Over the decades that Herbert Rosenberg ran Herbro Pharmacy on Main Street in East Rockaway, he kept the details of his World War II service almost entirely to himself.
Even his children knew little of the crash, the capture and the captivity that robbed him of a year of his life.
But Friday, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) handed Rosenberg a U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War Medal in recognition of the year he spent in Nazi captivity after his plane was forced down over Europe in 1944.
The bronze medallion — which depicts a defiant eagle surrounded by barbed wire — was commissioned in 1985 in recognition of Americans who have been captured in battle since the United States entered World War I in 1917.
“It’s important that we never forget the sacrifices they have made as a new generation of soldiers return from war,” Rice said during a brief ceremony at her district office in Garden City. Later, she said, “We could not continue to live in the greatest nation in the world without people like you.”
Rosenberg was among the 93,941 American troops who spent at least part of the war in Nazi prisoner of war camps, according to the National World War II Museum, based in New Orleans. But the United States did not specifically recognize their sacrifice in the form of a military medal until President Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing the medallion in 1985.
Three other World War II prisoners of war also were honored, including Joseph Manoni of East Meadow. Peter Elsbeck and Thomas Florio, both former residents of Floral Park, were honored posthumously.
Rosenberg, who grew up in Laurelton, Queens, was drafted in 1942. By Easter Sunday two years later, he had made the rank of technical sergeant and was serving as an engineer on Army Air Forces bomber crews.
He was aboard a B-17 that day and had completed a mission over Poznan, Poland, when an attack by German fighters left his blunt, four-engine aircraft unable to make it back to its base in England.
Unable to limp to neutral Sweden, he and his crew crash-landed in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Captured immediately, they were forced into railway boxcars and eventually sent to the infamous Stalag Luft 17 prison camp for captured enlisted personnel, northwest of Vienna.
For the next 13 months, he wondered if he would make it home alive.
“One guy who interviewed me after I was captured said, ‘You know what we do to Jews in this country,’ ” Rosenberg said. “But I wasn’t separated, and once I was in circulation among the 1,000 other American prisoners there, I was OK.”
But things would get worse.
Hunger, disease and overcrowding at the prison camp, immortalized in the 1953 film that brought an Academy Award to actor William Holden, threatened the survival of the nearly 50,000 Allied prisoners.
As Allied troops squeezed Nazi Germany from both the west and east, more sympathetic German air force guard personnel were replaced by less disciplined home guard irregulars. Conditions at the camp worsened.
“You had Germans who were very trigger-happy, they had dogs, Rottweilers, they had barely any food, no sanitation, no showers; it was not pleasant at all,” Rosenberg recalled. “And the Italian prisoners next door were dying like flies. They were carrying the bodies right past us. Absolutely it was frightening.”
He was liberated by American soldiers after the camp’s prison guards first marched surviving prisoners into a forest, then melted away.
He returned home, attended pharmacy school, married his wife, Barbara, and in the mid-1950s settled in Rockville Centre, where the couple raised their three children.
A daughter, Carol Seger, said her father treated his family to summertime road trips that carried them to the Catskills, the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside and even Virginia and Canada in the family’s maroon Plymouth. But the Hauppauge resident said she never heard much of his father’s traumatic wartime experience.
“Obviously things must have been very, very painful for him not to talk about it,” she said. “But he was, and still is, a great father.”