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Stories of Honor: Helena-area veteran Tony Hunthausen fought with 102nd in final march to Berlin during WWII

From the Read our 2020 Stories of Honor, honoring area veterans for their service series
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Tony Hunthausen

Army Infantryman Tony Hunthausen, circa 1944

HELENA -- The late Tony Hunthausen (1925-2019), World War II Army veteran, had seen enough disturbing incidents during his time of combat that he couldn’t even talk about them until many years later.

Among the worst was a scene he recalled about the time his platoon was marching toward the German front lines after the Battle of the Bulge, when they encountered an American wounded but alive lying in the ditch.

The soldier pleaded for their help, but when several guys tried to help one of their own, they were ordered back into line by their commanding officer, with a stern explanation that they must keep moving.

They were told the soldier in the ditch “was not their problem” and the medics would be along soon. But that evening as they returned down the same road, the American was lying dead in the same spot.

Many years later, Hunthausen told his family that this episode and several others were among the lasting memories responsible for feelings of guilt that haunted him for most of his life.

Anthony Adam “Tony” Hunthausen graduated from Anaconda High in 1944, where he followed in the footsteps of older brother Ray and played football for the Copperheads. Tony’s senior year, Anaconda went undefeated and unscored upon, capped off by a 28-0 shutout over Miles City in the Class A championship game.

Like many of his contemporaries during WWII, in July 1944 Tony joined the U.S. Army. He went through boot camp at Camp Roberts, California.

On New Year’s Day, 1945, Hunthausen sailed out of Camp Shanks, New York, aboard the Queen Mary for Glasgow, Scotland. Next, he boarded an LST at Weymouth, sailing across the English Channel.

“At Le Havre, we were squeezed into 40 and 8s (so named because the box cars held either 40 men or 8 horses) and sent on our way to Belgium,” Hunthausen wrote for a college class, titled "The Life of Mr. 39622599." “The weather was below zero, and the snow many feet high. We had no stoves…and very few blankets to keep warm.”

After four days of miserable travel, they reached their destination, “frozen, hungry and tired.” Quite a few of the guys were sent back to the hospital with frostbite.

A week later, Hunthausen joined Company F, 405th Infantry Regiment, 102nd Infantry Division in Holland. On Jan. 25 – which happened to be the official end of the Battle of the Bulge – while in defensive positions, Tony spent his 19th birthday in a foxhole in Germany.

On Feb. 23, Hunthausen’s unit crossed the Ruhr River at night while being shelled by the Germans with heavy artillery. He witnessed a direct hit on a group of U.S. Army engineers who were building a floating bridge across the river, and later recalled that only small pieces of the men could be found.

After making their way through a minefield, his squad got separated from the company. They were then ambushed by Nazi machine guns, and Hunthausen recounted how the bullets were “whizzing overhead.”

“Our platoon Sergeant, with the help of two guys, took out six machine gun nests, killed 12 Germans, and took 40 prisoners,” he wrote in his college paper, adding that the sergeant earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

They spent nine more days of fighting until they reached Krefeld, earning a 30-day break from combat. After crossing the Rhine River, they followed the armored division to the Elbe River.

During this trek, on April 12, Hunthausen was wounded by a machine gun round just above the knee. He was sent to the back of the lines and was treated. The medic dug the bullet out of his leg and disinfected it, with a warning that if it got infected he could possibly lose the limb.

Within days Anthony was back at the front facing his fears of being shot again. Years later, when asked about his Purple Heart, Hunthausen would describe the wound as “not serious, but it added 10 years” to his life.

As their outfit advanced toward a well-armed small town under the support of long range artillery cover over their heads, a buddy next to Hunthausen was killed by friendly fire. Helpless to assist and devastated by the scene, instead of being allowed to remove his fellow soldier from the battle field, Tony was ordered to advance.

He was forced to leave him lying there, never to see his friend again.

As they approached Berlin, in one community they came upon a warehouse that was used to imprison Nazi enemies. The retreating Germans had locked everyone inside and set fire to the place.

When the Americans arrived they discovered the occupants’ remains, their charred bodies stacked up behind the doors where the prisoners perished while trying to escape.

The German surrender came on May 8, 1945. Six months after VE Day and stationed about 30 miles from Berlin, Hunthausen was accepted to the Army’s American University of Biarritz, in France.

After two months in “paradise” – complete with the “finest hotels and golf courses” and studying to become a “better and wiser” U.S. citizen – he was sent back to Germany to spend his final two months overseas training with the 14th Infantry Regiment, 71st Infantry Division.

He was discharged from the Army on June 22, 1946, from Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. After returning home, Tony married his high school sweetheart, Harriett Wetherell. They would go on to parent nine children.

Hunthausen graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in business accounting, and worked at that profession in Missoula, Miles City and Anaconda.

The family relocated to East Helena in 1960, and then in his 40s Tony obtained a degree in education from Carroll College, and spent the next 20 years teaching junior high students in Clancy.

Last year, Tony Hunthausen passed away at 93 years of age. Besides his legacy as a dedicated family man and pillar of the community, among his lifelong loves were sharing his passion for history and civics with his students, and serving as the family’s handyman and mechanic.

He did, however, forego his prewar past-time of hunting. Having witnessed the horrendous casualties of war, after returning home Hunthausen chose never again to fire a weapon.

Curt Synness, a Navy veteran, can be reached at 406-594-2878 or email curt52synness@gmail.com. He’s also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR

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