Joseph C. Kasprzak put aside the heads of lettuce and bushels of tomatoes at his family’s grocery store on the East Side when he received a draft notice summoning him to service in World War II.
With a rifle slung over his shoulder, Kasprzak, a member of the 14th Armored Division of the 62nd Armored Infantry Regiment, arrived in southern France in March 1944.
“When we landed there, we had to march with our full field packs about 10 miles inland, and that’s where we organized before we went to the front lines some 20 miles inland and began fighting our way up to the middle of France,” Kasprzak said. “It was mostly minor skirmishes. The Germans were on the run.”
The war, though, was far from over.
For his unit, “the real fighting started at the Battle of the Bulge. We went into Bannstein on Dec. 15, and everything was quiet. But on New Year’s Eve, exactly at midnight, we were attacked by machine gun and artillery fire. We fought all night until morning and our unit had to withdraw. We were losing too many men.
“I drove in with the halftrack to move the troops out. We had wounded and a family of four who had begged to be taken with us. As we got out on the open road, we were fired on by tanks. A shell went right over our heads and missed us. We continued to the rear.”
Away from the front lines, Kasprzak received dreadful news.
“Out of 250 men in our company, there were only 25 of us still around. The others were either killed or taken as prisoners,” he says. “Our front line had been too thin. That’s why the Germans broke through, and that’s why we took such a beating. You can just imagine what a lucky person I was to live. God was with me.”
As the battle progressed and the Americans regained their footing, Kasprzak said he was often so close to the enemy that he could hear them screaming.
“When our artillery shells landed on them, I could hear the Germans shout ‘comrade!’ and ‘doctor!’ ”
But it was war, and mercy was not at the top of the to-do list.
“We fired our machine guns, and when we broke through their lines, the French people in Bannstein told us that the Germans had suffered losses of 1,300 soldiers,” Kasprzak recalls. “We took a beating, but they took a beating, too.”
The unit went on to fight in the Ardennes Forest, then at the Siegfried Line.
“At the Rhine River, the Germans bombarded the bridges across the river, and that slowed our progress,” Kasprzak says. “Our engineers built pontoon bridges so that we could get across. The Germans continued retreating. I ended up in Austria when the war ended.”
His thoughts returned to home and the family grocery store.
“I was in Austria for about a month when they put us in railway boxcars and transported us to France,” Kasprzak remembers. “I sailed home from France and rejoined my parents in the family grocery business, but there wasn’t enough business to support my parents, my brother’s family and my family, so I got a job as a mechanic with Niagara Mohawk and worked at the Huntley Station.”
He and his wife, Ida Mialkowski Kasprzak, who died two years ago, raised two children, Gregory and Pamela.
“I have seven grandchildren,” Kasprzak says, “and I live for them.”
Joseph C. Kasprzak, 92
• Hometown: Buffalo
• Residence: Getzville
• Branch: Army
• Rank: Corporal
• War zone: Europe
• Years of service: 1942-46
• Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge
• Specialty: Driver of 11-ton halftrack armored personnel carrier