1999 at age 86. Rosskamm was living in Boston, MA at the time of his death and is buried in nearby Sharon, MA.

I think Leo Rosskamm is right. I don’t think he deserved the Distinguished Service Cross. I think his valor, unwavering devotion to duty, and willingness to sacrifice for his fellow soldiers is more than deserving of the Medal of Honor.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Real Soldiers, Valor, War Stories, We Remember

Comments (6)

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  1. AW1Ed says:

    Just, damn. Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks, Mason.

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    “…is more than deserving of the Medal of Honor.” Testify!

    One of the ways we can pay Honors to Patriots such as this is to make sure that the parallels we are seeing now to what happened in Germany in 1939 do not end up as things did there.

    Battery Gun Salute…Fire by the Piece from Right to Left….COMMENCE FIRING!

  3. Roh-Dog says:

    Shalom, Mister Rosskamm. Your valor is the example of “There is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends”.
    See you on the Highest Ground, Doc.
    The pleasure will be mine.

  4. Graybeard says:

    That such men live.

  5. Thunderstixx says:

    I just finished reading “Sons and Soldiers” from Bruce Henderson.
    It’s the story of “The Ritchie Boys” that were Jews that had escaped Germany, came to the United States and after some wrangling with the authorities that thought they were enemies embedded in the US to cause damage to the United States after Pearl Harbor and the entry into what would become “The Second World Wars” (H/T VDH) they were drafted into the Army.
    While in the Army, they were sent to Camp Ritchie in Maryland for Military Intelligence, yeah, I know, go figger, and sent to the ETO to serve as translators and interrogators against the Germans.
    To a man, they all performed their duties in an exemplary fashion and all were cited as being one of the reasons we were able to destroy the Wehrmacht as fast as we did.
    Think about it, we beat the shit out of the vaunted German war machine in a period of 11 months after we landed upon Festung Europa…
    Truly a great read !!!

  6. MK75Gunner says:

    A fitting valor Friday as today is the Jewish New Year. שנה טובה ושמחה