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The Spoils and Sorrows of War
Jul 29, 2015
|The banner that Bill and Gigi Hickey discovered in her late mother’s home is 12 feet in length and is believed to have once hung vertically at a Nazi headquarters.|
Editor's note: Our friends at the Wessington Springs True Dakotan kindly allowed us to share this story from their July 21, 2015 edition with our readers.
While digging through her late mother’s Wessington Springs home, Gigi Hickey came across a shocking piece of World War II history. Hickey discovered a black, 105mm Howitzer canister tucked away in the dark corners of a trunk stowed in the attic of her mother, Georgia Henrichsen. What she found upon opening the canister’s lid was an unsettling prize of war that hadn’t seen the light of day for nearly 70 years.
“When I first opened the canister and saw the crumpled red fabric, an eerie feeling came over me,” Hickey recalled. “It definitely raised my heartbeat.”
During a previous examination inside the same trunk about a year after her mother’s death in 2007, Hickey discovered a billfold once used by Henrichsen’s first husband, Maurice Clifton “Pete” Henrichsen Jr. He had died during World War II, killed in Luxembourg on Jan. 16, 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge. Georgia Henrichsen later married Pete’s brother, George Henrichsen, who himself had served in WWII and been a prisoner of war, and they named their only son Maurice Clifton.
More than a billfold was stored in the trunk, however. While going through the trunk a second time, several years after the first inspection, Hickey found the sinister-looking canister in its farthest corner. When she opened it up, she discovered a wad of red fabric that, when unfolded, turned out to be a 12-foot-long Nazi banner brandished with a black swastika — complete with 84 American soldiers' signatures.
Hickey, who lives in Wayzata, Minnesota, thinks the banner once hung at a Nazi headquarters and was taken from a village liberated by members of the Cannon Company 358th Infantry in January 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge. She guesses that Pete Henrichsen’s fellow soldiers most likely ripped down the banner, which has torn corners, from where it had been hanging, signed it and sent it to his widow as a tribute to his bravery.
“I believe the banner was likely a ‘spoil of war’ from a village liberated by the 358th Infantry, an unconventional sympathy card for my mother,” Hickey said. “My guess is Pete’s Cannon Company signed the banner and sent it to his widow as a tribute to their fallen comrade.”
It probably didn’t bring the grieving widow much solace, her daughter said. Because the banner was stuffed inside the canister and hidden deep inside a trunk, Hickey thinks her mother wanted to stow it away and forget the painful piece of history.
|Gigi Hickey holds the 105 mm Howitzer canister that housed the Nazi banner for nearly 70 years.|
“I’m certain the soldiers intended this as an honor, but I doubt my mother felt much solace from their gift,” Hickey said. “Seeing the names of the 84 men who survived would serve only as a reminder of her deep loss. She never talked about it. I believe she stuffed the banner back into the canister where it remained unseen and in the dark for 68 years. ”
Once the shock of her discovery wore off, Hickey decided to try and connect with the 84 men who signed the banner in hopes of learning more about its mysterious past. Some of the signatures included a hometown, so she began her research on the Internet, searching for death notices, obituaries or any links to the 84 names written on the banner.
To date, Hickey has not yet connected with a living World War II veteran who signed the banner but has successfully contacted the families of 11 soldiers whose signatures are on the banner. Hickey said the families have been emotional and touched when hearing the new information about their loved ones.
Hickey and her mother traveled to the American cemetery in Belgium twice to visit Pete Henrichsen’s grave. Hickey’s brother, Maurice, who lives near Atlanta, has been there three times and has driven the battle route taken by the 358th Infantry in January 1945.
Georgia Henrichsen served as a teacher, county superintendent and elementary principal in Wessington Springs for 43 years. She died May 28, 2007.