In recognition of the great courage under fire he displayed 70 years ago, longtime Astorian Robert Danke was inducted into the state Senate Veterans Hall of Fame on May 21 .
Danke enlisted in the the Navy in June 1942, when he was just 17, and he was sworn in as a sailor on Nov. 11, Armistice Day — just under a year after the United States entered World War II.
“Those are dates you just don’t forget,” he said last week.
Less than a year later, in September 1943, his platoon landed on a strip of shoreline code-named Yellow Beach in Salerno, Italy, under heavy German gunfire.
“We had to hit the foxholes,” Danke recalled.
In fact, he was one of the Navy men known as “foxhole sailors” — seamen who secured beaches during invasions. Danke called them “a stepping stone to the Seals,” the Naval special forces that didn’t yet exist, and they were also known as the “commandos in blue.”
As the battle on the beach went on, a small boat became stranded. On board were two wounded Allied soldiers.
A sergeant asked him to come out to the boat with him. So the duo swam out into harm’s way amid the gunfire.
“One looked like he had only half of his face,” Danke said. “He was screaming ‘Please God; God, help.’ I always hear him.”
With the assistance of another soldier, they tied the boat to a truck and pulled the soldiers to safety. Danke collapsed into a foxhole.
“I had no feelings at all,” he said. “The senior soldier asked me to help. So we went out and tried to saved them, and we did save them.”
The soldiers were taken to a hospital. Danke said he heard rumors about whether they survived, but that “I really don’t know.”
Doctors at the scene say that Danke undoubtedly saved their lives, according to a statement from the office of state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria).
After the Allied soldiers were pulled to safety, another soldier dragged a man on a stretcher to the foxhole, but then had to retreat under fire. Danke stayed with the injured man and helped him to safety without any injuries.
He remained unscathed until after he and about 19 other servicemen who had volunteered to stay and keep the beach secure were being shuttled back to their base in North Africa by a British ship. A torpedo hit the vessel, prompting many to jump into the water, knocking Danke out cold and sending him to the hospital for two weeks.
Last Friday, Gianaris honored Danke’s service outside the old sailor’s home.
“Bob Danke is a true American hero, and I am grateful for the opportunity to commemorate the services he rendered his country and his community,” Gianaris said. “He fought bravely to protect our country’s freedom and he is a neighbor of whom all of us in Astoria can be proud.”
Danke’s wartime service spanned the European, African and Pacific theaters. He was among the first to land on the beaches of Italy and was at Okinawa when Japan surrendered. He received the Bronze Star for Valor.
His late brother, Frank, also served in the war, as did their father, Paul, who enlisted when he was 50 years old.
“We all served overseas, and thank God we all came home,” Danke said.
About 50 veterans are inducted into the Senate’s Hall of Fame each year.
“It’s an honor, and I appreciate it,” Danke said.