If there is a person who embodies the First Army motto of “People, Mission, History,” it’s 100-year-old Walter Petroske of Poplar Grove, Illinois.
In December of 1944, at the age of 23, he served under First Army in the Battle of the Bulge. After heavy losses during that five-week fight, Petroske’s unit – Company A, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion – pushed toward Berlin in Operation Lumberjack. The troops were surprised to find the now-famous Remagen Bridge still spanning the Rhine River since the Germans had already destroyed virtually every other bridge that would allow the Allies a potential beachhead into Germany.
Company A and then-Sergeant Petroske were ordered – under non-stop heavy enemy gunfire – to cut the explosive devises wired to the critical bridge. They succeeded just moments before it was set to detonate, and the American capture of Remagen allowed the Allies to push six divisions across the Rhine in a matter of days. The river was the Nazi’s last natural barrier and line of defense, and the German defeat at the Remagen Bridge became the final nail in Hitler’s coffin.
Today, Mr. Petroske lives just a few hours from the headquarters of the field army which he served under in World War II. He’s a local hero in his small community, known not only for his extraordinary war valor but for a daring dash into a burning home to save an elderly neighbor a couple decades ago.
So when news got out that Mr. Petroske was turning 100 – amid a global pandemic – Poplar Grove decided to get creative in helping him celebrate. Dozens and dozens of cars created a drive-by parade and hundreds of cards and letters rolled in from around the U.S. and Canada.
“We are just blown away,” his granddaughter told a local television network.
First Army Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Thomas S. James Jr., sent this note: “Happy 100th Birthday, Sir, from First U.S. Army and Rock Island Arsenal. At First Army, we take great pride in so many of our World War II “FIRSTS:” first onto the beaches of Normandy, first into Paris, first to cross the Siegfried Line. But one of our most famous firsts can be directly attributed to you and the men you served with in April of 1945: First to cross the Rhine River. As a demolitions expert with Company A, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, it was you and your unit who risked everything to remove the explosives from the Remagen Bridge – under intense fire no less – so First Army could accomplish our mission and push the war to its eventual close. Sir, our formation today stands on the shoulders of giants like you. We wish you the happiest of birthdays and are sending all our gratitude for your service and leadership!”
Anyone who wishes to send their own note to this First Army legend can send it to: 315 W. Edson Street Poplar Grove, IL 61065.
Happy Birthday, Sgt. Petroske. Thank you for inspiring us to EARN THE A!