One of Freedom’s Finest Hours: Statesmanship and Soldiership in WWII

Al Hassenzahl
World War II Veteran

Al HassenzahlAl Hassenzahl enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942. After completing Officer Candidate School, he volunteered for paratrooper duty. He parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as a member of the 101st Airborne Division fighting also in Holland, Bastogne, and Germany. Mr. Hassenzahl earned several decorations, including four Battle Stars, the Bronze Arrowhead, a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and a Presidential Unit Citation.

On September 9-13, 2001, Hillsdale College held a seminar entitled "One of Freedom's Finest Hours: Statesmanship and Soldiership in WWII." Nine historians and five veterans gave presentations. Following are excerpted reminiscences of three of the veterans.

…My outfit jumped into Normandy about 1:30 a.m. on D-Day morning. None of us had any combat experience up until that time. On D-Day plus three, I was hit pretty hard, and I wouldn’t be speaking to you today if it wasn’t for one of our platoon sergeants, a very good friend of mine. His name was Joe Zettwich, he was from Pennsylvania, and his nickname was Punchy, because he was an excellent light-heavyweight boxer. At the risk of his own life, Punchy came out where I was injured and dragged me to cover. I was evacuated to Utah Beach, and then back to England where I was hospitalized for seven weeks.

In late July, the 101st and 82nd Airborne returned to England to get needed replacements and equipment. In late August I rejoined my company, and a few weeks later we received orders for “Operation Market Garden” in Holland, attached to the British Second Army. Over the next 72 days, we drove a corridor to the Rhine River…

From there we were removed to France, again to receive replacements and equipment. But after about two weeks, on the 15th of December, we learned that the Germans had launched a fierce offensive on our eastern lines of defense. So with very little preparation, we loaded onto cattle trucks and drove all night, arriving the next morning at Bastogne, Belgium.

To show you how ill-prepared we were to go into a major battle, when our battalion marched as ordered to a nearby village called Noville, through a crossroads called Foy, tankers from the 10th Armored, parked in the center of the road, were handing us loose 30-caliber ammunition so that we could load the clips in our M-1 rifles. Once in Noville, we were completely surrounded by the Germans. What saved us was a thick fog that prevented the enemy from seeing us. Still we were pounded extremely hard. Finally we got orders that if we could batter our way back through Foy, to within range of the American lines at Bastogne, we would get artillery support. Unbeknownst to us, meanwhile, Bastogne had been surrounded too.

When we arrived at Foy on the way back, the fog was just beginning to lift, and we discovered that Foy was now fortified by a German strongpoint. A fierce firefight occurred, and we lost a lot of people. So did the Krauts. But during that fight, my dear friend Punchy was hit. Strangely, he was hit in much the same place I had been hit six months earlier in Normandy, when he had saved my life. Joe Reed, our first sergeant, and I carried Punchy across the road and loaded him onto a half-track. And I’ll never forget what happened then. I told Punchy, “Punchy, you’re going to be okay,” and he answered, “I don’t think so.” Punchy died in that half-track later that day.

Now I’d like to fast-forward to mid-June of 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Three of my old comrades and I flew over to Brussels, rented a car, and went to visit all of our old battlegrounds. When we got to Bastogne, we found the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, and I found Punchy.

All I can find words to say right now is that it was a traumatic moment…A few months ago I read Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley, the son of John “Doc” Bradley, a Navy corpsman who accompanied the 5th Marines 28th Regiment at Iwo Jima. Doc Bradley was one of the six soldiers who raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, and one of three of those six who survived the battle over that God-forsaken, eight-acre piece of rock.

An unknown Marine, after the battle of Iwo Jima, carved a slogan on a rock that stands outside of the temporary cemetery there, where thousands of men were initially buried. In conclusion, it’s my great pleasure to repeat these words to you now. And listen up good!

When you go home
Tell them for us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today