(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.
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.
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.