PITTSFIELD — What everyone in Pittsfield learned right about now, 75 years ago, was that the city's own Francis Rocca — "Tony" to his mom — had been the second paratrooper to leap out of a plane at the start of the invasion that turned the tide of World War II.
The young man from Third Street had trained for years for this moment. When he hit the ground, he deployed signals that would guide some of the 13,000 paratroopers gliding down under canopies of government-issued silk.
What Pittsfield can know today, on the anniversary of the massive June 6, 1944, D-Day mobilization, is a little more about what came after that jump for Rocca, the brown-eyed former hat factory worker who had so famously fallen under moonlight into Nazi-occupied France.
Start with this, perhaps: Rocca, a reluctant warrior with a deep humanitarian streak, later would tell family members, when he spoke of the war years at all, that he'd actually jumped first from the Douglas C-47 aircraft, but wanted a ranking officer, Capt. Frank Lillyman, to hold that place in history.
"He wasn't a man who liked recognition," says his daughter, Cheri Rocca, of Pittsfield. "He didn't want to be glorified in any way."
Though her dad died of Alzheimer's in 1998 at age 82, she keeps learning things about him.
Just this spring, Rocca's daughter shared something the aging warrior had told her, breaking his usual silence. Once, when his unit had taken two Germans captive, Rocca helped ensure the men's safety, at a time when American forces had suffered much and rules of engagement related to prisoners weren't always observed.
After the war, Rocca stayed in touch with the two Germans. His daughter treasures her dad's tender side, remembering his egalitarianism and his belief that people are put on the planet to do right by others. He once told her enemy soldiers, like him, were following orders.
"The higher-ups push it on everybody else," she recalls him saying. "He didn't like the fact that people would kill each other like this just because people want power over them. He had a tough time killing other people. He had to put on that face."
But this was war, and her dad had a job to do.
Two days after Rocca's drop into Normandy, readers of The Eagle heard from Lillyman, the captain who led the first jump of the special Pathfinder Group, whose members had devised special ground signals for landings behind enemy lines.
"That Rocca, we call him The Rock," Lillyman had said. His words, dispatched to U.S. media through the Army's publicity service, are still visible in fading ink on a brittle piece of paper Cheri Rocca keeps with her father's things.
Lillyman, who, like Rocca, was 29, had worked as a sports reporter. He didn't spare the color when he described Rocca's fighting spirit.
"He can hold that tommy-gun at his hip, weaving like a hula dancer, and splinter silhouette targets," he said in the story that appeared in The Eagle on June 8, 1944. Then he mentioned his comrade's relatively small size — 5-foot-6 and about 150 pounds.
"Knee-high to a jug of cider hard as a keg of nails."
"I guess he was very good at what he did," Cheri Rocca said.
The old newspaper story about her dad's role on D-Day also quotes her grandmother, Angelina Rocca, who, before war came, had seen her son graduate from Pittsfield High School in 1933 in the trough of the Great Depression and move on to a job making hats at the Pittsfield Hat Works. Army documents describe his work there, tasks far removed from what was to come in Europe. "Shaped and blocked hats by stretching material over forms and applying steam. Resoaked and repeated process until desired shape was obtained."
"He's a fine boy," Angelina Rocca said.
She had a whole passel of them. Of her nine children, four were serving with the Army, though only Francis was serving overseas at the time.
When The Eagle sat down with Frank Rocca in 1977 to talk about his service with the 101st Airborne Division, reporter James B. Overmyer encountered the reserve Cheri Rocca knew well.
"Frank Rocca is a modest man, and at first when he is asked about World War II, he is hesitant to answer," Overmyer wrote. "He smiles and says it was `a long time ago.' "
What came after Rocca's famous jump, as a member of the Pathfinder Group, was a lot more fighting, nearly a year of it, as Rocca and his fellow soldiers joined fights across France and into Belgium — including the Battle of the Bulge, the largest of the war — and on through Holland and into Germany, Austria and Hungary.
Rocca was shot in the chest. Shrapnel lodged in his back that would hurt for the rest of his life. Family back home got that news.
His mother, Angelina, received a Western Union telegram Feb. 10, 1945, saying her son had been "seriously wounded" in fighting Jan. 17 in Belgium. The dreaded "REGRET TO INFORM YOU" message said more information would follow.
The injuries resulted in Purple Heart medals. Rocca's service during Operation Overlord, the military's term for the D-Day invasion, also earned him a Bronze Star. The citation noted his "meritorious service" with the all-volunteer Pathfinder Group in the three months leading up to the invasion.
Though Rocca is credited with two combat jumps into enemy territory, the team made many more in England, getting ready.
"This experimental work included the testing of various homing devices, field markers and the methods of dropping by parachute from both American and British aircraft," the citation reads.
"Due to the nature of the work many of the parachute descents were made at night. The work of the Pathfinder Group has proven to be of great value to all airborne operations," it said. "Their conduct was in accordance with the highest standards of the military service."
Cheri Rocca's files today preserve official acts her dad did not talk about. He'd come back to Pittsfield with a pile of medals and went to work at what everyone used to call "the GE."
He had his government's thanks, as well as his modest mustering-out pay: $100 given to him Oct. 9, 1945, at Fort Devens. He still weighed about 150 pounds, his size entering the Army.
Though he was back stateside, the country wasn't done talking about the war. Life magazine asked Rocca if it could send a reporter to spend time with him. He declined.
"He said, `I'm sorry but that's a horrendous war and I can't glorify it,' " Cheri Rocca said.
Like other veterans, Rocca did later help writer Cornelius Ryan amass research for two books, "The Longest Day," about the D-Day invasion, and "A Bridge Too Far," about the Allied effort to break Hitler's grip on Holland. He is listed as a contributor in both books.
Rocca's time with the 101st Airborne, a division known as the "Eaglemen," wasn't his first exposure to life in the military. Back in Pittsfield, he had been a sergeant with Company I, 104th Infantry, in the National Guard. When he shifted to the U.S. Army in January 1941, nearly a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Rocca decided to take a cut in rank. He became a private again to train as a paratrooper at Fort Benning, Ga.
In all, Rocca spent two years, eight months and 15 days in military service in the U.S., followed by two years and eight days overseas.
Cheri Rocca says her dad gave up rank another time as well. His service records show that while with the Army, he served as a private first class, a rifleman, for six months, then held the rank of sergeant for a year and three months, when he was listed as a "scout."
But then he was a private again. Knowing why is part of Rocca's legacy, not so much as a fighter, but as a human being. Today, his daughter is the main keeper of that. She remembers the specific day when he leveled with her about his time in the military. Cheri was in her teens. They were in the parlor of the family's home on Francis Avenue.
She believes the reason her dad returned to being a private was simple. While his courage was unchallenged, her dad refused to send others into peril.
"He said, `I'm not going to tell anybody else you've got to go out there.' He saw too many of them killed. He couldn't do that any more. He was OK putting his own life on the line. He loved everybody. He wanted the best for everyone concerned."
When her dad came home from the war, he didn't go to church any longer. War, it seems, had started an argument with God.
"I remember him saying, `How could God let this happen?' " she said. In the shards of stories she heard over the decades about his World War II service, she believes her dad saw horrific action and was at least once the only man in his foxhole to survive a battle. Rocca walked nearly every day to ease the pain of shrapnel that remained in his back.
"He doesn't understand why he wasn't killed, too. He says he doesn't know why he was chosen," Cheri Rocca said. She recalls him saying: "There was an angel on my shoulder, because people were being blown up all around me."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.