In memory of WWII US Army Captain Henry “Hank” D. Wirsig

George Keller, Henry Wirsig, and Charles Brodhead

George Keller, Henry Wirsig, and Charles Brodhead

(Update 7/24/19: I recently learned that Henry had been a boarder at my grandparents’ house during the Great Depression.)

This photo on the right supposedly stood on my grandmother’s dresser many years ago, and I’d seen it off and on through the years, when leafing through a family album, always wondering who the gentleman in the middle was. Well, a week ago, I was going through an old bundle of letters, containing correspondence between my grandmother and grandfather, Fannie and Frank Brodhead, and a US Army Captain named Henry Wirsig. As I leafed through the letters, out fell a smaller version of this photo, and I immediately understood that this fellow in the middle was Henry.

The letters and postcards from Henry were sweet and thoughtful, almost always ending in “Love, Henry” or “Love to All, Henry”, and the one letter I found from my grandparents to him was signed “Love, Ma and Pa Brodhead”.

I later learned that Henry was born in 1914, so he was two years younger than my Dad’s brother Woody and seven years younger than my Dad (Charles). My Dad enlisted in spring 1942, and I believe this photo must have been taken around July 1942 as that was his last time home until November 1944.

Henry’s letters always inquired about Woody, my Dad, and ‘grandma’ (a reference to my grandfather’s mother Margaret Lewis Martin Brodhead, by then in her eighties), so Henry must have been a very close family friend. Where did they meet? Well, through subsequent research, I think it may have been through the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth (NJ), as Henry and my Dad’s family were all members there.

'Ma and Pa Brodhead'

‘Ma and Pa Brodhead’

As I read along, the letters all saved in chronological order, I was shocked to come upon a March 1945 letter from Henry’s mother to my grandmother, revealing gut-wrenching news—confirmation that Henry had been killed in action on December 17, 1944, at the onset of the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive campaign that began on 16 December 1944 and lasted until 25 January 1945, and resulted in a staggering 89,500 American casualties. Suddenly this photo took on extremely deep and personal meaning. I can’t begin to imagine how this crushing news must have devastated everyone who knew and loved Henry.

The website Battle of the Bulge Memories contains the recollections of a veteran who participated in that day’s events, and he describes the events leading up to Henry’s death. To read this riveting account, which is tough to read at times, click here.

Elizabeth Daily Journal, Saturday Evening, March 17, 1945

Elizabeth Daily Journal, Saturday Evening, March 17, 1945

The Elizabeth Daily Journal published an obituary notice on March 17, 1945; it provided me with more details on Henry’s background. To paraphrase the obituary notice:

Captain Henry D. Wirsig, of Union, NJ (formerly of Elizabeth, NJ) died in Bastogne, Luxembourg, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was a member of the Ninth Armored Division. Prior to his death, he had been serving as acting mayor of Luxembourg. He was 31 years old.

Capt. Wirsig was born and raised in Syracuse, NY, and graduated from the University of Syracuse. He enlisted in 1942, leaving behind a chemical engineering position with Standard Oil Development Company. He had joined the company as a student intern in 1936.

He was a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps and began active duty as a lieutenant. At Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, in October 1942, he was promoted to Captain. He also trained in the California desert, Camp Cook (CA), Fort Knox (KY) and Camp Polk (LA). [My grandparents received a number of postcards from these places.]

Captain Wirsig was a member of the First Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth, NJ. He married Mabel Dorothy Painter of Elizabeth, NJ, on April 5, 1940, and had two children, Kenneth and Jean. He was the oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl F. Wirsig, and brother of Stanley S. Wirsig and Paul O. Wirsig.

**********************************************

I was very pleased to discover that Henry’s resting place has been memorialized on the Find a Grave site. He was buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Liège, Belgium. I submitted a ‘photo’ and ‘biography’ to Find a Grave, and am happy to see that they have since been included in his memorial page (to view, click here).

Below is Henry’s last postcard to my grandparents.  My grandmother’s last letter to him, affectionately signed ‘Love, Ma and Pa Brodhead’ was written on January 9, 1945. She had no idea he was already gone.

It’s heart-breaking to think of all that Henry and his family lost on that tragic December day nearly 70 years ago.

Henry made the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny. I thank him and his family for bearing this awful burden so that others could live in freedom.

Henry's last mailing, a postcard, to my grandparents; such a beautiful and peaceful scene.

Henry’s last mailing, a postcard, to my grandparents; Franciscan Convent in Marienthal, Luxembourg—such a beautiful and peaceful scene.

Written 16 days before Henry's death

Written 16 days before Henry’s death

Links:
American Battle Monuments Commission

PBS American Experience – Interviews with Bulge Veterans

Fields of Honor database

“Infantry & Tanks near Bastogne”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – Battle of the Bulge – Members of the 44th Armored Infantry, supported by tanks of the 6th Armored Division, move in to attack German troops surrounding Bastogne, Belgium (31 Dec 1944)

Categories: Battle of the Bulge, Brodhead, Elizabeth, Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial, New Jersey, Wirsig, WWII | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “In memory of WWII US Army Captain Henry “Hank” D. Wirsig

  1. An excellent, well-written post indeed. Capt. Wirsig was done good by you. Congratulations on what I expect a very fulfilling effort. I read the battle summary and grieve at their deaths. The MG 42 was a horrific Nazi weapon; nothing had a higher fire rate. An old Nisei work buddy told me in the 70’s he saw another buddy literally shot in half by a burst from a MG 42.

    You may be interested in a blog by notsofancynancy. Her father trained at Pomona.

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    • Thank you for your positive feedback on the post; even though these are events that happened nearly 70 years ago, they cut me to my core when I read about them today. It’s an honor to pay tribute to Capt. Wirsig in my own small way. He was obviously much loved by my dad and his parents. I’ll check out that blog. Sounds interesting. Many thanks.

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  2. I’m curious – any mention in your family of how he knew George Keller? I am wondering if that is my grandfather in your photo – it looks a lot like him!!! My grandfather grew up in Union, and served in the Battle of the Bulge as well. Was the photo taken at home (in the US) or overseas? Grandpa George passed away more than a decade ago, but I was thinking about him while watching some old WWII stuff, decided to play around on Google, and came up with this.

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    • Where did your Dad live in Union? What neighborhood?

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    • Cynthia, according to my mother, George Keller was a childhood friend of my father’s. She thinks George was an only child and that his father may have worked for Standard Oil. She thinks he may have attended the Epworth Methodist Church in Elmora. She does not recall him having ever fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but he may have. The photo was taken in Elizabeth, NJ, perhaps at George’s house. It was not taken at my father’s house. His house did not have any stone exterior. Let me know whether any of that helps. Thank you!

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      • Not sure that they are the same George. My grandfather had a brother, and I don’t know where his father worked. My mom’s vision isn’t very good (she’s his oldest child), so she couldn’t immediately tell if it was him. She is bringing this page to show my Grandma (his wife), who’s still around. I don’t know specifically where in Union he lived, but he did also live in Elizabeth and other surrounding towns. I’ll be back in touch after my Grandma looks at the photo…if anyone knows for certain, it would be her.

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      • OK. Thanks!

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  3. Sandra Pattelisse

    Hello, I’ve been the “godmother” of Henry’s grave in Henri-Chapelle for about 12 years. As I live not far from the cimetery I regularly bring him flowers. Years ago, I was given the adress of members of Henry’s family. I wrote to them but got no answer.
    I would be very glad to be able to contact some member of his family just to let them know someone here in Belgium takes care of his grave, that he’s not forgotten.
    Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. It was a sweet sunny day and I brought him white roses.
    I hope maybe you’ll be able to help me.
    Thanks by advance.
    Sandra

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    • Hello, Sandra! So wonderful to hear from you and to learn that Henry’s grave has been so lovingly cared for by you for over a decade. It is very special that you and others are caring for the graves of so many of America’s lost and fallen from WWII. Thank you for everything you do. No one from Henry’s family has ever contacted me, but if you send me the address you were given (via chipsoff at gmail dot com), I will try to find a current address for you. Thank you for remembering Henry yesterday with white roses. If you ever want to send me a photo of Henry’s grave, showing you with your roses, I will be happy to include it in this post. I think it is very important for Americans who don’t know to remember that people like you are still honoring the sacrifices made by our fellow countrymen so many years ago. A picture is often worth a thousand words.

      Like

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