Earle C. Heusinger Sr., 95
Residence: West Seneca
Rank: Private first class
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1940-46; Army National Guard, then Army Reserve, 1950-84, master sergeant
Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Specialties: Bugler, battery commander driver, mail clerk, messenger
By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter
After finishing eighth grade at School 47 on Pratt Street on Buffalo’s East Side, Earle C. Heusinger felt an obligation to help his parents make ends meet. Times were tough, and he was the oldest son of eight siblings.
So he skipped high school and delivered groceries. That job opened the door to work at Western Union, where he rode a bicycle delivering telegrams for 25 cents an hour. Then he took inside work, serving as a short-order cook, but found that cooking didn’t agree with him.
But he stuck it out until age 18, when he enlisted in the military. Someone had told him that the easiest job in the Army was playing the bugle. Heusinger had taken trumpet lessons in grammar school and liked the idea of working as a military musician.
The Army, however, struck a sour note when Heusinger was told that he could best serve Uncle Sam by cracking eggs and peeling potatoes.
“I told them I didn’t like cooking and I would go AWOL if they made me a cook,” he says.
Heusinger did so well in his audition for bugler that the Army rewarded him by making him the lead bugler in his outfit, Battery E of the 209th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion.
“I had to familiarize myself with all the different bugle calls. Nothing happened until the bugler sounded a call,” the 95-year-old recalls with a sense of pride. But 18 months into his new line of work, America was at war. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor
Before shipping overseas, he says, he got a close-up of one of the key generals.
It happened at an airfield in California, where a drum and bugle corps played military songs as Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr. stepped from an airplane and briefly inspected troops assembled to greet him.
“His trip was supposed to be a secret, but there were some news photographers who took pictures of him,” Heusinger says. “He was heavily guarded by military police, and they grabbed the cameras and stepped on them. Then they handcuffed the photographers and put them in a jeep and drove them away. I imagine they were probably scolded and then released.”
Not long after that, Heusinger was on a troopship sailing to Europe, landing first in Ireland, then in North Africa and finally at the base of Italy, near Pompeii. He remembers Mount Vesuvius belching to life.
“You could see smoke and lava. You could feel the heat – not bad, but you knew it,” he says. “At night, there was a faint glow, kind of a rust color.”
With his bugling days on hold, Heusinger says, he witnessed plenty serving as the driver for Capt. Perry Wurst, a lawyer from Buffalo.
“I don’t like to talk about it, but I saw my share of dead bodies.”
One time while driving in a convoy, Heusinger says, two planes came out of nowhere so low that he could see the pilots. “It looked like an English Spitfire was chasing a German Messerschmitt 109, and we said this is great,” he says. “The English have got him. But it turned that the Spitfire was a decoy that was being flown by a German pilot and that both planes were strafing us. A couple of our trucks were shot up and burned, but another anti-aircraft unit shot down the planes.”
Among the different anti-aircraft units, Heusinger says, there were “friendly rivalries.”
“We would all claim to shoot down an enemy aircraft, and whoever got to the crash site first to take the pilot prisoner, if he was alive, got the credit,” he says. “If we both arrived at the same time, we each got half a credit. That was to keep everybody happy. It was sort of like kindergarten.”
After 2½ years of war, Heusinger fulfilled his overseas duties and was sent back to the United States, arriving on Election Day, Nov. 7, 1944.
“A group of us was sent to Lake Placid. It was for rehabilitation. They must have thought we would be maniacs returning from the war, but we weren’t,” he says.
“I enjoyed it up in Lake Placid. I got an extended furlough and went home to Buffalo for Christmas and New Year’s. Then I went by train to Fort MacArthur in California. I was assigned to a drum and bugle corps, and we went out on war bond drives to movie theaters. I met a lot of celebrities.”
Those celebrities included actress Bette Davis, comedian Jimmy Durante, actor Arthur Treacher and bandleader Kay Kyser.
After he was honorably discharged, Heusinger married Doreen Schnitzer of East Aurora and worked most of his civilian career as an electrician. He also stuck with the military, serving more than three decades of combined duty in the Army National Guard and later in the Army Reserve. He proudly points out that his two sons followed his example of military service. Earle C. Heusinger Jr. retired from the Army as a major, and Timothy S. Heusinger retired as an Army staff sergeant.
As for that high school education that he chose not to pursue so long ago, well, these days he speaks to area high schools students, sharing his war experiences.
“I throw in some blood and guts, but I like to keep it light,” Heusinger says. “One time, I was even awarded an honorary high school diploma.”
And so the ancient Army bugler marches forward, keeping history alive.