PHOENIX — Peter Huegel's photograph from 1944 shows Tony "Shine Boy" Rossetti in Belgium, holding a rifle and leaning against his jeep with his Army buddies, including Gregorio "Goyo" Basurto, a Tucson kid a long way from home.
The soldiers, including Huegel behind the camera, served together in the 502nd Quartermaster Car Company, which landed at Normandy a few weeks after D-Day and later made its way across the continent with the Third Army led by Gen. George Patton.
They were there the morning after American soldiers liberated Germany's Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945.
"I don't think there was anyone over 60 pounds, not a one," said Rossetti, recalling the horrific scene of emaciated prisoners 67 years later.
Now 87 and living in Scottsdale, Rossetti visited on a recent Sunday afternoon with Basurto, 92.
It was the first time they had seen each other since August 1945, when the Marine Panther troop ship returned the 502nd company to Camp Kilmer, N.J.
The two men shared their memories at the Glendale home of Peter Huegel, 61, the son of their late Army buddy and the photographer who captured their youthful images during the war years so long ago.
The younger Peter Huegel researched his father's military career through photos and documents to learn more about his life and how the war affected him. The fading black-and-white images of these World War II soldiers, along with the younger Huegel's quest to find others who served with his father, were the catalyst that brought Rossetti and Basurto together in the twilight of their lives.
The elder Peter Huegel died in 1975 in his hometown of Canton, Ohio. But his snapshots are an enduring legacy of the 502nd company, a unit of about 125 men.
They were in some cases first-generation Americans who grew up in the Great Depression. They fought the war, silently coped with their physical and mental battle scars when they got home, worked hard and raised their families..
"It's good to be still kicking around," said Basurto, who smiled broadly from his wheelchair the day he finally was reunited with Rossetti.
"God bless! It's good to see you," said Rossetti as they shook hands.
"We're just a couple of (jeep) drivers," Rossetti added. "I feel like a Hollywood star with all the cameras around."
Basurto, from Tucson, and Rossetti, a New Jersey native, came with their respective families to this 502nd company reunion.
Just the two of them. The search for others in the unit has come up empty so far.
The reunion highlight on this afternoon was a 25-minute video that Peter Huegel created as a tribute to his father and the 502nd company. It featured dozens of his dad's photos taken at Camp Young, near Indio, Calif., and during the company's tour in Europe.
Two-cent postcards, yellowing telegrams from train stations, military orders and scribbled captions on the pictures add details.
Shine Boy Rossetti, who earned his nickname for the high gloss of his boots, is shown in a photo beside his jeep. The name "Betty" stenciled on it referred to his British girlfriend.
Snapshots of Camp Young's soldiers and their accompanying captions focus on guys like "Private Pritz, a former school teacher," "the company screwball DeAngelis" and "Housler from Louisianna," the misspelled caption denoting a paunchy GI with an endearing, goofy smile.
Huegel's photographs, taken with a borrowed camera, show a progression of smiling young men in the bright light of their Mohave Desert camp and then on to Europe's darker shadows, where their faces are more weary.
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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