Valor Friday

| September 17, 2021

Vito “Rocky” Bertoldo

Vito Rocco “Rocky” Bertoldo was born in 1919 in Decatur, Illinois. He worked as a coal miner and then a truck driver for a company that made auto parts before World War II when they changed to making munitions. Due to poor eyesight, he was ineligible for the draft.

Despite his draft exemption, Bertoldo decided to enlist as many men of his generation had. In 1942 at age 23 he joined the US Army. Due to his eyesight woes, he was only approved for limited duty as a military policeman. Rocky soon was able to talk his way into the infantry and was assigned to Company A, 242nd Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 42nd Infantry Division.

The 42nd Infantry Division (42nd ID) had been originally formed during World War I from men from all over the United States. At the time (and also during World War II), with the exception of the peacetime Regular Army units, newly raised or organized units (often coming from the National Guard) were typically made up of men from a particular geographic region. For example, the 77th Infantry Division (the “Liberty Division”) from New York and the 36th Infantry Division from Texas.

The 42nd ID’s soldiers had come from a variety of backgrounds which led then-Major Douglas MacArthur, the division’s chief of staff, to suggest calling the formation the “Rainbow” division. The name stuck. During World War I, the division would participate and acquit themselves well in the Champagne-Marne Campaign, the Aisne-Marne Campaign, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In total, they saw 264 days of combat. Of a nominal 14,000 men assigned to an infantry division, the 42nd ID suffered more than that many casualties (2,058 killed in action and 12,625 wounded) during their year of fighting.

Deactivated after The Great War, when war again embroiled the world, the division was reactivated in 1943 in Oklahoma. As in the First World War, the division was made up of men from across the US. From July 1943 to February 1944 the division engaged in training their 13,000 men. Suddenly a great need arose for trained men to reinforce units stationed in England that were preparing for Operation Overlord, the Invasion of Normandy.

The Army moved thousands of the 42nd ID’s men, leaving behind only a cadre to train a whole new group of draftees and volunteers. The division again was cannibalized for needed men after Operation Overlord created a need for men in Europe once again in the summer of 1944. This time even more of the 42nd’s men would be taken and sent as replacements to units already embroiled in France.

Instead of fresh recruits, the 42nd Infantry Division received a different kind of replacement after their second mass exodus. The men they received were mostly men who had been involved in other aspects of the operational army, such as clerks or those in school training programs. One large group had been part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) which was paying men to attend college. After graduating, they’d bring their new expertise to the Army as officers. In 1944, with the Invasion of France a success, there was a more pressing need for men with rifles than those with degrees. Tens of thousands of men were removed from the program and pressed into active service early. Some of them landed with the Rainbow Division.

Again, the officers and NCOs of the 42nd Infantry Division started the arduous process of creating a combat-ready infantry division. In September 1944, word came down from Washington that the last three divisions being trained stateside (including the Rainbow Division) were to embark from New Jersey in December. Due to the need for foot soldiers in Europe, only the infantry regiments would initially go.

Rocky’s assignment to the 242nd Infantry had been as a cook. He’d made a name for himself as a bit of a troublemaker, not seeing eye to eye with the company’s mess sergeant. In fact, the company commander said years later that Bertoldo was the unit’s only trouble spot as they headed to Europe.

After embarking immediately after a brief Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey, 9,000 men of the 42nd Infantry Division steamed their way across the North Atlantic. Arriving in Marseilles, France, the men would get a glimpse of the war that awaited them. The transport ship had to sail around sunken wrecks in the port. The scene was one of ruin. Arriving at solid ground, the foot soldiers were marched to a temporary hilltop home in a cold rain.

December 1944 had seen the Allies march deep into Continental Europe through France and make good headway towards the Rhine. It was then that the Germans pushed back. They did so in two major offensives. The first is the legendary Battle of the Bulge. The second, in which the 42nd ID and its Private First Class Bertoldo would participate, was Operation Northwind.

As the Battle of the Bulge started, chaos was the situation that the 42nd Infantry Division landed into at the rear eschelons. Combat-tested units were moved around and the 42nd ID was moved to replace them in weak spots across the line. The 42nd ID had no combat veterans, so they were moved repeatedly into “safe” areas to serve as a guard against a German flanking maneuver.

The 42nd Division moved so frequently that the men spent that cold winter (the coldest in 20 years) moving from one hill or field, digging in, and later in the same day moving to a new position and digging in all over again.

It was in one of the allegedly safe sectors that the 242nd Infantry was in the small village of Hatten in the area of Strasbourg along the French-German border. The division was sparsely positioned and defending a 31-mile long stretch of the front line. It was here that the inexperienced officers and men of the 42nd Division would first see combat.

When Operation Northwind commenced, the Americans at the front were caught totally unawares. It was described in the immediate aftermath and in the decades since as a terrible failure of military intelligence. Because the division had deployed without any of their artillery support, the infantrymen were on their own. The Germans had committed eight divisions to Operation Northwind.

On 5 January 1945, Bertoldo’s Company A and its parent 1st Battalion, 242nd Infantry were moved to cover the village of Hatten. It was not considered a strategically important location and was not expected to be the location of any major German assault. As so often happens in war, the enemy did not cooperate with our plans.

One after actions report, filed immediately after the battle describes it as such;

So ended a tragic battle, one which unfortunately saw the participants come under their first baptism of fire. Despite the outcome, no discredit can be brought upon them, for they fought bravely against insurmountable obstacles. … The final result was undoubtedly due to the apparent lack of intelligence on the part of the Task Force as to the proper enemy strength and disposition. … The officers and men were given the impression they would encounter small enemy patrols. … They had absolutely no idea of the trouble they would run into. The obvious lack of sorely needed vital support to accompany the infantrymen, in the form of tanks, large guns and bazooka ammunition to counter the German armor, stemmed from erroneous G-2 information on the enemy situation.

A call came in to the company from battalion headquarters that each company was to provide three men to serve as guard for the battalion command post. Bertoldo’s company commander volunteered him for the job, since he was the unit’s only problem child. “Good riddance,” The captain thought.

The brutal winter was hard on the men. One said, “The misery of the snow, mud, water, cold nights and frozen food will never be forgotten.” On 9 January, the village that was supposed to only be home to small German patrols erupted into chaos at 0500 hours.

For 12 hours the men of the 242nd Infantry were hammered by the battle-hardened Germans. The Americans received not a single shot of supporting fire from anti-tank guns or artillery. Despite this, the hastily trained men of the 242nd Infantry held fast as the enemy threatened to overrun their positions.

As the battalion’s lines were being endangered, Private Bertoldo mounted a determined defense of the battalion command post (CP). Firing his machine gun from the door of the CP, he repelled one enemy assault.

As the enemy massed to within a block of the CP, Bertoldo took his machine gun out to the street. Setting it up in the middle of the road, he manned the weapon alone. Fully exposed to the enemy and so close he could see the whites of their eyes, he held back wave after wave of enemy infantry.

For 12 long hours, Bertoldo fought in the open like this. When the enemy brought out their dreaded 88-mm gun (originally designed as an anti-aircraft gun but used to devastating effect as an anti-personnel weapon), he held fast.

He moved back into the CP as German tanks moved to within 75 yards of his position. Mounting his machine gun to a table, Bertoldo covered the main approach to the CP from a window. Despite continued withering fire directed at him from the 88-mm guns, machine guns, and small arms fire, he kept up his one-man defensive line. Even a direct hit to the room from one of the tanks didn’t stop him. It blew Bertoldo across the room, but he immediately returned to his gun and continued the defense.

The enemy brought up two armored personnel carriers, which they escorted with a tank. Bertoldo calmly waited for them to dismount and then opened fire. He held the machine gun and leaned out the window in order to get a line of fire on all the German soldiers. Despite more intense direct fire from the tank, Bertoldo killed an estimated 20 enemy infantry.

The command post was considered an untenable position, so the order was given to move. Bertoldo volunteered to remain behind to cover the retreat. Throughout the night from 9 January into the 10th, Bertoldo held his position. A single man against the German Wehrmacht.

The next morning he moved his machine gun to an adjacent building, being used as a command post for another of the regiment’s battalions. Here he staged another day-long defense.

One attack he broke up that day was a frontal assault by 15 infantrymen supported by a self-propelled 88-mm gun and a tank. After being routed, the enemy sent another 88-mm gun to his position.

The German gun was mere feet away from Bertoldo now. The Germans placed the barrel of the gun (designed to take out whole airplanes flying at altitude) nearly within the building Bertoldo was in to finally silence their determined foe.

Blasting the massive cannon into the building, Bertoldo once again was sent flying across the room. Seriously injured men lie all around him. As an American bazooka team moments later silenced the enemy gun, a dazed Bertoldo moved back to his machine gun and dispatched still more of the enemy.

This command post was also deemed unsafe. They intended to evacuate under cover of darkness, but the enemy pressed a hard assault before nightfall. Infantrymen supported by tanks and heavy guns once again threatened to overrun the American men at the CP.

Despite the overwhelming odds arrayed against him and the devastatingly large firepower disparity in favor of the enemy, Bertoldo held his position. Raining fire into the Germans and lobbing white phosphorous grenades, he single-handedly broke yet another fierce frontal assault.

Again the Germans brought up a tank. A direct hit to the CP threw Bertoldo a third time across the room. This time the blast rendered his machine gun useless. Despite his mounting injuries, the cantankerous bespectacled cook took up his rifle and continued to single-handedly cover the retreat of his comrades as they hastily evacuated the command post. It was only then that he was finally able to stop fighting as the battalion was relieved on 11 January.

M/Sgt Bertoldo receives his Medal of Honor from President Truman

Bertoldo (and most of the 242nd Infantry) had been fighting without rest or relief for 48 hours. For his actions over those two days, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. His award citation (which notes his subsequent promotions to master sergeant) sums up this incredible display of individual valor;

With inspiring bravery and intrepidity M/Sgt. Bertoldo withstood the attack of vastly superior forces for more than 48 hours without rest or relief, time after time escaping death only by the slightest margin while killing at least 40 hostile soldiers and wounding many more during his grim battle against the enemy hordes.

Bertoldo was mustered out of federal service in 1946. He then worked as a contract representative for the Veterans Administration. Spending more than a decade helping veterans find and receive their benefits, he left in 1958 and owned a landscaping company. Diagnosed with cancer, he died in 1966. He was just 49 years old.

Bertoldo was survived by his second wife Mae Caroline Bertoldo (m. 1958). She passed away in 2005. He was also survived by a son, David Valor Bertoldo, from his first wife. David would go on to serve in the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, where he earned a Bronze Star Medal. He would go on to have a career with the California Highway Patrol and is still alive. David’s son, David Christopher Bertoldo, continued the family tradition of military service and was in the Army during the Gulf War.

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

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Which clanked louder the treads on the German tanks or this mans balls.


Never underestimate the power of a Mess Hall Daddy.

Thank You, Mason, for sharing this wonderful story of VALOR.


Holy hell. He had to have had a troopship solely dedicated to bringing him back to the US. With balls that big, there wouldn’t have been room for anything else on the ship.




I’d like to know a bit more about the machine gun and ammo supplies that he made such impressive use of.

At a guess, I’m thinking .30 caliber since he was able to haul enough ammunition to hold forth with a lot of it. The .50 caliber stuff is pretty heavy and cumbersome.

Also, do you know if M/Sgt in that era was the same insignia as SFC has been for the past 40 or so years? Or, was it already three chevrons with three rockers?

Great story of exceptional valor, ever amazing to see what a man can do when placed in a situation.

MI Ranger

Yeah, I am a little confused on how much ammo this young man had, and used. He was must likely very conservative in his use, and highly accurate. But still, were people running out to re-supply him with ammo?

Great citation! Well deserving. I am very surprised I had never heard of this man. I grew up in Decatur, IL and had no idea that a Medal of Honor recipient was from there. There are no plaques to my knowledge around town. And if there were it must have been in a very obscure location. While Illinois is a very liberal state, Decatur is a far cry from Upstate Chicago. They voted democrat only because of the unions…and then it was only by a slim margin.

Old tanker

That reads more like a pure comic book fiction than an actual historical event. Huge brass ones indeed.


Please also remember that today, 17 September 2021 is
National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

Never Forget. Bring Them All Home.


Thank you Mason. Another fine story of one of our true heroes.

Mike B USAF Retired

Now every poser is going to claim they were battle hardened hero cooks……..