Bill and Alice Rossman

Tools

by Jennifer Tomazic

NASHOTAH -- A Nashotah couple is getting ready to send out their Valentines, but they can't be found in any stores.

Alice and Bill Rossman have been sending out handmade Valentines for as long as they can remember. The meaning runs deeper than their creativity.

For on February 14, 1944 "that's where my lover went down. Thank God he made it," said Alice, pointing to an image of a man parachuting over Italy.

Bill's B-24 Bomber was shot down while in flight over Italy during World War II. The attack killed two of the ten men aboard the plane and injured the other eight.

While trying to nurse his own injuries, Bill helped another man who was in worse shape than him.

"I put his parachute on him and took his flack suit of and I literally threw him out of the camera hatch," said Bill. They both survived but the misery was far from over for Bill.

Italians brought him to a monastery where nuns would treat his injuries.

"They told me not to talk and they told the German guards that I was French and in shock and couldn't speak," said Bill.

But a German soldier brought a Frenchman to verify, and he pronounced him "not a Frenchman" and they took Bill prisoner of war.

He says they put him on a train to Germany and his first stop was right after Britain bombed Munich, so many of the Germans assumed he was British and threw things at him as his German guards paraded him through town.

Bill was placed in solitary confinement where a guard said, "'Do you have any final words?' I thought gosh, it wasn't too long ago that I was in high school, now i'm on death row," said Bill.

He says they threatened to kill him three times that week.

Eventually Bill was put in a box car to POW camp.

"Go into a closet, close the door, and go all day without water and see how you feel," said Bill. "That's how it was on the box cars. They didn't give a damn whether we lived or died."

Once Bill got to Danzig he experienced the worst treatment from the Hitler Youth. He said they handcuffed his hands and feet to another POW and made them walk three or four miles to camp.

"He said if you fall by the wayside, you'll either be machine gunned, bayonetted or the dogs will get you," said Bill. He and his partner made it.

Eventually, Bill became part of the Black March where over 80,000 POWs were forced to march westward across Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany in extreme winter conditions. Bill marched from February to April a total of 90 miles. Once they got to the flier POW camp, Bill said on Saturday, all hell broke lose and Sunday was still and quiet.

"Curious, we went out of the tent and up on the hill, there was Patton and his tanks," said Bill.

His only thought, "thank God."

He says Patton told them they'd be taken to France for treatment and to fatten up. Bill weighed less than 100 pounds and was put on a steak and eggnog diet.

He eventually made it to Atlantic City in August, and finally quelled his mother's fears that he was missing in action. He said she went to church each day and refused to think he was dead.

Bill came back home to Racine, only to leave shortly after for San Antonio. On a trip home, he met Alice and they fell in love, but he had to go back to Texas.

"We started phoning and writing and phoning and writing and we thought it would be cheaper to get married," said Bill.

He stayed in the Air Force a few more years before making a home in Racine and working for Met Life for 38 years.

Bill has received many honors for his bravery that Valentines Day, including the highest honor in the Air Force, the Distinguished Flying Cross. He says only 333 have been given since 1926.

"I was surprised. I was surprised and I didn't realize until later on that the Distinguished Flying Cross was the highest medal," said Bill.

He felt his pilot was just as deserving of the honor so Bill nominated him and was able to present the Distinguished Flying Cross to his fellow airman for his bravery that day.

February 14, 1944 is a day Bill will never forget. He and Alice have kept the memory alive by creating their homemade Valentines and sending them out to the eight survivors.

"She would paint the picture and I would make up the verse and they would be different each year," said Bill.

"Because it means a lot. It means a lot to Bill and it means a lot to me now. I've gotten to know these fellas," said Alice.

Bill and the pilot are the only men still living, but he says they keep in contact with the family members of the other airmen each year at a reunion.

It's a time to remember the difficult times, but Bill says he's okay with talking about what happened in World War II.

"It's stuff you can't read in a book. You have to have someone tell you this," said Bill.

"He's my hero," said Alice. "People should appreciate what everybody went through at that time to make us what we are now."

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