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Macomb County man recalls Battle of the Bulge 75 years later

By: Alex Szwarc | C&G Newspapers | Published January 2, 2020

 St. Clair Shores resident Robert Haffner, pictured during World War II, fought in the  Battle of the Bulge, which began 75 years  ago in December and lasted into January.

St. Clair Shores resident Robert Haffner, pictured during World War II, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, which began 75 years ago in December and lasted into January.

Photo provided by Robert Haffner

 Robert Haffner, 95, was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. He served throughout Europe.

Robert Haffner, 95, was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. He served throughout Europe.

Photo by Alex Szwarc

  Pictured is a commemorative magnet for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Pictured is a commemorative magnet for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Photo by Brian Louwers

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MACOMB COUNTY — For the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Robert Haffner said it’s always on his mind how lucky he is.

“The Lord must’ve wanted me to live this long,” Haffner, who turned 95 in November, said. “I should’ve died at 75 or 80 like the rest of my grandparents.”

A member of the 307th Airborne Engineers of the 82nd Airborne Division A Company, the St. Clair Shores resident saw action in the Army at Normandy, France, Ardennes, Rhineland, Germany and central Europe.

After conquering the Netherlands, Haffner fought in the Battle of the Bulge from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. It was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II.

“The Germans again got together and wanted to take Holland and Belgium back,” he said, describing how the battle began. “We set up camp and the next morning, we woke up to 3 feet of snow.”

In addition to battling the enemy, American forces were up against miserable weather, with freezing temperatures and plenty of snow.

Haffner said his role in the Battle of the Bulge, equipped with his M1 rifle, was to walk around looking for Germans.

“You never know who’s behind what, so you’re tiptoeing through the forest,” he said. “Part of the forest is in France, other parts in Germany, and we’re getting closer to the Rhine River. I was on the southern edge of the forest.”

Haffner recalls suddenly hearing shots ring out from above.

“What the hell is going on? We’re being attacked,” he said. “Now, we hear the ringing again and see a jet plane, the first jet plane I ever saw.”

Haffner said the pilot used .50-caliber machine guns, targeting the American first aid tent, leaving many soldiers killed or wounded. He said soldiers knew the pilot would come back soon.

“He comes back and all I can remember is everyone shooting. He was killed and crashed at the end of the forest,” he said. “That was the only jet plane I saw.”

Drafted in January 1943, Haffner’s first overseas trip came a year later when his unit went to Dover, United Kingdom, in advance of the Normandy invasion.

Until the spring of 1944, Haffner hadn’t been trained in jumping out of planes.

“That never happened; instead we learned gliders. A glider is like an airplane, and a parachute is like a mushroom coming down,” he said.

On June 4, 1944, Haffner remembers a large drill, prompted by a message to prepare equipment and head to the airport.

“We didn’t know what the heck is happening, but it’s been planned to invade Normandy,” Haffner said. “We had to cross the English Channel. We’re at the airport on June 5 and everyone’s saying to get ready; I had a parachute on. They didn’t take all of us. The parachutes come in first to disrupt the Germans.”

Haffner’s company was in England until September 1944, when he was part of the Nijmegen invasion in the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden.

“That was one of the main battles after D-Day,” he said. “Holland is the second big battle.”

Operation Market Garden called for three-plus airborne divisions to seize and hold key bridges and roads deep behind German lines.

Haffner was honorably discharged in February 1946 and married his late wife, Ruby, in 1949 on the Hollywood radio show “Bride and Groom for the Day.” The couple had two daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Haffner worked in the jewelry business for 65 years, owning Haffner Jewelers in Royal Oak.

In 2016, he was awarded France’s Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal, the country’s highest honor bestowed on people who have carried out actions of great value to the nation.

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