Numbers dwindle at club of World War II vets in Millvale
On Christmas Eve 1944, Frank Haugh grabbed a rope and swung from the torpedoed SS Leopoldville to another ship that was heaving in rough water of the English Channel.
“I was determined to come back,” said Haugh, 88, of Olmsted Falls, Ohio. He escaped from the sinking ship about five miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France.
Haugh returned to his childhood home of Millvale on Wednesday — as he has nearly every year since 1948 — to attend the 65th banquet of the Last Man Standing Club, a group of World War II veterans based at VFW Post 118.
Ninety-one people attended the club's first banquet. Six remain. Two recently suffered heart attacks. Just three made it Wednesday.
Of the 2,235 American servicemen aboard Haugh's ship, a Belgian passenger liner converted to troopship that carried members of the Army's 66th Infantry to the Battle of the Bulge, 515 went down with the ship, and 248 died from injuries, drowning or hypothermia.
“It is very important for Dad to be here today. He's only missed one or two of these in 65 years,” said Haugh's son, Frank, who drove his father from the Cleveland suburb.
The elder Haugh was pleased to see old friends, such as Paul Mihlfried of Shaler, a high school classmate in Millvale who fought in China and Burma. Mihlfried, 88, is a retired sheet metal worker.
Like Haugh, whose wife and children did not know about his escape from the Leopoldville for decades, Mihlfried does not brag.
“I'm not a hero. There was some fighting. I'll leave it at that,” Mihlfried said about some of the most grueling campaigns of the war.
Organization of annual banquets falls to the group's youngster, Russell Kurtz, 84, of Kittanning. Kuntz quit high school and lied about his age to join the Navy at 16 in early 1945. He spent months on ships in the Atlantic before the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
“I had three older brothers who were in the service during the war. That's why I left school and lied about my age,” he said.
At Wednesday's lunch, Kuntz recited prayers and tributes and read the names of the 45 men who belonged to the club when they died. Haugh and Mihlfried stood until Kuntz finished.
When the club was founded, the group bought a 1928 bottle of Charles Heidsieck champagne from Reims, France. Someday it will go to the group's final member.
“It probably tastes like vinegar,” Kuntz said.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.