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Lackawanna's 95-year-old 'cowboy' helped liberate WWII internment camp

When Henry "Cowboy" Kusmierczyk learned he could earn more money serving as a paratrooper in World War II, he jumped at the chance.

He said he volunteered for the high-risk job after he was drafted and sent to Fort Niagara in Youngstown for his induction into the Army.

"Every penny I made went to help my mother. She was an invalid, and I was youngest of eight children. My father had died when I was 14, and we didn't have much, so we helped each other," Kusmierczyk said of how the family survived.

After graduating in 1940 from Lackawanna High School, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and moved from his mother Josephine's home on Eaton Street to a work camp at Hamlin Beach on Lake Ontario.

"We dug trenches for power lines, and my mother received my paycheck of $22 a week and I got $8 for my pocket," he said.

But by December of that year, Kusmierczyk was back home after his older brothers helped him get a job at Bethlehem Steel, where they worked.

In Lackawanna's First Ward, Kusmierczyk was known as "cowboy."

"It started when I was five years old. My father had raised chickens and a pig, and he told me to go and let the pig out in the backyard. When I did, one of the neighbors lifted me up and put me on the pig. I grabbed it by the ears and it started squealing, and I started crying like hell. The neighbor shouted, 'Ride 'em cowboy' and the nickname stuck," said Kusmierczyk.

At 95, he still is known in Lackawanna as "cowboy."

Raising farm animals for food in those lean times brought on by the Great Depression, he said, was not uncommon for families, even in city settings.

"Half a block away from us there was a woman who raised a cow for milk. We had other neighbors who raised goats for milk," he recalled.

But for the Lackawanna cowboy, the days of a mingled urban-country life were over when he received his draft notice. Shipped to the Pacific Theater, he took heart in knowing his salary was making a difference back home.

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Henry "Cowboy" Kusmierczyk, 95

Hometown and residence: Lackawanna

Branch: Army

Rank: Staff sergeant

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: January 1943 – January 1946

Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, 3 Bronze Stars, Philippine Liberation Medal, Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: Paratrooper

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A paratrooper with Company C of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division, Kusmierczyk tried his best to shield his mother from the grim realities of war.

"I would write to my sisters and tell them to tell my mother that everything was fine."

It wasn't.

He had been awarded a Purple Heart after suffering wounds during the Battle of Manila, though he downplays his injuries and says they were not enough to sideline him.

"We had parachuted into the battle some 40 miles south of Manila in February 1945 and there were many other Army divisions involved. A lot of the fighting for us occurred at night. We were always on the high ground and we'd dig foxholes for protection.

"We could hear the enemy shouting and we'd start shooting and tossing grenades. There were times we couldn't even see who we were shooting at."

But he recalls as clear as day when he and other members of the 11th Airborne Division were called on to liberate a Japanese internment camp known as Los Banos on Feb. 23. Members of Company B parachuted in while Kusmierczyk's Company C arrived on amphibious assault vehicles.

Henry "Cowboy" Kusmierczyk, left, Staff Sgt. Charles Egbert, right, along with Hal and Paquita Bowie holding their daughter, Lea, after Kusmeirczyk's division liberated the family and 2,100 others from a brutal Japanese internment camp. (Photo courtesy of the Kusmierczyk family)

They succeeded in freeing more than 2,100 civilians and military personnel from the camp. The sight of paratroopers floating down to earth, Kusmierczyk said, prompted some of the prisoners to describe their liberators as angels.

"They said, 'Oh, my God. Look, the angels are coming.' That's how's the 11th Airborne got its nickname 'The Angels.' "

The daring raid had been prompted by reports of brutal conditions at Los Banos and fear that civilians would be slain as the Japanese continued to lose their grip on the Philippines and retreated.

For Kusmierczyk, the successful mission brought unexpected joy that was captured in a photograph. The image shows him and Staff Sgt. Charles Egbert looking at a baby girl — Lea — who is with her smiling parents, Hal and Paquita Bowie.

"You can see that I'm unshaven and dirty right down to my boots in the photo," Kusmierczyk said, adding that it was a moment he continues to cherish. "There were others in the camp who had skin diseases and were malnourished."

Amazingly two years ago, Kusmierczyk spoke with Lea by phone after his daughter, Joanne Rand, discovered she was living in New York City.

"She was about 70 years old and she told me that she lived in Brooklyn. It was very nice talking to her. I was supposed to go and visit her at an Army reunion but I had health issues and couldn't make it," Kusmierczyk said.

But he made it home safely to Lackawanna after the war was won and married the former Anna Pokigo. For 40 years, he worked at Bethlehem Steel and retired in 1981. He and his wife also raised a son, Ronald. With pride, Kusmierczyk says he and Anna were married 67 years, before she died in 2015.

Halfway through his nineties, he says his key to good living is staying busy. A regular volunteer at Lackawanna's senior citizen center, he relished the chance to serve as the president of the 2017 "World's Shortest Dyngus Day Parade" in Lackawanna.

And yet, the pain of war sometimes returns to him when he thinks of all the soldiers who never returned home.

"They were my buddies," he said.

But Kusmierczyk is resilient and loves to share stories of how he spreads joy, such as this one:

"I have two life-size statues of horses in my yard, one is made of concrete and the other is like a carousel horse. When little kids pass by going to school they'll say, 'Oh, look at the horses.' Sometimes they have their picture taken with the horses," he said with amusement. "When they grow up, they can look at themselves in those photos."

And know that "cowboy" helped make a happy memory for them.

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