Mystery surrounding WWII soldier and Nazi banner remains

Flag was signed by 84 soldiers and sent to the widow of a man who died at the Battle of the Bulge

By George Rhodes
The Sun Chronicle

ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) — The mystery of how a Nazi banner came to be stuffed inside a shell casing and tucked away in the attic of a South Dakota home for 68 years is no closer to being solved today.

How the flag was captured, where it was captured, when it was captured and whose idea it was to have 84 soldiers sign it and send it to the widow of a dead brother-in-arms may be lost forever as more and more of the dwindling numbers of World War II soldiers slip into death every day.

What is known is that the banner was sent to the widow of Maurice “Pete” Henrichsen sometime after the Battle of the Bulge, which raged in Belgium and Luxembourg from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945.
The battle was the result of a last ditch Nazi effort to stem the Allied tide as it surged toward Germany to bring Adolf Hitler’s murderous regime and the bloodiest war in world history to an end.

Henrichsen was killed on Jan. 15, 1945, during that battle. Sometime later his wife, Georgia Henrichsen, got the banner, signed by 84 soldiers, presumably comrades of her husband, neatly folded in a shell casing.
She stuffed it back in the casing and never spoke of it, said her daughter, Georgetta “Gigi” Hickey of Wyzata, Minn., who’s trying to track down the 84 soldiers who signed it or at least their relatives in an effort to find the story behind the story.

So far, 18 families have been found, a number that now includes the relatives of Attleboro native John M. Klimaszewski, who was an Army sergeant and truck driver in Cannon Co., 358th Infantry, 90th Division, Henrichsen’s unit.

When this story was first told in a Veterans Day edition of The Sun Chronicle, little was known about Klimaszewski, but now there’s more.

Klimaszewski, was one of 3,241 Attleboro residents to fight in the war, and like Georgia Henrichsen, apparently never mentioned the banner or its story to family or friends.

However, the story about Hickey’s quest found its way to Klimaszewski’s relatives, including a daughter in Michigan and a sister in Rhode Island who have fond memories of the man they knew as a dad and brother.

But while they knew him as a dad and a brother, they didn’t know him as a soldier. And like so many soldiers, he didn’t talk about the war when he came home.

So, the story about the banner is as new to them as it is to the 17 other families Hickey has found.

Klimaszewski’s daughter, Barbara A. Weeks of Coopersville, Mich., said seeing her father’s name scrawled across the hated Nazi swastika was stunning, because he never mentioned it in the 30 or so years of her life before his death.

“I was flabbergasted when I saw he signed a Nazi flag,” she said. “He didn’t talk about it at all.”

Klimaszewski was wounded the same day “Pete” Henrichsen was killed, and Weeks has the Purple Heart her dad was awarded.

It’s a treasured relic of his service, but now the flag he helped capture and the evil he helped defeat only adds to his legacy, she said.

“It makes me so proud that he fought for our freedom and came home to his family,” Weeks said. “He’ll be forever in my heart.”

Silence was a common trait among soldiers who survived the war.

If they talked at all, it wasn’t about battles. It was about some rare light-hearted episode in a dark and bloody time.

One event Klimaszewski did relate was that he was once assigned to drive world- famous comedian Milton Berle to a USO show, Weeks said.

And, that was that.

A fellow World War II veteran and a life-long acquaintance of Klimaszewski, Charles Iwuk, 91, of South Attleboro, said survivors seldom talked about their experiences because were simply grateful to come home.

Many comrades suffered devastating physical or psychic wounds and death. Those who escaped held their silence out respect. And, the horror of war imposes it own barriers. There are just no words for some things.

“Someone else probably had a more horrifying story than I had,” said Iwuk a naval radio gunner on a torpedo plane who participated in a number of Pacific battles, including the Battle of Leyte Gulf. “I came out of it without a scratch.”

And even he, a fellow veteran, knew little about Klimaszewski’s service. War stories were not swapped.

“I was surprised he had a Purple Heart,” Iwuk said.

Five years younger than Klimaszewski, Iwuk grew up on Sibley Street, two streets over from West Carpenter and home of the Klimaszewski family that included parents, Marcin and Hedwig, who had emigrated from Poland, and John’s siblings, Stanley, Andrew and Monica.

Klimaszewski’s brothers also served and survived.

Stanley joined the Army right after the Nazi invasion of Poland, his family’s native land. He served in Africa.

Andrew, known as “Andy,” was a member of the Army Air Force, and helped supply American and Chinese bases by flying over the eastern end of the Himalayas, Iwuk said.

Transcending the highest mountain range in the world was a dangerous proposition in those days, and was known as “flying the hump.”

Iwuk described John as a “nice, friendly guy” who was called “Pickles” by his friends.

Most often World War II warriors came home and focused on building a life and rebuilding the country as members of what has been called “The Greatest Generation.”

Klimaszewski was no different, although he had to confront more sorrow at home.

After the war, he married a woman named Emily Wachiewicz who died just six months into the marriage, Weeks said.

The marriage was so new that Emily was buried in her wedding dress.

Klimaszewski later married a widow named Jennie Pacyna.

She became Weeks’ mother.

The family moved to Pawtucket, and Klimaszewski got a job at Rhode Island Cardboard Co., where he worked as a color mixer.

He retired from that company, but he never got a chance to enjoy the “golden years.”

He died of a heart attack in his 421 Grand Ave. home on March 30, 1982, at the age of 62.

He was a good man, Weeks said.

“He was a very easy going guy,” she said. “He was the life of the party, and he held the family together. He was very dedicated to my sister and me.”

Klimaszewski’s sister, Monica Szerlas, 88, of Rhode Island, remembers him as “fun loving,” and, like others, said he never spoke of the war.

Weeks displays a photo of her dad in his Army uniform so his grandchildren and great-grandchildren will know what he looked like and know that he was one of those who served to wipe out the greatest evil the world has ever seen.

She has the Purple Heart he was awarded after being wounded in the Battle of the Bulge on Jan. 15, 1945, the same day “Pete” Henrichsen was killed.

While he didn’t talk about his service, it was an important part of his life, Weeks said.

“He was very proud of being a veteran,” she said.



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