Minnesota WWII veteran, 96, honored with France's top award for his role in Battle of the Bulge
Minnesota 96-year-old Arnold "Buck" J. Zahratka told reporters that he was amazed by the commendation and reflected on his service in the U.S. Army during the pivotal battle.
MONTGOMERY, Minn. — As World War II raged overseas, Arnold "Buck" J. Zahratka, said joining the Army in October of 1943 was an easy choice.
“We were 18 years old, we wanted to go over," Zahratka, now 96, told reporters this week. "We couldn’t get there fast enough."
But the Montgomery, Minnesota, native had no idea the struggles that awaited him there.
After fighting with the 106th Infantry Division in the Normandy region of France, Zahratka and others in his division regrouped and headed east to face off with Nazi forces in the Battle of the Bulge.
About 6,000 U.S. soldiers in the 422nd and 423rd infantry regiments surrendered to the Germans and were taken as prisoners during the battle.
Zahratka's division, meanwhile, was the last infantry regiment to push its way through eastern Belgium and down into the Alsace region of France.
On the way, Zahratka was separated from his unit in the rugged Ardennes Forest with no ammunition and few provisions to keep him going.
He credits a guardian angel with keeping him alive through that time and with reuniting him with his unit despite all odds. And that same guardian angel helped his unit push back Nazi forces at the Battle of the Bulge, a move that turned the tides in favor of the Allied Forces.
Zahratka has received numerous medals and commendations since returning from war, including the American Campaign Medal, Bronze Star, European Campaign Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, World War II Medal, Efficiency Fidelity & Honor Medal, a Good Conduct Medal and a diploma from the French government for his part in liberating France.
And on Wednesday, March 24, the French government awarded him the French Legion of Honor, the highest distinction that France gives those who performed remarkable deeds for the country.
"Though many years have passed since you went from family and friends for your military training ... France has not forgotten, Mr. Zahratka," Consul General of France in Chicago Yannick Tagand said. "You are a true hero. Thanks to you, I grew up in a free country, in a country that has been living in peace for more than seven decades."
Zahratka's family, friends and fellow community members on Wednesday filled the Montgomery American Legion Post 79 in Le Sueur County to see the nonagenarian accept the medal and celebrate with a meal of pork, dumplings and sauerkraut.
And local leaders, representatives for Minnesota's U.S. senators and state veterans affairs officials heaped praise upon Zahratka for his military accomplishments, but also for the role he played in the Montgomery community.
"How do you come up with ways to describe the honor, dignity and respect that the man in front of us today is simply made of and lives by so easily in his daily life?" Montgomery Mayor Tom Eisert said. "Today, it only takes a quick look throughout the room to see it without even saying any words."
France has not forgotten, Mr. Zahratka ... You are a true hero. Thanks to you, I grew up in a free country, in a country that has been living in peace for more than seven decades.
"You set the bar high for all of us. You, sir, represent the best of the best and serve as a model on how to live life through a state of honor, dignity and respect," Eisert continued.
It took decades for Zahratka to open up about his experiences in combat, his daughter Linda Stadstad said after the award ceremony.
“It wasn’t a good memory so we didn’t ask," Stadstad said.
But in the last decade or so, family members started asking their father to tell them more about his service and memories of the war. And they were surprised to learn all that Zahratka had been keeping to himself but not shocked to hear about his courage.
"He's always been my hero," Stadstad said. "So hearing all of that, it doesn't change anything, it just adds to it."
Following the ceremony, Zahratka greeted friends and family who gave him big hugs and posed for photos with him in his uniform jacket. While humble about the latest commendation, he said he was very happy.
"It's just amazing. That's all I've got to say," Zahratka said. "I never did anything to earn something like that."