Joseph “Bob” Pocoroba is 95 years old and still drives at night. He cooks, shops and is quick with a one-liner. His memory is razor-sharp, especially about the stuff that happened Over There.
The longtime Brick, New Jersey resident can tell you about the time he went blind for two days because of a plant, about the champagne he found hidden in abandoned French homes, about the shell that thankfully didn’t detonate when it landed a few feet away during a brutal bombardment.
Pocoroba also recalls the scene at Bitche, the town in northeastern France that he helped liberate in 1944. As a sergeant directing a five-man gun crew in the woods, Pocoroba saved an entire platoon that was surrounded by Germans. That earned him a Bronze Star, the highest of nine medals he’s preserved in a framed case.
“It was a terrible fight we had,” he said. “We fired for four hours.”
The French government remembers it too. On Friday it will bestow the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor to Pocoroba and 26 others during a ceremony in New York City. In other words, great-grandpa is getting knighted.
“Not to sound corny but they really were the greatest generation,” said Jane Patterson, Bob’s daughter. “They went through everything.”
There aren’t many left to tell the tale. And the tale is so worth hearing.
Malaria and Blindness
Pocoroba grew up in Newark, graduated from Good Counsel High School in 1938 and enlisted in the “Essex Troop” cavalry regiment at the war’s onset.
“I joined because I loved to ride horses,” he said. “My uncle was a horse trainer.”
He wasn’t with horses for long. The regiment mechanized before shipping out in the fall of 1942 (it was reorganized in 1943, and Pocoroba ended up in the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron). Pocoroba served in North Africa, where he was a security guard for Dwight Eisenhower — “very nice guy, down to earth,” he said — before fighting in Italy and France.
In Italy he came down with malaria. “Terrible thing, such a high fever,” he said. A medic offered some pills and a warning: “These are good for two or three weeks, then you’ll come down with malaria again. But at least you can do this mission you’re going on.”
The mission was the allied invasion of southern France in August of 1944. Pocoroba’s biggest problem upon landing was not enemy fire; it was an allergy to the countryside’s plants.
“I went completely blind. Couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” he said. “Two guys led me around for two days.”
His sight returned after the squadron left the area, but the incident was a foreshadowing.
Cited For Heroism
On Dec. 31, 1944, Pocoroba was leading a rear guard in Bitche when another officer radioed requesting help. Here is what Major General Edward Brooks wrote in his Bronze Star citation:
“Sgt. Pocoroba, in charge of a gun crew, directed fire continuously for over four hours. Disregarding the intense counterbattery fire and his own personal fatigue, he continued to direct accurate supporting fire. A platoon of one troop was surrounded and called for supporting fire. Though having a clearance of only 50 yards between the friendly and enemy forces, the crew fired effectively and forced the enemy to withdraw far enough to allow the platoon to escape.”
Taking coordinates over the radio, Pocoroba never saw where he was firing. But his intuition and skill with a Howitzer proved true. Three months later, when the general awarded him the Bronze Star, he had a question.
“I said, ‘What about the five guys who were with me?’ ” Pocoroba said. “(The general) said, ‘Hey, they took commands from you.’ “
Pocoroba came home in August 1945. He married sweetheart Doris that November, and they stayed together until her death in 2002.
“She took care of the prayers while I was over there,” he said. “She said a lot of novenas.”
The other thing that got him through it? Pure patriotism.
“When I saw the American flag I would always think of home and I was so proud of it,” he said. “You get a feeling when you’re overseas that long and you see the flag.”
Adjusting to civilian life was hard. For years, he got anxious when planes flew overhead. The sound of cars backfiring made him jumpy. Like many men of that era, he said little about the horrors of war.
“He’s amazing,” his daughter Jane said. “He’s never even raised his voice to anyone.”
One More Honor
The French government has made it a practice in recent years to recognize still-living Americans who helped liberate the country. It took Pocoroba three years to accept the invitation.
“My grandkids were on me to get it,” he said. “I said, ‘OK if that’s what you want, but I’m no hero.’ A lot of guys probably did a lot more than I did.”
Such humility is why Rosemary Sparandera, a neighbor in his Greenbriar II adult over-55 community, reached out to the Asbury Park Press about his impending award.
“I thought we had to have his story told to more people than the people in this community,” she said, “because I look at this man as a hero even though he doesn’t look at himself that way.”
The letter from the French consulat general echoes that view. It’s no coincidence that the Legion of Honor ceremony takes place just before Veterans Day, which is Tuesday.
“This prestigious distinction underlines the deep appreciation and gratitude of the French government for your contribution to the liberation of our country during World War II,” Bertrand Lortholary wrote. “We will never forget the commitment of the American heroes to whom France owes so much.”