SUBLETTE COUNTY – The horse-drawn caisson carrying the remains of Lt. Col. Roman T. Piernick, U.S. Army, moved slowly down narrow lanes flanked by rows of white marble monuments marking the graves of servicemen and women in Arlington National Cemetery.
Out of nowhere, a member of the Special Forces materialized from behind a tree or bush, stepping forward to salute the funeral procession as it passed by. The Special Forces officer disappeared back into the recesses of the cemetery and another officer appeared to salute Lt. Col. Piernick.
During the service, U.S. Army pilots flew a missing person’s formation over the cemetery in honor of Lt. Col. Piernick. The U.S. Secretary of State at the time, James A. Baker III, presented the folded flag to Roman Piernick’s wife.
“It was the most moving service,” said Roman “Rocky” Piernick, Jr., Lt. Col. Piernick’s son.
Lt. Col. Roman T. Piernick died on Oct. 31, 1990, only weeks before Veterans Day, following a long and distinguished career in the U.S. Army. Roman Piernick served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The lieutenant colonel received three Purple Hears, two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, a Presidential Korean Citation and a Legion of Merit medal for service in the European theatre during World War II.
Upon retirement from the U.S. Army in the 1960s, Roman Piernick was “director of operations and security worldwide” for the U.S. Special Forces, said Rocky Piernick.
Unraveling Roman Piernick’s military history is a challenge. His involvement in the U.S. Special Forces, the U.S. Army Rangers and the predecessors to those elite, secret forces, means most of Roman Piernick’s military records are difficult, if not impossible, to access. Roman Piernick rarely shared stories about the decades he spent in the U.S. Army.
World War II in particular was an “awful, brutal time in history” that veterans seldom spoke about, Rocky Piernick recalled.
Piecing together a veteran’s story
Rocky Piernick’s grandparents fled Poland and “White Russia” (what is today Belarus) as communists and fascists seized power across Central and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.
Roman Piernick spoke fluent German and multiple Slavic dialects, said Rocky Piernick, a skill that proved invaluable during the Second World War.
Rocky Piernick’s father loathed dictators and mass murderers like Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler.
The Piernicks landed in Detroit. During the Great Depression, Roman Piernick joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was dispatched to the Snyder Basin CCC Camp west of Big Piney.
The CCC “gave city guys something to do,” said his son, Rocky Piernick, including building roads, logging and erecting fences.
The CCC men spent their downtime in town, frequenting the Picture Show and Doc’s Cafe and Bar Room in Big Piney, owned by Charles “Charlie” Clyde. A young waitress named Flora Helen Dunham worked at Clyde’s restaurant and caught young Roman Piernick’s eye.
Flora Dunham’s father, Henry C. “Doc” Dunham, helped build the Big Piney Airport with a truck and a scooper blade, Rocky Piernick said. Henry Dunham’s wife ran the local phone office.
Roman Piernick married Flora Dunham in 1938 or 1939.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States declared war on the Japanese Empire. Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States and America entered the bloodiest conflict in the 20th century.
Roman Piernick enlisted in the U.S. Army several months later on May 5, 1942, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records.
Fighting his way through WWII’s major battles in the European theatre, Roman Piernick began his service battling German forces commanded by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in North Africa.
Roman Piernick participated in the Allied invasion to dislodge the Germans from Sicily in summer 1943.
Hours after midnight on June 6, 1943, paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division, including Roman Piernick, parachuted from aircraft onto German-occupied French soil to make way for the main Allied landing force to storm Normandy on D-Day.
Roman Piernick spent Christmas 1944 and New Years 1945 in the bitter cold, pushing back Hitler’s last ditch attempt to dislodge the Allies at the Battle of the Bulge.
The military awarded Roman Piernick his first Silver Star in 1945 for “gallantry in action” while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Germany on April 30, 1945, the day Hitler ended his life.
According to Military Times, an online database, 1st Lt. Piernick drew fire from German soldiers lodged in a farmhouse.
“Stepping into plain view, 1st Lt. Piernick called for the surrender of the occupants and fired his sub-machine gun into the upper part of the house,” the record stated. “About 40 (German soldiers), including officers, were taken.”
Rocky Piernick describes his father as a gifted linguist. The U.S. Army took full advantage of Roman Piernick’s knowledge of German, Polish and French, dispatching him on numerous operations to “try to find out what Hitler would pull next,” Rocky Piernick said.
Roman Piernick was stationed in Berlin following the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945. His “principal duty” was “ferreting out German scientists,” Rocky Piernick stated.
Roman Piernick also boasted the title as the “undisputed boxing champion” of the 82nd Airborne Division for five years.
“He was one tough f**ker,” his son said.
Korea and Vietnam
The Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. Roman Piernick served on the Korean Peninsula as a U.S. Army Ranger during the conflict. Most of Roman Piernick’s time in Korea is shrouded in mystery. He was wounded and received his second Silver Star during the war.
Piernick’s knack for picking up languages came in handy once more, and he learned to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese, Rocky Piernick said.
Roman Piernick was “in and out” of the military after the 1953 armistice that split the Korean Peninsula into the separate nations of North Korea and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) along the Demilitarized Zone.
Meanwhile, conflict was heating up across French Indochina in Southeast Asia. Following France’s withdrawal from its colonies there in 1954 and the formation of the independent states of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the United States increased its military presence in the region to stop the spread of communism.
As the Vietnam War intensified, Roman Piernick once again found himself on the front lines. Piernick spoke fluent French and was involved in “clandestine operations,” setting up contacts across Vietnam and training soldiers to go into Laos and Cambodia, Rocky Piernick said.
Roman Piernick was a member of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group, a covert branch of the U.S. military involved in “plausibly deniable” operations across Southeast Asia. Roman Piernick also worked in the Pentagon during Vietnam.
Roman Piernick eventually retired from the military in the 1960s and settled in Naples, Florida. Rocky Piernick still lives in Big Piney.
Lt. Col. Roman Piernick’s medals and service saber are available for the public to view at the Marbleton Senior Center at 429 E. 1st St.