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LEGACIES OF WWII: Veteran Bob Heiny maintains positive attitude through many near-death experiences

In December 1944, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler was desperate to regain control of World War II. In an attempt to split Allied troops in Europe, he ordered a surprise attack in the Ardennes Forest near Germany and Belgium. The aggressive push into the snowy wooded area become known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Attached to the 9th Armored Division of the First Army, Robert Heiny of Fort Wayne helped obtain badly needed supplies for troops during what turned out to be one of the worst winters on record. Allied troops, caught off-guard, lacked adequate provisions and suffered frozen toes and fingers. “I took a pair of shoes to a guy in a foxhole,” said Heiny, a resident of Fort Wayne. “He was so grateful that he almost kissed me.”

Heiny had grown up in Fort Wayne in the 1930s. In between surviving two serious car accidents as a child, he delivered News-Sentinel and Journal-Gazette newspapers to customers for seven cents a week.

After graduating from Central Catholic High School in 1941, Heiny attended several colleges before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942. He completed basic training at Fort Hood in Texas before being assigned to the 9th Army and shipped to Europe.

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While the Battle of the Bulge was one of the most significant battles of the war, Heiny and others with the 9th would encounter another deadly battle near the end of the war.

By spring 1945, Allied forces were on the offense and the German army in full retreat. The village of Remagen, Germany, sat on the west banks of the Rhine River. After six years of fighting, the 700-foot Ludendorff Bridge was the only one still standing across the Rhine. Access to the bridge was critical for Allied troops to advance on Berlin.

When the 9th Armored Division arrived at Remagen, they were surprised to find German troops in retreat across the still-intact bridge. Orders were given to the Allied troops to capture the bridge. As a company of infantry advanced, the Germans, having set explosives in place on the bridge, detonated the charges. To their surprise, although the explosives blew the bridge off its foundation, it remained intact. After a period of battle, the Allies captured the bridge at Remagen, making it the only bridge across the Rhine captured by American forces during World War II.

Sadly, 10 days later, while Allied combat engineers attempted to repair the bridge, it collapsed. Heiny rescued soldiers from the water. “We lost dozens of men when that bridge collapsed,” he said. A museum at the bridge displays the names of Allied troops who died there.

The bridge at Remagen became the last main obstacle for the Allies. After Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, and with a dearth of troops, supplies and food, German forces surrendered at Reims, France, on May 7.

Heiny celebrated the war’s end with a childhood friend, Bob Gorman whom he had located while fighting at Remagen. Gorman was assigned to the 203rd anti-aircraft division. “We drank champagne and cognac to celebrate,” said Heiny. After the war, the two were roommates at Xavier University, vacationed together and worked at St. Mary’s soup kitchen in Fort Wayne. Gorman died in 2017.

Tech Sgt. Heiny was discharged in February 1946. He married Margaret Ann Disser, and they became parents to three daughters. Robert Heiny ran a gift advertising business for 65 years. An avid basketball player in high school, Heiny was the first basketball coach at Bishop Luers High School and also coached at St. John’s the Baptist Elementary School.

After having attended four colleges – Gonzaga University, St. Joseph’s College, University of Toledo, and Xavier University – Heiny’s one regret was never completing a college degree. After meeting Heiny and hearing about his community involvement and military service, Brett Thomas of WPTA-TV in Fort Wayne assisted officials at University of St. Francis in awarding Heiny an honorary degree of Humane Letters in May 2018.

Having survived near-fatal childhood accidents, combat in World War II, and colon cancer in his 50s, Robert Heiny, 95, looks at life with a positive view. “I am the luckiest man alive,” he said.

Kayleen Reusser is an author who just finished the book “They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans”

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