First of a three part series on brothers from Easton families who served at the same time in WWII.
George Halzack was born in Bayerovch, Czechoslovakia on January 1, 1894. He emigrated to the United States in 1910, and in 1913 he joined the Army where he rose to the rank of First Sergeant. Upon his discharge from the service on November 23, 1918 – just twelve days after the end of WWI, he lived and worked in Bridgeport before marrying Julia Kochiss of Easton in 1920. It was in 1923 when the young entrepreneur struck a deal with the aging Albert Van Wert to purchase the land that held the older man’s blacksmith shop, and then build his store. Halzack’s Country Store would become a virtual Easton landmark as it served several generations as a place to buy groceries, milk, newspapers, and gasoline for nearly the next 90 years.
George and Julia had four children. The oldest was Peter, born July 12, 1921. Seventeen months later, Nicholas was born on December 19, 1922. A third son, George, was born August 6, 1926. Their only daughter, Eleanor, was born January 21, 1929. In a tribute to George and Julia’s belief in their children obtaining a good education, all three of their boys graduated high school – somewhat of a rarity in pre-war small towns such as Easton. Peter and Nicholas then went on to enter college before cutting their education short to serve their country during the war.
Nicholas was the first of the Halzack boys to enlist. He signed up February 3, 1943. He would serve as a radio-operator gunner in the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to the 391st Squadron of the 34th Bomber Group of the 8th Air Force, based at Mendlesham Royal Air Force Station in Suffolk, England. Technical Sergeant Halzack was part of a crew of nine manning a B-24H Liberator bomber. Nicholas arrived in England on April 26, 1944. Over the following three weeks he and his crew would complete four successful bombing raids over German soil. As part of the lead-up to the D-Day invasion that would occur in early June, Allied bombing raids were specifically targeting German airfields and munitions factories.
On the morning of May 29, 1944, their aircraft left Great Yarmouth RAF Base for a strategic bombing mission over Politz, Germany. The plane was hit by German anti-aircraft fire on its approach to Politz but still managed to complete its bombing run. The plane’s nickname, “What, Me Worry?” suddenly seemed inappropriate. To make it back to England, the crew would need to continue flying east, then north over the Baltic before turning west and flying over Denmark before crossing the North Sea. A long flight indeed in a crippled aircraft.
With the aircraft severely damaged, the pilot, 2nd LT James F. Adams, made the decision to crash land rather than attempting to cross the North Sea on the return trip to England. According to eyewitnesses from another aircraft in the squadron, Aircraft number 42-94796 broke away from the formation just before 14:30 hours, made a 180 degree turn and began jettisoning all heavy equipment and materials. By then, number four engine had been feathered and the aircraft was losing altitude. The B-24H was last seen heading east in an effort to attempt a crash landing on a sandbar on an island off the coast of Sweden. Two witnesses declared that no parachutes were observed before they lost sight of the severely wounded B-24. If the aircraft were to have disintegrated while attempting to land, it was likely all onboard would have perished.
The Politz run was only the crew’s and the aircraft’s fifth mission.
The Army filled out a Missing Aircraft report on May 31, 1944. It listed the nine young men onboard and it gave a detailed account of the weather, the time the aircraft was last seen, and the approximate location of where it disappeared. It was accompanied by two maps. One showed the route the plane was following when the pilot made the difficult decision that the aircraft was incapable of continuing on across the North Sea. Ditching the large bomber over water would have required the entire crew to bail out if they were to have any chance of survival. In May, the waters of the North Sea were still too cold for any long term exposure and hypothermia would have likely taken any of the men who had successfully parachuted into the sea. On the back of one of the multiple pages in that report was the account reported by two other members of the same squadron who saw the aircraft turn and then slowly disappear in the distance.
Julia and George Halzack were soon notified that Nick’s plane was lost and that their beloved son was missing in action. Surely devastating news to a couple whose eldest son, Peter, was then stationed in England awaiting the invasion of France that would begin literally within hours of their being notified of Nicholas’ uncertain fate. On June 17th, a package was sent home to Easton with all of Nick’s remaining belongings. Atop the inventory list was Nick’s name and serial number followed by the words, “late a T/Sgt Air Corps USA who died” – with the word “died” crossed through and the letters “MIA” written above – “on the 29th day of May 1944.”
To think that the Army wouldn’t have had a separate form for those soldiers who were actually missing in action as opposed to being known dead is almost beyond comprehension. The words “late” and “died” practically jump off the page, effectively dashing any parental hope that their child might still be alive.
But Nick was alive!
Within a few weeks of receiving Nicholas’ belongings, the Halzack’s were visited by a member of the Red Cross and informed that Nick had survived the crash landing virtually unscathed and was then being held in an interment camp in Sweden.
While Sweden remained neutral throughout WWII, it walked a tightrope in an attempt to keep both the Axis and Allied powers satisfied. As a result, the country interned many downed Allied air crews returning from bombing missions over Germany. However, the men were not kept locked up in prisons, but rather mostly held in hotels and private tourist homes. The men enjoyed a fair degree of freedom and were allowed to receive their military pay from their home country while being detained. All of the crew members from Bomber 42-94796 had survived the crash landing and at least six members of the flight crew were gathered up by Swedish authorities and held by the government for several months. Nicholas Halzack was among the detainees.
According to one of his second cousins, “Nicholas was the subject of much joking by the other men of the family after the war because he spent part of the war as a ‘prisoner of war’ in neutral Sweden (I used to listen to all the men talking in my dining room while the women hung out in the kitchen)… My Mom recalled that the Red Cross came and made a recording from the family to send to him while he was in confinement. I always remember how the guys asked him about being stuck with Swedish girls, but he would just laugh and say they had done their part dropping the bombs where they needed to take out German munition factories.”
Released by the Swedish Internment Authorities in the early fall of 1944, Nicholas, along with the pilot and co-pilot of the “What, Me Worry?” were assigned to temporary duty in Stockholm. On October 22nd, the orders came through that the men were to be transported back to England on the 24th via the first available transportation. They were afforded an allowance of $6.00 per day while in transit.
Nicholas was returned to the United States sometime near the end of 1944. He served his remaining time in the Army, stationed in Texas. He was discharged on November 30, 1945. In 1946, he married Mildred Knapik and together they raised five children. Nicholas worked for the Bassick Company and later became the Controller for Buzzuto’s Inc. He passed away August 2, 2005.
Brother Peter was the next to enlist. Less than a month after Nicholas joined the Army, Peter enlisted at New Haven on March 8, 1943. Shortly after he went into the Army, while still stationed stateside at Camp Pickett in Virginia prior to being shipped overseas to England, a rather melancholy, and surely homesick, Peter wrote the following poem addressed to his mother:
I wish I had the power to write
The thoughts wedged in my heart tonight.
As I sit watching that small star
And wondering how and where you are.
You know, Mom, it’s a funny thing
How close a war can always bring
A family, who for years with pride
Has kept emotion deep inside
I’m sorry that when I was small
I let reserve build up the wall.
You told me real men never cried,
And it was you who always dried
My tears and smoothed my hurt away,
So that I soon went back to play.
Well, somehow pride and what is right
Just doesn’t seem to go tonight.
I find my eyes won’t stay quite dry.
I find that men sometimes do cry.
But if I had the power to write
The thoughts wedged in my heart tonight,
The words would ring out loud and true:
“I’m proud, Mom, yes proud to be serving for you.“
That poem along with the photograph seen below of a smiling Pete was published in the Bridgeport Post shortly after his mother received it.
Peter’s tour of duty was in the European theater. There are no available military records indicating which battles he might have been involved in, and like many soldiers who had seen the horrors of war, he said little of them, only that they gave him nightmares for years after his service. According to his mother Julia, Peter came home “a changed soul.” Clearly suffering from some form of PTSD, like most returning soldiers of the day, he was left to deal with the effects of the disorder on his own.
Peter spent the last months of his European tour serving in the south of France, likely in the area of Marseille, working as an MP overseeing prisoners of war.
Peter returned home to Easton after being discharged from military service on February 26, 1946. In 1947, he married Lois Linley. Together, they had a total of five children. Peter and Lois were married for over twenty-five years and she still resides in Easton today. Peter worked as a commercial artist for several years prior to joining his youngest brother George in helping run their family’s Easton store. Everyone who grew up in Easton in the latter years of the 20th century remembers his kind and gentle ways. His talent as an accomplished artist is also well known about town. Peter passed away October 29, 2002.
George Halzack Jr. was the youngest son and thus the last to enlist — the story was that with Nicholas downed in Sweden, George Jr enlisted on December 20, 1944, one the day after Nick’s birthday. George’s decision to enlist left his mother Julia very upset, knowing all three of her sons were then going off to war. It appears that George was young enough and late enough in enlisting that he did not see any military action. According to his family, he was sent to Hawaii but apparently went no further into the South Pacific. He was discharged November 26, 1946.
George was originally a cabinet maker, but he also ended up back in Easton to help run the family business along with his eldest brother, Pete. With a friendly smile, he and his older brother kept the business going for many years. George Jr. passed away on March 31, 2002, almost six months to the day before Peter died.
We must not leave out sister Eleanor. While she didn’t serve in the military, her future husband, also an Easton resident, did. His name was Robert Anton. His family lived on the corner of Flat Rock Road and Sport Hill. His service dates were May of 1944 to June of 1946. He was a Motor Machinist Mate 3rd class on the USS Scoter, a mine sweeper. His group was training to lead the landing craft onto the beaches for the invasion of Japan when the Japanese surrendered in August of 1945. After the invasion was called off, he served on occupation duty in Japan.
Robert returned home and married Eleanor Halzack in 1952. His occupation was listed as a surveyor in 1953. He was active in the Easton Volunteer Fire Company and served as an assistant Scout Master for Boy Scout Troop 62 in Stepney where he and Eleanor raised their three children. He worked for many years at Tenneco in Shelton. Eleanor passed away in March of 1975 and Robert died February 28, 2011.
I would like to thank Diane Rowland for her persistence and dedication in amassing most of the photographs and documents shown in this article. I would also like to thank the children of Bob & Eleanor Anton, as well as those of Nicholas Halzack for sharing their memories and photographs.
Next up in our series – The Laskay Brothers.