GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — At 102 years old, Ralph Hauenstein’s body has slowed. But his mind is still sharp, especially when he recalls the role he played during World War II as an intelligence officer in the European Theater.
“Met a lot of wonderful people; wonderful people,” Hauenstein recalled Tuesday on Veterans Day. “And took care of a lot of bad people.”
Like many Americans, Hauenstein felt the breeze as the Winds of War gathered in Europe in the mid-1930s. He joined the Army and went through officer training. After a couple of years of active duty, he returned to Grand Rapids.
“I was very happily ensconced in my work, which was the city editor at the old Grand Rapids Herald. And then, all of the sudden, they called up all reserve officers,” Hauenstein said.
That was in December of 1940 — about a year before the U.S. would declare war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor and officially enter World War II.
Hauenstein’s skills as a reporter served as good training for a young Army Intelligence officer.
In 1941, he was tasked with searching the remains of a German war plane shot down over Iceland, where he was assigned at the time. He turned up a code book that provided the missing piece to an intelligence puzzle sought by Ultra, the code name for the Allies’ high-level code-breaking efforts.
“It was the solution to all we could solve,” Hauenstein said. “We really knew, through Ultra, virtually all the activity the enemy was carrying out. We knew it the same time they knew it.”
The adventure continued. Col. Hauenstein was among the first Americans to reach Paris after the Nazis pulled out.
He also recalls an early briefing on the Manhattan Project from a nervous officer sent from Washington.
“‘We got a big problem.’ He said, ‘It’s a chain reaction.’ And he said, ‘We don’t know when the darn thing is going to stop,'” Hauenstein remembered.
But the event that stands out most in his mind is the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Dachau.
“The type of tortures I’d rather not talk about. Not so good. Yeah. It was terrible. Just terrible,” he said. “I would say of all the things of the war, that’s the one thing will never leave my mind. Never forget.”
THE GREATEST GENERATION
In the years following the war, Hauenstein — a living example of one of history’s greatest accomplishments who received the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and Legion of Honor, as well as the Order of the British Empire — did what so many veterans did.
He returned to Grand Rapids, he raised his family and he built his businesses. He also gave back to his community, establishing the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.
On this Veterans Day, Hauenstein worries about future challenges.
“When you read the newspaper and the television today and you see the things like ISIS, you begin to think we’ve just got to do from a defense (standpoint) that eliminates these people, eliminates such things,” he said.
When asked if America would be able to face the challenges faced during Word War II, Hauensten said he believes it would, but predicts it would take an event rivaling the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to rally the nation.
“It’s got to be tragic for them to see it,” Hauenstein said. “I don’t know if the esprit and the dedication, fervor would be instantaneous, that’s for sure. “