Arizona man's search reunites WWII soldiers

Man finds stories of those who served with his father

By Peter Corbett

The Arizona Republic

Published: Monday, Dec. 24 2012 7:40 p.m. MST

Rossetti, Basurto and Huegel were all drafted and came together at Camp Young in 1943.

The U.S. Army credited the 502nd soldiers with these battles and campaigns: Normandy, northern France, central Europe, the Rhineland and Ardennes, better known as the Battle of the Bulge.

The 502nd was on its way to the Philippines in August 1945 when its members learned of the Japanese surrender.

Rossetti remembered the enthusiastic cheers after an announcement over the ship's intercom: "You can relax, guys. The war is over, and you're going home."

Basurto still lives in his old adobe with his daughter Sandra.

She said he still is haunted by his war memories.

"He wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes," Sandra Basurto said. "He saw a lot of horrible stuff over there. He remembers the dead bodies."

Peter Huegel, like so many others of his generation, did not talk much about the war.

"It was part of the past for him," his son said.

Joey Strickland, director of the Arizona Department of Veterans' Services, said WWII soldiers, sailors and airmen — about 56,000 of them in Arizona — were a humble group.

"They didn't go off to war to become heroes," he said. "They became heroes because they went to war."

Many have never requested the medals they earned during their service, Strickland said.

The youngest of WWII vets are close to 90 now, and about 1,100 of them are dying every day.

The younger Peter Huegel got interested in learning more about his father's service decades after his mother died in 1982 and left him the collection of his father's WWII photos.

"There was this huge gap," Huegel said. "You knew your dad was involved in something important, but you didn't know the details."

Huegel posted to an online military message board in May 2001, looking for veterans who had served in the 502nd company.

The digital trail was silent for more than 11 years.

Then, this summer, Mario Rossetti responded to the post, explaining that his 87-year-old father had served in the same unit and was now living across the Valley in Scottsdale.

That led to a series of get-togethers, culminating with Basurto and Rossetti shaking hands in Peter Huegel's family room.

Huegel said the reunions have filled in gaps in what he knew about his father.

"When Tony (Rossetti) was talking, some things, memories came flooding back to me," he said.

Peter Huegel, a retired property manager, heard his dad's stories about WWII when his Army buddy Joe Cullotti visited from New York.

The two men sat at the kitchen table in Canton in the late 1950s, drinking whiskey from a flask that looked like a pig sitting on its haunches.

Huegel figured he was about 8 or 9 years old at the time.

He recalled hearing that American soldiers welded long steel bars to their jeep bumpers to thwart stealth attacks by Germans who strung piano wire across roads targeting GIs driving with their windshields folded down.

What Huegel later learned was that his father had a half-brother, Johann Schebesch, who died in the war on the German side. His mother left a son in Europe when she immigrated to America, hoping that one day the boy would rejoin her.

They never met, but Peter Huegel said he thinks his father felt guilty about the death of his half-brother.

He was also deeply troubled by his experiences after Germany surrendered. Because he spoke German fluently, Pfc. Huegel was ordered to go out and find Germans who were fleeing the Russians and wanted to surrender to the Americans, the younger Peter Huegel said.

He carried the guilt of this because he believed that the Germans he brought in were somehow key figures in the subsequent Cold War arms race, Huegel said.

It was a heavy burden.

"My dad took his own life," he said. "He showed no signs of mental illness until late in the fall of 1974.

"He was hospitalized about four times for depression between then and his death on Oct. 10, 1975."

Peter Huegel was buried in the military section of Canton's Forest Hills Cemetery marked by a large cannon. The American flag draped on his casket and his Army uniform are in a steamer trunk in his son's family room.

Huegel said it was rewarding meeting with Rossetti and Basurto.

"I honestly don't know what exact details I was searching for, but I felt any tidbit was better than nothing," he said.

"One of my most special moments was when Tony was watching the video and a photo of my dad came on the screen," Huegel said. "Tony broke into a smile and just said, 'Yeah, there's Pete.' "

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