WWII Veteran Rockforte honored by Friends of the Plaquemine Lock on D-Day

MICHAEL EBY Contributing writer
World War II veteran Joseph J. Rockforte, center, talks with Michael Eby, Peter Gauthier and Eddie Maher during a program honoring his service presented by The Friends of the Plaquemine Lock on Thursday afternoon at the lock house. 
POST SOUTH PHOTO/Peter Silas Pasqua

PLAQUEMINE – The Friends of the Plaquemine Lock honored World War II Veteran Joseph J. Rockforte on Thursday at the lock house.

Rockforte, 90, was present on D-Day, June 7, 1944, the day of the Normandy landings, initiating the Western Allied effort to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi occupation.

"Our unit disembarked on June 7, I slung my rifle on my back, climbed over the railing of our ship and climbed down the cargo net into a landing craft," Rockforte said. "Shortly thereafter we land on Utah Beach, proceeded inland and came under German fire."

The Plaquemine native was later captured and served as a prisoner of war.

Rockforte was born Aug. 3, 1922 in Iberville Parish before his family moved to Port Allen. He was drafted into the United States Army on Oct. 16, 1942.

After passing a physical in New Orleans, Rockforte was sent to the Army Reception Center at Camp Beauregard in Alexandria. From there, he went to boot camp at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Arkansas before being sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for basic and infantry training with the 300th Infantry Regiment.

Rockforte became an infantry replacement and was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey reporting to the 357th Infantry Regiment of the 90 Infantry Division in January 1944.

The division was originally called the Texas - Oklahoma Division and had an olive drab patch inscribed with a red T O worn on their left sleeve.

General George Patton later called them the "Tough 'Ombers" Division.

The division sailed out of New York Harbor passing the Statue of Liberty on March 23 and landed in Liverpool, England in April where they were sent to various sites to prepare for the invasion. "We didn't know exactly where in France we would land or the date of the invasion, until after we were aboard our ships," Rockforte said. "We moved inland and after ten days of back and forth fighting our unit was cut off from the division in the vicinity of St. Lo. We ran low on ammunition and were finally overrun by the Germans."

Rockforte became a POW on June 19 and was marched around France even being attacked by fighter planes that mistook the prisoners for German troops.

He was taken to a POW Camp in Bavaria, Germany called Stalag and placed on a farm near Beeberg where he worked for several months.

"One day, as I was working in the fields, I saw some soldiers off in the distances as they approached," Rockforte said. "I could see they were Americans. Talk about one happy GI."

That day was May 6, 1945. Rockforte was a POW for 318 days.

"I asked the Captain in charge of the outfit that freed me, if I could send a letter home and he gave me a pen and paper," Rockforte said. "I wrote my parents and told them I was in American hands and would be home soon."

Rockforte left the European theater from the port city of Le Havre, France on a ship full of ex-POW and arrived in the U.S. a few days later before being sent to Camp Killman for physical examinations.

After a month home in Port Allen, he reported to Camp Shelby and Camp Livingston, both in Mississippi, before rejoining the 90th Division, which was being readied for an invasion of Japan, at Fort Still, Oklahoma.

"Fortunately the war ended and I didn't have to make that landing," Rockforte said.

Rockforte received many medals and awards including the Bronze Star Medal, American Campaign Medal, European African Middle East Campaign Medal with two bronze stars and two bronze arrowheads, Invasion Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal with Germany bar, XPOW Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, Meritorious Unit Commendation and the Honorable Discharge Lapel Pin known as "The Ruptured Duck."

After the service, Rockforte went to the Plaquemine Trade School and worked at the Myrtle Grove Sugar Mill as a mechanic for almost 20 years. He then went to work at Cane Equipment Co-op and retired 12 years later in 1987.

"After I retired I became a lawnmower repairman and I recycled aluminum cans to stay busy," Rockforte said.

Rockforte married Gretta Alleman on Aug. 18, 1954 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Plaquemine and they were blessed with four children - Judy, Joseph, Janis and Billy and six grandchildren.

He later married Betty Brown on Jan. 31, 2003 after Gretta passed away in 2001.

"We love to travel and I'm still in touch with friends in the 90th Division and an ex-POW who was in the camp with me," Rockforte said.