Jeanne Stefanowicz of York spoke with someone this summer who fought with her brother in WWII.
Jeanne Stefanowicz of York spoke with someone this summer who fought with her brother in WWII. (DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS -- KATE PENN)

Related Links to The death of Pfc. Kressler
·Multimedia presentation
·York's Role in WWII and Purple Heart information
·Veterans Day events



Three people in three places each held a piece of a story.

None knew of the other two, or even knew to look. And there were reasons this story had never been put together -- time, and distance, and pain.

These three shared something of the moment when a Nazi bullet killed Pfc. Robert C. Kressler in the woods of France.

Bob Minichiello was there, outside Metz, moving tree-to-tree with him against a German machine gun nest.

Jeanne Stefanowicz was in York, and only later read the military's report on her brother's death, a basic narrative -- shot by a German -- that left a lifetime of mystery about the meaning of those words.

Tom Lange was not yet born. He learned of the moment later, hearing an old man pry loose the memories he once sealed away.

Whatever the force, they were pulled together one day this summer, and a woman learned the answer to that most basic question:

What happened?

1.

Jeanne Stefanowicz doesn't move well anymore.

She needs a walker to get around the house on Roosevelt Avenue. At 82, she inches past the pictures of the two husbands she has outlived and the model Christmas village on the kitchen ledge.

Most days, her joints howl at her to be still. She leaves the house to go to Weiss, CVS or the doctor.

In the afternoon, she watches TV.

It was the 4th of July weekend, and she had on Fox News. The commercial was something about the Purple Heart. Those wounded in combat or their families, the announcer said, should call the number listed on the screen.

Her older brother, Bob Kressler, had won a Purple Heart. The Army gave his widow the medal sometime after they told her he had been killed. He should be recognized, Jeanne thought, in whatever it is they're doing.

She reached for the phone and dialed.

2.

Tom Lange was one of six answering calls that day at the Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

The public service announcement was working. Calls came from all over the country to the museum in upstate New York, carrying stories of men and women that would join the roll of honor.

Lange took the next call and asked his first questions.

The woman said her brother, Robert C. Kressler from York, Pennsylvania, was killed in France on November 10, 1944. When he enlisted, the Army him sent to Harvard to study engineering. He served in the Yankee Division.

Lange's mind whirred.

I know this story. Robert C. Kressler. Kressler. He went to Harvard. Kressler. Harvard. Served in the Yankee Division. Kressler. Where have I heard this before?

Lange went on auto-pilot -- did she have his military records, did she know his unit -- while his mind worked, like a person having a conversation while surfing the Internet.

He had filmed about 60 oral histories for the Hall, many of World War II veterans. Was it there?

Kressler. Robert Kressler ... Bob Kressler? Bob Kressler. Now where? The Yankee Division. Who served in the Yankee Division? Think of the interviews. Think of the tapes. Think.

Lange snapped back into the conversation.

"I think I know someone who knew your brother," he told the caller.

3.

A man sits before a black background, filling half the frame.

He has a narrow line of a silver beard and mustache. He wears glasses. Lines stack his forehead, from his eyebrows up to a bald pate.

A voice offscreen says: "My name is Tom Lange and today we're here at the Purple Heart Hall of Honor. Today is June 5, 2008 and we are here with Bob Minichiello."

The man in the frame introduces himself.

"I was born in Boston in 1923 and lived my whole childhood and grew up there."

He was the ninth of 10 children, he explains, and had a younger sister, Antoinette. They were very close.

"She started her freshman year at college at Boston and developed a brain tumor and died within four months. This was '42, 1942. That's when I really began to feel what am I doing hanging around here? That coupled with so many of the guys were leaving for the service and I was losing interest in my studies and such.

"They didn't seem as important any more."

He volunteered for the Army. They called six months later. After basic, they sent him to Harvard to learn engineering -- part of a program to train enlisted men who scored well on aptitude tests. But the program was scrapped the following spring when the Army needed infantry men.

"I missed D-Day."

They landed in Cherbourg on Sept. 7, 1944 and were trucked to the front lines.

"There was a question on the little sheet you sent me about, 'are you ready to die?' I don't think anybody's ready to die. I think we know we're going to be in danger of dying, but my own feeling is, I'm going to survive. I'm going to survive damn it ... I think a lot of guys felt that way."

He continued:

"Once I got into combat, the actual combat I could see that it could very well be me. It's incredible how -- I don't know what you call it, fate I guess -- works. Because that very first week we went into combat we were working through a forest or a wooded area."

We were attacking a German position, a buddy and myself. We moved tree-to-tree. I hid and fired while he ran, then he hid and covered me while I ran.

"He was going past me and I just heard 'ugh.' I heard this gasp from him and he was killed instantly. I only point that out because if I had been running out, if it had been my turn, the next turn, it could have been me."

His hands are folded, and his wedding ring shines at the very bottom of the frame.

"I sort of believe in God, the God of my understanding as I call him now. And he must make the choices I guess. At least that's my feeling. And he made the choice. And it's an incredible choice.

"Bob, the fella that was killed, had a wife and a baby and I was single.

He throws his hands up. His head drops and hangs. The next words eke out.

"And I was spared."

4.

Jeanne never knew.

She was 17, living at home in York that November.

Her brother was already married with a son and a job in personnel at S. Morgan Smith when he enlisted in 1943.

He was a quiet man. Neat. He didn't smoke or drink or cuss. Spent his Sundays at First United Presbyterian Church. A good student at William Penn -- that's probably why they sent him to Harvard before they invaded France.

The Army told his wife first, but soon everyone knew. Bob Kressler, dead at 20 years, three months, 14 days.

Jeanne heard the bare facts of his death -- where, when, how -- but there had to be more.

What was Bob doing when he went? What was going on around him? What was he thinking? What did he feel?

In 1946, she met Russell Bliss, an Army medic on leave. After several weeks, they were married, and packing for Russ's next posting in Germany. When they brought Bob's body home in 1949 to bury him at Gettysburg National Cemetery, she was living with two children outside Ft. Lewis in Washington State.

After Russ was discharged in 1951, they came back to York. Russ worked in the office at Caterpillar. Jeanne sang at church and became captain of the neighborhood watch.

Russ died, and Jeanne married Francis Stefanowicz. She was widowed again in 2001. Her children grew and had children of their own.

But when they played "Taps" at both her husbands' funerals, all she could think of was her brother.

Then it was July, and she had called the number from the commercial. And this man Tom Lange said he knew someone who was there with Bob.

And then he said: Would it be all right if I ask him to call you?

5.

She sounds frightened, Tom Lange thought.

But he was sure her brother was the Bob Kressler that Minichiello had spoken of a year earlier.

Lange was still new to interviewing then.

Minichiello's children had to convince him to do it. But once he was in the chair, one story rolled into the next until he would look over at Lange and say, "I got ahead of my story."

Twice, he said the name Bob Kressler.

Minichiello's tape was 85 minutes long. It's the one Lange cut when a radio station asked for help with a Memorial Day show. He had heard it at least 10 times.

And then that day in July, he was the one to pick up Jeanne's call.

"I'm the only one here," he said later, "that could put that together."

Lange found Minichiello's number so he could tell him the amazing thing that had just happened.

Minichiello, now 86, answered the phone at his home in Blauvelt, N.Y.

He listened.

And the bottom of his heart fell out.

6.

"Anyhow, I got ahead of my story."

After a moment on the edge, Minichiello is again the composed man in the frame continuing with his story.

"I didn't last long in combat. I know that if you're in the infantry, if you're in combat, it's almost inevitable all of us is going to get it one way or another."

After Bob Kressler fell, he never saw him again. The squad had to keep moving east.

A few weeks later, going against another hill, Minichiello was acting sergeant. Ten of the squad's original 12 members had either been killed or wounded.

He went over a railroad embankment ahead of the others, to find a spot to fire his Browning Automatic.

"Everything opened up on me, alone, nobody, just me. Everything."

After a dozen or so steps, a bullet tore through his calf. The searing heat spun him flat. Once the unit moved against the hill, a medic bandaged his leg and carried him into a bush, where he left him with another man who was bleeding from a belly wound.

The day passed and night fell, and the Germans counter-attacked. By the time a U.S. Jeep found them a day later, the other man had bled to death.

They shipped Minichiello to a hospital in Paris, then to Cornwall, England.

The night before he was to go back to France -- into the middle of the Battle of the Bulge -- his leg swelled up. A nurse called a doctor. An aneurysm, he said. You're not going back to combat.

They discharged him in the spring of '45.

He didn't know them that well, Bob Kressler and the others. Combat buddies. But in that moment, they shared a bond that compelled them make otherwise unthinkable sacrifices.

"I've become a pacifist in the years since.

"I was proud to serve. I'm proud I did what I did for my country, but if anybody asks me now, I'd say no way would I ever do anything like that, because that's my brother and my sister out there."

Lange's voice returns: "Let's have a short epilogue."

He married Mary in '46. After he finished school, they ran a small textbook publishing company. Together, they had nine children. Really, it's been a blessed life.

"I'm ready to go at any minute, but I don't want to. Every day is a gift when you get this old."

It was almost midnight when Lange turned off the camera.

After his discharge, he never wanted to talk about those moments with anybody ever again. It's why, even though he felt he should, he didn't contact the families of those combat buddies.

It might not have been fair that he was the one who survived, but survive he did. He could either stay in that moment or move on. He went.

He dipped back into his other past for one night, urged on for the good of history -- but he did so believing for him that was it, the end, forever.

7.

The phone rang in Jeanne's home on Roosevelt Avenue that July day half an hour after Jeanne had hung up with Lange.

She knew what he had said, but she didn't expect much, certainly not anytime soon. It was probably a salesman calling, so she let the machine pick it up.

Only after she heard Minichiello explain who he was did she grab the receiver.

When Lange told him about Jeanne, Minichiello felt ashamed. All these years, he thought, and she never knew what I could have told her. She deserved an answer.

We were in the woods outside Metz, he told her, covering each other. But they kept firing. He ran and that's when it happened.

Your brother died instantly.

It's all such a relief, she said, just to know. Thank you. Thank you.

Those sterile words on the page all those years ago -- shot by a German -- suddenly had feeling. She understood where her brother had gone.

For a few minutes, they spoke about him, the brother and the soldier. And that was it.

Minichiello hung up with peace in his heart.

Epilogue

Everything had happened so fast.

For two weeks after the call, Jeanne walked around in a unsettled daze. That day felt like a vivid dream remembered from an afternoon nap.

But then, she said, a calm came, for her 65-year-old question finally had an answer.